Composers Datebook®

with host John Birge

Friday, June 28

Leoni in San Francisco

Synopsis

A decidedly UN-politically correct opera had its premiere at London’s Covent Garden on today’s date in 1905. It was entitled “L’Oracolo” or “The Oracle” by the Italian composer Franco Leoni. Here’s a witty one-sentence précis of the opera prepared by Nicolas Slonimsky for his chronology “Music Since 1900”:

“L’Oracolo, an opera in one long act, dealing with multiplex villainy in San Francisco’s Chinatown, wherein a wily opium-den keeper kidnaps the child of the uncle of a girl he covets, kills her young lover, and is in the end strangled by the latter’s father, with a local astrologer delivering remarkably accurate oracles; an Italianate score tinkling with tiny bells, booming with deep gongs, and bubbling with orientalistic pentatonicisms.”

Another wag described “L’Oracolo” as “Puccini-and-water,” suggesting that if Puccini were whisky, Leoni music was definitely a less potent brew.

But when a touring Italian opera company announced a performance of “L’Oracolo” in San Francisco in 1937, the city’s Asian residents protested, demanding they cut the most racially offensive scenes or, better yet, stage a different opera altogether. A compromise was reached, whereby the House manager preceded the performance with a speech assuring the capacity audience that the opera’s locale and action were pure fiction, and bore no resemblance to San Francisco’s Chinatown past or present.

Music Played in Today's Program

Franco Leoni (1864 – 1937) L'Oracolo Tito Gobbi, baritone; National Philharmonic; Richard Bonynge, cond. London OSA-12107 (LP)

Additional Information

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