Images from August 1948. The second edition of the Competition for young opera singers is held at the Teatro Nuovo in Spoleto.

Adriano Belli speaks of the first years of the Teatro Lirico Sperimentale:

“From now on, when you hear and read that in Italy opera theatre is dying because of lack of voices, you’d better listen to us and answer that it is not true, there are the young people of Spoleto. And if you really need to convince yourself of what we are saying, come here”: this is what the Messaggero’s envoy wrote in a correspondence in summer 1947. He was referring to the first edition of the Competition for Young Opera Singers, organised by the Teatro Lirico Sperimentale, an event which, since its inception, aimed at introducing young talents and new voices in the world of opera.

Let’s make a short jump forward. August 1948. A performance of “Ballo in Maschera” is staged at the Teatro Nuovo in Spoleto: it is one of the three shows scheduled for the second edition. Although just two years old, the Competition of the Teatro Lirico Sperimentale has gained an aura of prestige and is already considered one of the most important events on the Italian music scene.

Besides Verdi’s opera, the 1948 programme features the direction by Riccardo Picozzi, the musical direction by Ottavio Ziino, the artists, technicians and workers of the Teatro Nuovo giving new life to Massenet’s “Elisir d’Amore” (in the centenary of Donizetti) and “Werther”. But what is important is that in a short time, some of those young singers, protagonists of the first seasons in Spoleto, are called and hired by the Italian Broadast Network and by the most illustrious institutions and theatres, certifying the success of the musical proposal of the Teatro Lirico Sperimentale, an initiative celebrated as fresh air for the destiny of Italian melodrama and as an important vehicle for future talents of opera.

The 1948 photos that we propose for the column “Long Ago in Spoleto” are kept in an album of the City Library and testify to the magnificence of the costumes and the opulence of the scenographic apparatus, as well as the extraordinary presence of the public crowding the theatre. That second edition, immortalised by the shots, saw the number of young debut singers from institutions, conservatories and public schools from all over the country increase to 40 and attracted music critics from the major national newspapers. That year will be remembered as the ultimate consecration of the event.

Thanks to Adriano Belli’s tireless work, the Teatro Lirico Sperimentale di Spoleto – which from the very beginning had a solid contribution of one million lire granted by the Presidency of the Council of Ministers and the constant and particular interest of the then undersecretary Giulio Andreotti – was a successful bet and experiment, a splendid idea turned into a valuable reality.

The origins of that enterprise, its deepest motivations, the many difficulties encountered and the first great satisfactions – in essence an admirable synthesis of the extraordinary story of the birth and the very first development of TLS – are told by the creator and founder Adriano Belli in an article published on 2 July 1949 (a month before the third edition began) in the pages of the “Corriere di Spoleto”, an article that would be recalled and reproposed in the fundamental volume “Il Teatro Lirico Sperimentale di Spoleto nel suo primo ventennio”, published in 1966.

Everything seems to start from friendly talks between Adriano Belli and Dr. Gaetano Toscano, father of Gianni Toscano, the future mayor of the city.

“Every time I think back to that idea – Belli tells us – thrown there randomly among other subjects, in one of the usual conversations with … the “ortolano” of S. Filippo (Dr. Gaetano Toscano), I feel joy and I feel a real terror […] I feel joy for the success obtained, I feel terror for the terrible shirt of Nessus that I put on. The crisis of the theatre is a crisis of voices – the young people who have completed their studies, are then unable to reach a public and desperately chase their chimera – compromises with their conscience – cross paths and exploitation – valorisation of young people suffocated by “divism” – these are the arguments that the “ortolano” carried out, with his stringent and persuasive logic, while he went here and there tamping down and watering its plants. “Why don’t we try to found an Experimental theatre here?” So I tried. First year. Alone, against insurmountable difficulties. There was a misunderstanding at the Centre where, on the one hand, it was observed that there was no need to go to the province for such an attempt, and on the other hand it was opposed that the rehearsals of other cities had remained a dead letter. I managed to persuade the Ministry, which, out of undeserved respect for me, granted a small subsidy. In Spoleto: grim faces, because they still wanted the “stars” and not the “beginner boys” […] The first competition with only 12 competitors was held. A magnificent season takes place! […] the echo of that successful attempt spread throughout Italy. Administrative regularity was taken as an example in the Ministerial Commissions. Choir and orchestra, workers and managers returned to Rome with Spoleto’s beauty in their eyes, its palaces, its monuments and in the heart the enthusiasm for the hospitality and courtesy of the city. Beniamino Gigli from Buenos Aires telegraphed his congratulations accepting the honorary presidency of the beautiful institution, to which he promised every support. And the second year comes. […] The second season takes place with greater perfection than the first; because the workers of the Teatro Spoletino – second to none – manage to perform miracles. Andreotti promises every support and places our “Experimental Theatre” among the international events”.

Maneuvers started immediately to snatch that little miracle made of conceptual farsightedness, fervent passion and solid artistic organisation from Spoleto. Between the second and third edition, various testimonies reported strong pressure to transfer the initiative to another city. In fact, he recalls the volume on the first twenty years of the Teatro Lirico Sperimentale: “The attempt was made in the winter and spring of 1949: Parma, the indisputable and illustrious capital of melodrama […] demanded that the Experimental Theatre be brought to his home. […] However, it would have been a great injustice […] a serious affront to the noble city of Spoleto. Nothing was done about it. The danger was averted also because of the prompt intervention of the Roman and Umbrian public opinion, expressed in a moving shower of articles in the newspapers. “Well”, was the conclusion of Adriano Belli, “we will do even better!”

Even today the Teatro Lirico Sperimentale is still an integral part of the identity profile of Spoleto, an important element of a world-famous city of culture.


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