Opera scholar salvages long-lost Italian masterpieces
By Brooke O’Neill, AM’04
Photo by Dan Dry
If there were such a thing as a Nobel Prize for musicology—and there should be—he [Philip Gossett] would add luster to the list.”
director, Chicago Opera Theater
Were it not for Chicago musicologist Philip Gossett, a long-forgotten opera titled Stiffelio might have been lost forever.
Giuseppe Verdi wrote the tale of religion and sex in 1850, and immediately it prompted heavy censorship from Roman Catholic authorities who objected to its themes of adultery and divorce. In 1856, after a few tortured revivals, the infuriated Verdi withdrew the opera from circulation entirely. Never again, he said, would the piece be heard.
Yet more than a century after being purged from the Verdi canon, Stiffelio opened at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. Staged for the first time using the composer’s original score, the October 1993 production starred tenor Plácido Domingo and intrigued reviewers with its innovative melodies and powerful dramatics. “It was clear,” wrote New York Times critic Edward Rothstein, “that the company had succeeded in introducing a significant work into its mainstream repertory.”
Gossett may have been off-stage, but his 40 years of Verdi scholarship had helped unearth Stiffelio and other opera masterpieces for modern audiences.
“This is a major Verdi,” says Gossett, the Robert W. Reneker Distinguished Service Professor of Music, of the piece. “And it was totally unknown.”
Considered one of the world’s foremost scholars of 19th-century Italian opera, Gossett has spent his career enriching opera performances as only a scholar can, with exhaustive work that puts compositions in a new light. Even as his upcoming retirement this year brings his formal teaching career at UChicago to a close, Gossett is embarking on new critical editions and writing projects that will again put him in the detective role.
“If there were such a thing as a Nobel Prize for musicology—and there should be—he would add luster to the list of Nobel laureates from the University,” said Brian Dickie, director of the Chicago Opera Theater, at a Feb. 22 symposium that celebrated Gossett’s achievements.
Gossett’s critical editions of Verdi and Rossini set the gold standard for opera editions. The product of intense investigation, each volume features a detailed score and a complete history of the composition process. In 1998, the Italian government awarded Gossett for his scholarship with the country’s highest civilian honor, the Cavaliere di Gran Croce.
“You really can’t talk about Italian opera without hitting something he’s laid the groundwork for,” says Hilary Poriss, AM’93, PhD’00, who wrote her dissertation on 19th-century arias under Gossett’s guidance.
Now an assistant professor of music at Boston’s Northeastern University, Poriss remembers house-sitting for Gossett one summer and trying to work on her dissertation in his study. Scanning the bookshelves full of Italian opera, it hit her that Gossett had played some role in nearly every volume, either as author, co-author, or editor. “I got so overwhelmed that I actually left,” she says with a laugh. “I worked in the library for the rest of the summer.”
That voluminous body of work continues to grow. Gossett’s upcoming projects include supervising an edition of one of Rossini’s last operas, Le comte Ory, scheduled to be performed next February in Zürich, with Cecilia Bartoli as the Comtesse; working on a new Italian translation of Verdi’s Les vêpres siciliennes for a 2011 performance in Turin, Italy; and supervising an edition of Rossini’s Neopolitan opera, Maometto secondo, which will be performed in Sante Fe, N.M., in the summer of 2012. Gossett’s writing projects include a book about Rossini for Norton and The Very Short Introduction to Opera for Oxford University Press.
Gossett’s award-winning 2006 book, Divas and Scholars: Performing Italian Opera, has further revolutionized the performance of the 19th-century repertoire, helping famed Italian conductor Riccardo Muti, soprano Renée Fleming, and other opera superstars deliver richer, more historically informed performances. “He’s always terribly good with singers,” says Dickie, who is collaborating with Gossett on the Chicago Opera Theater’s April production of Rossini’s Moses in Egypt. “He’s very, very helpful in pointing them, and us, in the right direction to enable us to perform this repertory as well as possible.”
“When the public sees an opera,” says Gossett, “they just assume that it’s all straightforward, but it’s not.” Every singer makes countless decisions: “Should I sing just the notes that are written? Should I ornament this? Do I need a cadenza at this point?” Critical editions put all options on the table, allowing performers to make more informed choices about their roles.
“What we want to know is what Verdi did and why,” says Gossett, who is general editor of The Works of Giuseppe Verdi (University of Chicago Press and Ricordi-Universal Music of Milan), the only edition of the composer’s complete repertoire based exclusively on original sources. For Gossett, this means painstakingly piecing together snippets of autographed manuscripts acquired from the composer’s heirs, recording archives, and theaters where the opera was performed. “The critical edition,” he says, “makes everything available.”
Discovering new music is perhaps the most exciting part of working on a critical edition. In researching Verdi’s La forza del destino, for example, Gossett realized the composer had added a soaring tenor aria to the end of Act III just before the opera’s 1862 debut, and then abruptly removed it in a subsequent version. Turns out, Verdi had inserted the part specifically for a male singer known for his high C note. When the performer left the role, the aria went with him. “Nobody else in the world can sing this,” said Verdi, before transposing the aria down a step and later revamping the entire act.
Without these discoveries made by Gossett, says Dickie, the “whole world of the Italian repertory would be just such an impoverished place.” And it would have happened if Gossett had listened to his graduate school advisers.
“My teachers at Princeton at that point thought I was crazy,” says the musicologist. “What is this Italian opera stuff?” they demanded, advising him to switch to something more “serious,” like Beethoven or Stravinsky. Gossett, who had fallen in love with opera watching performances from the Met’s standing-room-only section as a teenager, refused.
“I’ve never been sorry a day,” he says.