How Fidelio Fooled the Censors

No opera is more suited for these days, no opera is more current, more inspiring for those who fight for freedom and peace than Fidelio, Beethoven’s Befreiungsoper (rescue opera). The following series about the origin and the language of the opera is comprised of abstracts from my book Die Frist ist um—Navigate the Language of 10 German Operas. Part 1.

Fidelio celebrates the struggle against tyranny and for liberation, and it was a war that kept the audience from seeing its premiere. The Viennese were up in arms against Napoleon’s invasion. The city had been shelled for a week, when the curtain of the Theater an der Wien was lifted on November 20, 1805. Only the critics, oblivious against any harm that might occur, went to the performance. They dismissed the opera as too long and the text as repetitious. The theater management withdrew the opera after two performances. However, they could not take away its future.

In the previous decades, the liberal ideas of the French Revolution had been sweeping through intellectual and artistic circles in Europe. A new form of opera, the French “rescue opera”, began appearing in theaters everywhere, purveying dramatic stories in which the weak are saved from danger, and humanism triumphs. One of them, Léonore; ou, L’Amour conjugal, composed by Pierre Gaveaux, drew Beethoven’s attention. It had had its premiere in Paris five years earlier and was based on an event its librettist, Jean Nicolas Bouilly, had observed himself: during the bloody phase of the revolution, a noblewoman dressed as a peasant slipped into a jail to get close to her imprisoned husband. When guards appeared flanking him, she raised a pistol to demand his release, but the guards ducked and whisked the man away.

This story was perfect for the free-spirited composer. He teamed up with the poet Joseph Sonnleithner, who translated Bouilly’s libretto but kept the meter of the French original. Beethoven had been toying with the idea of traveling to Paris and presenting the opera in French, but he changed his mind. In Vienna, the words of truth—dangerous words—should be spoken and sung in German.

The greatest measure of success for a piece of art, especially an eighteenth-century libretto, is its failure at the censor’s office. Fidelio received this honor almost from the get-go. The cast had already been chosen and the rehearsals had just begun when the Polizei-Hofstelle, the censors of the Kaiser, banned the text. Obviously, it was not enough that Sonnleithner kept Bouilly’s choice of location, Spain, while moving the time period of the plot to the sixteenth century. The censors considered the libretto’s ideas too dangerous for the aristocratic regime. Sonnleithner responded with a well-worded letter, pleading innocence to the best of his ability. Fidelio portrays nothing more than a “touching image of female virtue and of the evil governor who seeks vengeance solely for private reasons.” Indicating he might enjoy the sympathies of an authority higher than the censors, he wrote that Empress Maria Theresa herself found the text “very beautiful.” Also, and this did the trick, the theater had planned to premiere the opera on the empress’s saint’s day. Three days later, the ban was lifted.

Read soon: Part 2—“You Saved a Stranded Ship”

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Bernd Hendricks. Born in Duisburg, Germany. Based in Berlin. Writer, German Language Educator. I was six years old when I went to the opera for the first time. My Grandma took me to Hänsel und Gretel at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Duisburg. The first time I met an opera singer personally was during my time as foreign correspondent in New York when at a Christmas party a baritone pelted me with questions about the language of Zauberflöte. He was preparing for his role as Papageno. After my return to Berlin in September 2010, I have been giving German lessons to singers on their audition tours. My workshops in Berlin, Vienna, and London are based on my widely read book Ach, ich fühl’s—German for Opera Singers in Three Acts: Studying, Speaking, Singing. My latest book, Die Frist ist um—Navigate the Language of 10 German Operas, takes you on a journey through the language of the most popular and often performed operas in the German-speaking countries. I am also the author of several non-fiction books and two novels.

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