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The Wages of Singing

Some measure of the relative importance of the various contributors to the operatic enterprise is offered by a comparison of their earnings. The figures reflect the hierarchy at any given time, and compared over a substantial period, they reveal significant shifts in that hierarchy as well. The few documents we have for this period—two theater budgets, several contracts, and some references in correspondence—relate especially to composers and singers; information on librettists' earnings, which were based primarily on libretto sales and thus independent of theater budgets, is more difficult to come by.[2] Composers were evidently paid at different rates, depending on their reputation. Thus Cavalli's fee was unusually high. He received 400 ducats from Faustini for Antioco (1658) and Elena (1659), and 450 ten years later for Eliogabalo .[3] To be sure, in 1658 Cavalli was practically at the apex of his career: in addition to holding the prestigious position of organist at San Marco, he was the best-known composer of opera not only in Venice, whose theaters he had supplied regularly for twenty years, but in all of Italy. His Venetian works had been performed throughout the Italian peninsula, and he had fulfilled at least two


"foreign" commissions: Orione for Milan (1653) and Hipermestra (1654, performed 1658) for Florence.

Other composers were paid considerably less. Ziani, for example, earned only 50 ducats for Annibale in Capua in 1660, even though this was his fifth opera for Faustini. And he complained later in a letter to the impresario that it was 70 ducats lower than normal.[4] His fee rose considerably in the following years—to 200 ducats for Amor guerriero in 1663 and Doriclea in 1666—but it remained much lower than Cavalli's usual fee, which he resentfully noted in the same letter as 100 dobles . Granting that Cavalli's fee was justified by his reputation, Ziani nevertheless regarded his own poor salary as an insult. He was even more irritated, however, by the disparity between his salary and those of the singers: "If you pay singers 150 and 100 dobles [=440-660 ducats] apiece, why shouldn't a famous composer, who is the prime vehicle for putting on an opera, be given at least as much or only slightly less?" (Appendix IIIA. 5c).[5] Ziani also complained that he was paid less well than Cesti. As for Cesti, we do not know how much he actually received for his Venetian operas, but he himself noted jealously that he earned less than Cavalli.[6]

High as it may have been for a composer, Cavalli's fee nevertheless compared unfavorably with those of the singers. In 1666 a salary of 300 scudi (or 450 ducats, exactly Cavalli's fee) was considered standard for an average female singer,[7] but most singers' salaries were higher. The best-paid singer in Antioco , for example, "Signora Girolama," received 750 ducats, nearly twice as much as the composer,[8] while several others earned only slightly less than he did (only one earned much less, 50 ducats).[9] Naturally singers were paid according to their rank or importance in the opera, but the wide discrepancies in their earnings also depended in part on geographical considerations. Most were imported from outside Venice, and their fees were calculated to include traveling and living expenses. Thus, Signora Girolama's 750 ducats included round-trip


travel between Rome and Venice; a singer from Turin was paid slightly more than one from Milan; and the singer who earned only 50 ducats was a Venetian. [10]

Salary was obviously a matter of prestige, among singers as well as between singers and composers. Apparently, singers borrowed from certain establishments were paid more than others. In one revealing instance, a singer agreed to take a lower salary as long as he could say that he had earned a higher one, "in deference to the prince he serves" ("in riguardo al principe che serve"). n Singers' fees seem to have varied from theater to theater, too, and were probably inflated as the result of competition among the various houses. S. Salvatore apparently paid more than SS. Giovanni e Paolo and often succeeded thereby in luring singers away from the older establishment. In 1665 a singer at the latter (Cavagna) complained to Faustini that another (Ciecolino) was earning more at S. Salvatore than he was at SS. Giovanni e Paolo; Cavagna was eventually offered even more than that by S. Salvatore, but affirmed his loyalty to Faustini by agreeing to accept the same fee he had earned in 1662.[12]

These figures indicate that in the 1660s singers were generally considered on a par with the most important composer of the time: exceptional ones were paid more, ordinary ones about the same or perhaps slightly less. But this parity did not last. Although the composer's fee—at least Cavalli's—remained fairly constant over the decade 1658-68, those of the singers rose substantially. If Signora Girolama earned almost twice as much as the composer already in 1658, another, Giulia Masotti, one of the most sought-after singers of the period, earned four times as much in 1666 (at SS. Giovanni e Paolo), and nearly six times as much in 1669 (at S. Salvatore).[13] Cavagna, who had earned 350 ducats in 1658,


considered 600 ducats too little in 1665.[14] And Ciecolino, whose salary of 150 doppie (more than 600 ducats) had been considered enviably high in 1665, was offered 250 in 1670, but refused to sing for less than 300, or twice as much as his salary four years before.[15] In addition to increasing in proportion to other expenditures, then, singers' salaries, unlike those of composers, evidently kept rising with their reputations. They must have continued their disproportionate escalation, since twenty years later the prima donna Margherita Salicola earned 500 doppie , or 19,000 lire, for her performance in Penelope la casta (1685).[16] This figure, we should note, equaled the total cost of producing La maga fulminata , the second Venetian opera, in 1638.[17]

Their comparatively high and rapidly rising salaries only confirm what is clear from other evidence—namely, that the singers had come to be regarded as the most important members of the operatic hierarchy. Impresarios devoted a major portion of their energies to securing casts, dispatching agents to attend performances all over Italy to report on particularly outstanding singers. By the late 1660s it was understood that a singer could make or break an entire season, almost regardless of the opera being performed. That point is brought home rather explicitly in a report to Faustini from one of his agents, the librettist Pietro Dolfin, who had attended a performance in Verona by Anna Venturi, a singer Faustini had recently engaged:

The opera pleased me in all its aspects (considering that I was in Verona), but Signora Anna, in the part of Romilda displeased me so greatly that she became insupportable, not only to me but to everyone who was with me, and they encouraged her every time she came on stage with everyone present greeting her every time she came on stage with what one might call a beating with the cackles they made during her trills and cadenze . She is so odious that she alone is enough to cause an opera to fail, and so disgraceful that the other singer from Mantua and [the one called] Or-setta seem like angels. (Appendix IIIA.9)[18]


And he concluded, naturally, by strongly urging Faustini not to hire her. Evidently, it was her trills and cadenzas that bothered Dolfin the most. In the end, Faustini received so many complaints about her that he broke their contract, settling accounts with her in two installments.[19]

Singers were frequently credited with primary responsibility for the outcome of an opera.[20] Poor singing was reportedly responsible for the failure of Domitiano (Noris/Boretti), an opera otherwise praised for the superior quality of its text and music, at SS. Giovanni e Paolo in 1673, while what was considered by some to be an inferior work of the same season at S. Salvatore, Orfeo by Aureli and Sartorio, was apparently rescued by an excellent cast, according to one account:

Last night, the 30th of December, the opera at SS. Giovanni e Paolo, entitled Domitiano by Noris, opened, which was truly staged superbly, in a beautiful production, but so poor in singers that it is pitiful; aside from Signora Giulia [Masotti], no one can sing; to such a sorry state has opera in Venice been reduced. It's true that the S. Lucca [i.e., S. Salvatore] management, despite a ragged opera of Aureli's called Orfeo , because it has better singers, will triumph over the SS. Giovanni-Paolisti. (Appendix IIIB. 13)

The particular stars were Gratianini, who made such a good impression that he was given the title role in the second opera of the season, Massenzio ,[21] and Tonina, "marvelous of voice, exquisite, clever, and attractive for a Roman" ("di voce meravigliosa esquisita, furba, et attrattiva per esser Romana").[22] In fact, the failure of Domitiano , which in addition to its poor cast may have owed something to the death of its composer, Boretti, during the rehearsal period, was catastrophic for SS. Giovanni e Paolo: Grimani reportedly lost 3,000 lire that season. To make matters worse, one of the singers employed by the theater was shot and killed while riding in a gondola with four or five of his fellow singers.[23]

Actually, neither the verdict on the singers of Orfeo nor that on the opera as a whole was unanimous. One report described "Tonina," who played Euridice, as "divina," but the other singers as merely "ascoltabili"; one of them, a certain Pia, had so deteriorated since the previous year, particularly in the "crudeness" of her voice, that she made no impression at all.[24] Another report


noted the unfortunate absence of two singers, Lucretia and the castrato Lassi.[25] And still another (prejudiced) report criticized "the singer of Signor Leonardo Loredano," who replaced Lucretia for the third soprano role (Euridice's maidservant?) as "insoportabile."[26] As far as the opera itself was concerned, several accounts were quite positive, one of them considering it praiseworthy despite the fact that it was written by Aureli.[27]

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