What Happened in 1892 When Leoncavallo Premiered his Opera?

In 1892, Ruggero Leoncavallo premiered his short opera Pagliacci. The Pagliaccio opera (as it is sometimes named in an Italian opera database) is known as the sad clown opera although it also has an evil clown, a singing clown and a female clown. The Pagliacci opera has great opera music and one of the most famous opera songs in the Italian opera repertoire.

Today, Pagliacci remains on the roster of popular operas produced and performed at top opera houses from among a repertoire of famous opera.

1892, when the Leoncavallo opera premiered, was a special year in opera history.

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The opera Pagliacci by Ruggero Leoncavallo premiered in 1892. Listen to the orchestral Intermezzo performed by the K&K Philharmoniker, conducted by Myron Yusypovych.


In 1892, Four Opera Premieres by Leoncavallo, Tchaikovsky…

Opera and Ballet Premieres in 1892
Opera and Ballet Premieres in 1892

Several opera composers, including Leoncavallo, premiered their operas in 1892. More precisely:

  • 4 different composers, premiered
  • 4 different operas, in
  • 4 different languages, in
  • 4 different European states.

On May 21, 1892, the premiere of the opera Pagliacci, by Ruggero Leoncavallo (1857 – 1919) took place at the Teatro dal Verme in Milan, present-day Italy, The performance was conducted by the famous opera conductor, Arturo Toscanini (1867 – 1957). The opera was written and performed to an Italian language libretto.

On December 6, 1892 (according to the Gregorian calendar) or December 18, 1892 (according to the Julian calendar), the premiere of Iolanta, the final opera by Pyotr Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893) took place at the Imperial Mariinsky Opera Theatre in St.Petersburg, present-day Russia, The performance was double-billed with a premiere of the now famous ballet The Nutcracker by Pyotr Tchaikovsky. The opera was written and performed in Russian to a libretto by Modest Tchaikovsky (1850 – 1916).

The opera Werther, by Jules Massenet (1842 – 1912) actually premiered twice. Both premieres took place in 1892. Each premiere was in a different language, as well as, in a different city and a different state. The opera Werther was composed originally to a French libretto, based on a German literary piece. It premiered in German translation at the Imperial Court Opera (Wiener Hofoper) in Vienna, Austria on February 16, 1892. The French language premiere took place in Geneva, Switzerland, on December 27, 1892.

On October 6, 1892, the opera Cristoforo Colombo by Alberto Franchetti (1860 – 1942) premiered at the Teatro Carlo Felice in Genoa, present-day Italy, Christopher Columbus’ birth-place. The opera was written to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in North America in 1492. In the 15th C, the “discovery” of North America was considered a sensational feat and received considerable support by the royal court and Queen Isabella I of Castille. In the opera, both the Queen (soprano) and Cristoforo Colombo (baritone) figure prominently. The opera premiere was performed in Italian to a libretto by Luigi Illica (1857 – 1919).


True Life Opera Drama by Leoncavallo and Puccini in 1892

True Life Opera Drama?
True Life Opera Drama?

Leoncavallo claimed that the opera Pagliacci, which premiered in 1892, was based on a true life event from his personal past. On the other hand, there is evidence that Leoncavallo might have:

  • borrowed heavily from the popular contemporary Spanish drama Un Drama Nuevo (produced in Madrid in 1867);
  • stolen the entire plot from the French drama Tabarin (produced in Paris in 1874);
  • plagiarized from the French opera Tabarin (produced in Paris in 1885);
  • appropriated entire scenes from the French drama La Femme de Tabarin (produced in Paris in 1887).

Interestingly, some historians claim that the opera Madama Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini (1858 – 1924) is also based on a true story that occurred in 1892. (Although, there doesn’t appear to be any such claim by Puccini himself.)

The opera Madama Butterfly, is the tragic story of a Japanese girl, abandoned by her American officer lover. In time, Cio-Cio-San gives birth to his son, believing that he will return to her.

Arthur Groos (b.1943), Professor at Cornell University, in an article published in the Cambridge Opera Journal claims that, in 1892, there was a certain tea-house girl name Cho-San, who lived in Nagasaki, Japan. At that same time, William B. Franklin, an American naval officer, was based in Nagasaki aboard the U.S.S. Marion. When Franklin sailed away, he abandoned Cho-San, who subsequently gave birth to his child.

Art imitating life or life imitating art?


Did Any Famous Opera Singers Begin Their Careers in 1892?

Famous Opera Singers
Famous Opera Singers

In 1892, young opera singers, who would go on to perform the various roles in what many consider to be Ruggero Leoncavallo’s best opera, were developing their careers.

In 1892, Modest Menzinsky (1875 – 1935), a Wagnerian opera Heldentenor was a young high-school (gymnasium) student in the Western Ukrainian town of Sambir. This area was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Here, Menzinsky studied Latin, Ancient Greek, Polish and German. The language of family and peer communication for Menzinsky was Ukrainian. In later years, Menzinsky would learn Swedish. Menzinsky would also go on to become a famous opera singer – the lead tenor at the Royal Swedish Opera in Stockholm, Sweden.

In 1892, Gemma Bellincioni (1864 – 1950), a famous soprano, appeared in Berlin in the premiere of A Santa Lucia by composer Pierantonio Tasca (1858 – 1934). Two years earlier, in 1890, she had premiered in the role of Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana. The opera by Pietro Mascagni is often featured as a double-bill with Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci.

In 1892, Mattia Battistini (1856 – 1928), a baritone singer, performed the premiere of the opera I Rantzau by Pietro Mascagni (1863 – 1945). 1892 was also the year that this famous opera singer began traveling extensively, performing at various opera houses in Eastern Europe. His travels included performances at the Lviv Opera House in present-day Ukraine.

In 1892, on August 13, the opera singer Solomiya Krushelnytska (1872 – 1952) gave her first solo performance. She performed the soprano role in the oratorio Messiah by Georg Frideric Handel (1685 – 1759). At the time, Krushelnytska was a young student of voice. In time, she went on to a great and famous career as an Italian opera singer. The opera house in Lviv, Ukraine is named in her honour.

In 1892, Adamo Didur (1873 – 1946), another famous opera singer, began his musical studies. His first vocal teacher was the opera singer – bass Valery Wysocki (1835 – 1907). In later years, Didur would be appointed General Director of the Lviv Opera House.


1892 – Unknown Ukrainian Composers Enter Upon Their Difficult Careers

Ukrainian composers
Ukrainian composers

In 1892, as Leoncavallo's opera was being premiered, young Ukrainian composers were beginning their difficult and, often, arduous career paths.

In 1892, Yaroslav Yaroslavenko (1880 – 1958) was a young student of music in Lviv. The future composer of various popular songs for the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, the Plast (Ukrainian scouts) anthem, the first orchestral rendition of the Ukrainian National Anthem and other patriotic pieces was trained in railway engineering. This highly prized profession allowed him to avoid direct persecution under Polish, Nazi and Soviet rule in his native Lviv, present-day Ukraine. However, during the period of Soviet rule, proposals to publish his many works were consistently rejected by Moscow.

In 1892, Mykola Leontovych (1877 – 1921) began his musical studies at the Kamianets-Podilskyj Theological Seminary. Here he studied choral work, violin and piano. In the English speaking world, Leontovych is best known for the Christmas carol – Carol of the Bells. In 1921, Leontovych was assassinated by a Soviet State security agent while staying in his father's home. Until recently, the murder was falsely blamed on Ukrainian nationalist insurgents.

In 1892, Kyrylo Stetsenko (1882 – 1922) began his schooling at the St.Sofia Church School in Kyiv. He was enrolled at the school for 5 years. During this time, Stetsenko sang in the school choir. In 1907, he was arrested by the Tzarist regime for his community activism. In 1918, he became Head of the Music Section in the Ministry of Education of the newly formed Ukrainian National Republic. According to official records, Stetsenko died from typhus complications in 1922.

All of these Ukrainian composers used the Ukrainian language as a medium for communication. And, although not related to music and composers, the fact that the Ukrainian language was banned demonstrates under what insidious conditions the Ukrainian composers Yaroslavenko, Leontovych and Stetsenko had to work.


In 1892 the Ukrainian Language Was Banned

Ukrainian Language Banned
Ukrainian Language Banned

In 1892, Tzar Alexander III of the Romanov (Russian) Empire banned the translation of Russian language books into Ukrainian. The act was the result of a long campaign by the elites of the Romanov Empire to eliminate Ukrainian language use.

From a 21st century perspective, one wonders why a language (any language, and in this case, the Ukrainian language) should be perceived as a threat and in need of being banned.

The particular wave of discrimination experienced by the Ukrainian composers mentioned above began in 1863, when Tzar Alexander II of the Russian Romanov Empire (reign: 1855 – 1881) signed a secret decree known as The Valuev Circular (The Valuev Encyclical) in which it stated that the Little Russian (i.e. Ukrainian) language «was not, is not and can not» exist.

In 1876, Tzar Alexander II signed another secret decree known as the Ems Ukaz (Ems Edict), while in Bad Ems, present-day Germany, forbidding the use of Ukrainian in all publications and performances on the territory of the Empire. Incidentally, as a reminder of the event, a special plaque was recently established on the wall of the Haus Vier Türme (Four Tower House) in Bad Ems, Germany where the edict was signed.

Subsequently, Tzar Alexander III (reign: 1881 – 1894), continued the deeds of his father and prohibited the teaching of Ukrainian in primary schools, the staging of theatre productions in Ukrainian and even the naming of children with Ukrainian sounding names. Finally, in 1892, the tzar prohibited the translation of Russian literary works into Ukrainian.

The Ukrainian language was being smashed, censored and ruthlessly outlawed as a medium for primary education, publication and performance. One wonders, how it managed to survive?

1892 was a time, when:

  • dramas and operas were being performed in Italian, French, German and Russian;
  • operas imitating life were being produced;
  • young opera singers where coming into their own while able to converse in Polish, German, Swedish, Italian and Russian;
  • Ukrainian composers were falling victim to horrific decrees banning the Ukrainian language.

Such were the premieres, true life dramas, careers, lives and political events in 1892 when Italian composer Ruggero Leoncavallo premiered his opera Pagliacci.

Text by Oksana A. Wynnyckyj-Yusypovych


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