Preferred Citation: Rosand, Ellen. Opera in Seventeenth-Century Venice: The Creation of a Genre. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1991 1991.

8—I più canori cigni e le suavissime sirene : The Singers

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

[2] The earnings of librettists were augmented by the largesse of dedicatees; see Bianconi and Walker, "Production, " 238 n. 75. Aureli signed a contract with Faustini to adjust the text of Eliogabalo for Cavalli, agreeing to divide the gift he received for the dedication with Faustini; and since Faustini was paying printing and binding costs, he would also receive half of the profits from sales. This must have been exceptional, since it had to be spelled out in a contract (b . 194:31; transcribed in Brunelli, "Angustie," 335). In 1686 dedication gifts for three operas (paid to both composer and librettist) cost Duke Ernst August 266 Thalers, equivalent to the cost of employing the duke's ten Venetian gondoliers for a month (Bianconi and Walker, "Production," 269 n. 150).

[3] See the Cavalli-Faustini contracts, Appendix IIIA.2-4.


"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

[4] Letter of 25 July 1665 (b . 188: 82), Appendix IIIA. sb; excerpted in Giazotto, "La guerra dei pal-chi," 503-4. His low salary may reflect the fact that he was otherwise unemployed and possibly desperate, having left his position as maestro di cappella at Bergarno in 1659.

[5] See Bianconi and Walker, "Production," 225 n. 50. In bringing up this comparison, Ziani notices a certain inequity in the hierarchy. If anything, though, he has underestimated singers' salaries for this period. On his appreciation of Cavalli, see his letter of 9 May 1666 (Appendix IIIA. 11b).

[6] Letter of 21 June 1665 (b . 188: 119, 137); partially transcribed in Giazotto, "Cesti," 498-99: "mi vedro costretto di dover poi pubblicare molta maggiore la ricognizione ad esempio del Signor Cavalli."

[7] See Brunelli, "Angustie," 327. Letter from Carlo Mazzini to Faustini (b . 194: 144): "non è dovere che loro vadino se non hanno 300 scudi per una, sì come si costuma a dare ad ogni benche ordinaria virtuosa."

[8] The "prima donna" of Elena , Lucietta Gombo detta Widmann, earned 650 ducats; see her contract with Faustini, dated 18 July 1659 (b . 194: 10); transcribed in Brunelli, "Angustie," 314. The figures for Antioco are drawn from Faustini's account book in b . 194: unnumbered.

[9] See Bianconi and Walker, "Production," 224.


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,

[10] Girolama's contract is spelled out in b . 188:22 (see Rosselli, "From Princely Service," 25 n. 86). Her salary also included living expenses, but not lodging, while in Venice, which was calculated in addition; Cavagna, from Turin, received 350 ducats, Manni, from Milan, 332. The Venetian was Antonio Formenti. The comparative figures are sometimes misleading since it was not always clear when fees included traveling expenses and when they did not. Moreover, the currencies in which fees are quoted, even within the same document, are not always the same, nor are the conversion rates always given. In general, I have adopted the conversion rates listed in ch. 6, n. 105, above.

[11] The singer was the casttaro Rascarini, according to another castrato and fellow employee of the duke of Savoy, Giovanni Antonio Cavagna or Cavagnino (letter to Faustini of 27 June 1665 [b . 188: 117]).

[12] Letter of 3 April 1665 (b . 188: 98-99). As we remember, 1665-66 was a particularly difficult year for Faustini, in part because of competition from S. Salvatore. Cavagna seems to have been part of the problem. In both 1666 and 1667 he played off his obligations to his patron, the duke of Savoy, against his contract with SS. Giovanni e Paolo; see Rosselli, "From Princely Service," 7, 9-10, esp. n. 32.

[13] In 1666 the figure was 380 doble , or 1,600 ducats, not including living expenses; for living quarters Giulia had her choice of Faustini's or Giovanni Grimani's house. Her contract with Faustini (b . 194: 110) is transcribed in Brunelli, "Angustie," 332. In 1669 it was 15,920 life (about 2,500 ducats or 1,200 scudi). This figure may have included 200 scudi for traveling expenses (see I-Vcg, Archivio Vendramin, cited in ch. 6, n. 105, above). The figures in the Vendramin archives are especially confusing; some are clearly in ducats, others in doppie or doble .


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]

[14] ee letter of 3 April 1665 (b . 188: 98-99) mentioned in n. 12 above.

[15] Letter from Massi to Johann Friedrich, 17 November 1670 (vol 4, no. 627, f. 211 ): "è qua Ciecolino al quale hanno offerte dobble 250, ma lui non vuol recitare se non sono almeno 300."

[16] Bianconi and Walker, "Production," 276. We do not know what happened to composers' salaries in this period. The last documented salary for Cavalli is 450 in ducats in 1668 at SS. Giovanni e Paolo (Appendix IIIA.4).

[17] The figure given for La maga fulminata was 2,000 scudi (Appendix 1.3b). Although we do not have precise figures for inflation, we do know that ticket prices remained the same throughout this period, and that the salaries of the instrumentalists did not change appreciably; see ch. 6, n. 105, above.

[18] See Brunelli, "Angustie," 325-26. There were many complaints about Anna Venturi, who was the wife of the tenor, Carlo Righenzi. Sebastiano Cioni, another stager, accused her of singing out of tune, insisting that she did not fit in any company of virtuosi, and predicting that Cavagnino, supposedly hired to sing with her, "resterà molto scandalizzato quando si vedrà a petto una donna tale" (b . 188:129-30). Marc'Antonio Cornaro, one of Faustini's chief associates and agents, assured him that she would never make it in Venice: "certo certo non farà riuscita in Venezia" (letter of 6 November 1665 [b . 188: 207]).


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

[19] On 7 February and 1 March 1666 (b . 194: 113; b . 188: 353).

[20] According to a letter from Dolfin to Johann Friedrich of 19 December 1670 (vol. 2, no. 625, f. 409), the singers saved S. Salvatore from bankruptcy: "se la copia d'esquisiti cantanti non la sostenasse si sarebbe sin hora chiuso il Teatro."

[21] Gratianini was the singer Beregan would be so anxious to hire for S. Salvatore in 1675 (Appendix IIIB.24); see the letter from Dolfin to Johann Friedrich, 20 January 1672 [1673] (Appendix IIIB. 16a).

[22] Tonina is Antonia Coresi. Letter from Massi, 16 December 1672 (Appendix IIIB.9).

[23] Letter from Massi to Johann Friedrich, 10 February 1673 (Appendix IIIB.21).

[24] Letter from Dolfin, 23 December 1672 (Appendix IIIB. 10).


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]

8—I più canori cigni e le suavissime sirene : The Singers

Preferred Citation: Rosand, Ellen. Opera in Seventeenth-Century Venice: The Creation of a Genre. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1991 1991.