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Friday, June 30, 2006

Owning the 19th-Century Opera Supply Chain

Because of a recent DVD acquisition I’d made a few weeks ago, it was my intention to discuss the opera “I Pagliacci” in my next essay. But while doing some research I ran across interesting material on a peripheral issue, so I decided to set this subject aside for a few days.

Anyone familiar with current business practices knows the inventory concept of “just-in-time” delivery. Thanks to the globalization of manufacturing, the rise of multinational corporations, and the advent of gigantic shipping containers—not to mention the increased cost of keeping large stocks of raw materials on hand—most companies are running considerably leaner operations these days. It’s not unusual for a U.S. car builder, for example, to stockpile only as many windshields as it might use in a week, figuring the company would much rather see excess stock sit un-invoiced in their supplier’s warehouse rather than stack up, already paid-for, in their own warehouse.

Another concept currently in vogue, but actually with a much longer history, is supply-chain economics.

One example of this involved the early days of the movie-making business. Motion picture studios in California saw the advantage of owning the places that showed their films to the public. With companies like MGM and Fox in control of the corner theatre, they had a guaranteed distribution channel to the ticket-buying public, plus little or no reason to negotiate booking discounts with independent theatre owners.

Attempts to control the means of production, however, went nowhere fast. Kodak held onto its film monopoly, Panavision and other camera companies continued their independence as well, and the whole thing collapsed in the 1970s and 1980s with leveraged buyouts, overpriced productions that earned “bupkes” (the movie “Heaven’s Gate” springs to mind) and ultimately the sale of Columbia Pictures to a Japanese conglomerate—which turned out to be one of the worst deals for a buyer in the history of international business.

Before the advent of recordings, anyone who owned the rights to a particular piece of music generally made money one of three ways—by putting on a production or concert and charging admission, by leasing the rights to an impresario and collecting a portion of the “gate,” or by printing the sheet music and selling it to the general public.

Practically from the time it was invented, one of the earmarks of wealth involved owning a piano. Throughout Europe in the mid-1800s, the growing middle class saw this item—more than any other and much the way middle-class American families in the early 1950s viewed the television—as a clear symbol that they’d “made it.” As a result, more and more people entertained at home by playing the piano. Obviously they needed something to perform, and transcriptions of both classical music and operas became all the rage. Composers who’d previously struggled to earn a worthwhile living from their material could become wealthy almost overnight by creating a piece that caught the public’s ear. Franz Liszt earned more from the sale of piano transcriptions he made of Beethoven’s symphonies than from the sale of his own sheet music. And Wagner was saved from abject poverty by the generosity of Giacomo Meyerbeer, who graciously allowed the Bayreuther full rights to the piano transcriptions he’d crafted of Meyerbeer’s first Paris Opera production, “Robert le Diable.” Only later did Wagner turn on his patron and rebuke him and his music with the sort of virulence that has lasted—regrettablyuntil the present day.

I assume by now the picture is clear—owning the rights to music, even back in the good ol’ days, could be incredibly lucrative. But most composers were hardly good businessmen, and many were as far from sensible with money as you could get. In the midst of what was likely the greatest market ever for theatrical productions—Paris prior to the Franco-Prussian War—Jacques Offenbach went broke twice trying to be both operettist and theatre-owner. Eventually he figured out which one he was best at, and it wasn’t the latter.

It was all well and good to sell tickets to the public, but there were problems associated with making that one’s sole path to riches. First, an opera house held only so many seats. Even the newest ones, taking advantage of up-to-date architectural designs that created larger and larger auditoriums, rarely accommodated more than a few thousand patrons. Second, success was as fleeting as one’s latest production. For every “La Muette di Portici”—the Auber piece often considered the first “grand” opera and one that enjoyed hundreds of sold-out houses in its first year of production—there were dozens of operas that closed after one or two performances. And even the masters of composition were not immune to the fickleness of the ticket-buying public.

In 1808, Italian violinist Giovanni Ricordi abandoned his playing career and began to print the music of his colleagues in and around his home town of Milan. After managing to put away a few “scudi” for a rainy day, he scored a coup in 1825 by buying up the entire musical archives at La Scala. In those days, theatres contracted directly with composers for productions to fill their houses. Although every once in a while a Cimarosa or a Donizetti wrote an opera “on spec,” that is, without having a paid contract in advance for its production, nearly every opera created in the 1800s was bought and paid for by the owners of the house in which it premiered. In a cost-of-living move, composers oftentimes traded future rights of publication or outright ownership for immediate cash in their pockets, so opera houses like La Scala ended up with a considerable library of works. Ricordi recognized the value of such a collection and made a very smart move financially.

Then in 1839 he signed a deal with Giuseppe Verdi, acquiring the copyright to all his existing and future operas. It was an especially good deal for the composer as it essentially granted Verdi a lifetime income, allowing him the luxury of accepting or rejecting any project sent his way. Few opera composers of any era have enjoyed that kind of independence.

With the Verdi catalogue under its belt, the firm Casa Ricordi soon grew to become the largest music publisher in southern Europe. Operations expanded across Italy, with offices opening in Naples (1864), Florence (1865) and Rome (1871) before jumping internationally to London (1878) and Paris (1888).

From Giovanni’s modest beginnings, three future generations of Ricordis led the company until outside management was appointed in 1919. Giulio Ricordi (1840–1912) took the business far beyond the simple printing of sheet music. This is where “owning the supply chain” truly kicked in. He locked up Giacomo Puccini much the same way his great-grandfather had secured full rights to Verdi’s material. But Giulio took things several steps further, expanding into the printing of advertising posters that became amazingly popular throughout Europe. Celebrated graphic artists constructed compelling images to promote the operas for which Ricordi owned the publishing and/or performing rights. Surviving original posters today command many thousands of dollars at auction, although it’s possible to purchase reproductions (I own a few, by the way) for as little as US$10-20 each. And while the names of these artists—Leonetto Cappiello, Franz Laskoff or Giovanni Mataloni—mean little or nothing to the average person today, it would be as if film studios had enticed Robert Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns or R. Crumb to draw up movie posters for display at the neighborhood Cineplex.

After World War II, during which the company’s offices in Milan had suffered considerable bombing damage—although the archives survived intact thanks to being stored safely off-premises—Casa Ricordi became first a limited corporation and then a publicly traded company. In 1994 it was acquired by BMG Music, a division of the German publishing giant Bertelsmann.

To rival the success of the aforementioned family, we begin with Giovanni Battista Sonzogno. A Milanese as was Ricordi, he founded the Sonzogno Publishing House in 1818 along with his two sons. The company’s early emphasis was away from music—specifically publishing textbooks on economics plus the daily newspaper “Il Secolo”—but in 1874 under Giovanni’s grandson Edoardo, it jumped into direct competition with its cross-town rivals. Whereas Ricordi concentrated on the publication of operas by Italian composers, Sonzogno acquired the rights to publish foreign operas in Italy. Most well known among these were “Mignon” by Ambroise Thomas and “Carmen” by George Bizet.

But since French or German operas didn’t sell nearly as well in Italy as did Italian ones, Edoardo came up with the idea of organizing a nationwide competition for the composition of operas. Budding composers were given the opportunity to showcase their talents in front of paying audiences, and Sonzogno had a guaranteed source of material for publication. The second year of the competition, Pietro Mascagni was declared the winner for his one-act opera, “Cavalleria Rusticana.” This contest helped bring about the rise of the Young Italian School, many of whose members had their works published exclusively by Sonzogno. Major composers who started off as members of this loosely formed group, in addition to Mascagni, included Francesco Cilea (“L’arlesiana” and “Adriana Lecouvreur”), Umberto Giordano (“Andrea Chenier” and “Fedora”) and Ruggero Leoncavallo (“I Pagliacci” and “Zaza”).

Further exploiting this “own the supply chain” concept, Sonzogno Publishing invested in several existing opera houses around Italy, and even opened its own theatre in Milan (The Lirico) in 1894.

As he had no direct descendents, Edoardo sold the company to two of his nephews in 1911. In 1920, industrialist and amateur composer Piero Ostali purchased the business, which was inherited upon his death by his son Enzo. Today the publishing house is run by Enzo’s widow, Nanda Bonini.

Today the Casa Musicale Sonzogno continues to sponsor an opera competition that adhere to the same basic strictures that governed the contest back in the 1880s—no more than four solo voices, plus chamber choir; orchestra limited to 15 players; minimum performance duration of 45 minutes, maximum duration of 60 minutes, and only one stage setting. The competition is open to any composer under the age of 35, of any nationality, and the work must never have been performed on any stage nor won prizes in any other contest. The libretto can be in German, French, Italian, English or Spanish, although a plot synopsis must accompany it in Italian.

On into the 1900s, Ricordi and Sonzogno jockeyed for position, each looking to gain bragging rights as Best Italian Opera Publisher. Once Ricordi went corporate, however, the steam seemed to go out of the rivalry, and today they’re simply two Milan-based houses looking to make a few bucks or, in this case, Euros.

Too bad I don’t meet the age requirement, since I’ve got a great idea for a one-act opera. You see, there’s this woman who’s hanging around a church on Easter Sunday. She’d like to go in and pray, but she’s kind of “persona non grata,” so… Oh, wait—you say it’s been done? Ah, too bad!

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