Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Exiled to Boston: Verdi's 'A Masked Ball'

Renato (Roberto Frontali, left) looks down at his fallen enemy Riccardo (Ramon Vargas), in the Maggio Musicale production of <em>A Masked Ball</em>.
Renato (Roberto Frontali, left) looks down at his fallen enemy Riccardo (Ramon Vargas), in the Maggio Musicale production of A Masked Ball.

Beginning in the late 1800's with a crusading committee known as the Watch and Ward Society, Boston became known as a place where it paid to watch one's moral "P's and Q's." The Society railed against what they regarded as offensive literature and entertainment — ranging from Voltaire to Walt Whitman — and the phrase "Banned in Boston" became so familiar that savvy publishers began using it as a marketing tool.

All of that makes the history of Giuseppe Verdi's once-controversial opera Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball) seem more than a little bit ironic.

Verdi composed the opera in the late 1850's using a libretto called "Gustave III." The story was based on the real-life assassination of King Gustavus III of Sweden, in 1792, and the opera was prepared for its premiere in Naples.

But the censors frowned on the depiction of a king being assassinated in his own court. They also took a dim view of Verdi's major addition to the story: In the opera, the assassin is an aggrieved husband who finds his wife alone with the king, and in a compromising position.

The censors banned the opera, pending some drastic changes. They said the king had to become a mere duke. The story had to be reset to take place hundreds of years earlier. And the woman this duke fell for couldn't be his best friend's wife. Instead, she would be the friend's unmarried sister. Fed up with the Neopolitan demands, Verdi decided to move the opera's debut to Rome, but the Roman censors also frowned on the piece.

So, to get the opera to the stage, Verdi and his librettist decided to keep their story but change the setting. The opera's hero became an English count, serving as a colonial governor, and the whole story was moved across the Atlantic to Boston. Apparently, when set in the new world, illicit love and murder were perfectly acceptable — and the censors' ban was promptly lifted.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents a performance of A Masked Ball from one of Italy's oldest, ongoing music festivals, the Maggio Musicale in Florence. The festival performs in the city's historic Teatro Communale, which dates to 1862 — just three years after the Rome premiere of Verdi's opera.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit