Giueseppi Verdi, Prospero Bertani, and a Pre-Internet Comments Section
What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun
"Never look at the comments section" is fine advice if you want to avoid the worst of humanity in the Internet age. It seems any video, song, or article, no matter how good, will have at least one response of "Worst thing ever!" or at least one person thinking art in a public space entitles them to share their often vitriolic feedback with the creator. [Note, that I said "entitles them to share", not "entitles them to have"].
Of course, depending on the target, we've also seen backlash from vociferous defenders of the work in question criticizing, mocking, or (sadly) threatening the commenter. I will put it on record that I have no issue with critique or lighthearted mocking of particularly obnoxious or entitled comments, but I do draw the line at threatening or doxxing someone over their opinions. Everyone: get a life.
I used to think this was a product of the Internet age. Then I learned about Giuseppe Verdi and Prospero Betani's correspondence in the decidedly pre-internet 1872.
Giuseppe Verdi is one of the greatest opera composers who ever lived. His opera Aida premiered in Cairo 1871, and is the tragic story of a love triangle between Egyptian general Radames, enslaved Ethiopian princess Aida, and the Pharaoh's daughter Amneris.
Aida received near universal acclaim. Prospero Bertani, however, decidedly did not share in the enthusiasm.
In May 1872 he wrote a letter to Giuseppe Verdi that is.... something. I'm just going to include the entire thing here:
Much Honoured Signor Verdi, Reggio, May 7, 1872
On the second of this month, attracted by the sensation which your opera Aida was making, I went to Parma. Half an hour before the performance began I was already in my seat, No.120. I admired the scenery, listened with great pleasure to the excellent singers, and took pains to let nothing escape me. After the performance was over, I asked myself whether I was satisfied. The answer was “No.”
I returned to Reggio, and on the way back in the railroad carriage, I listened to the verdicts of my fellow travelers. Nearly all of them agreed that Aida was a work of the highest rank.
Thereupon I conceived a desire to hear it again, and on the fourth returned to Parma. I made the most desperate effort to obtain a reserved seat, and there was such a crowd that I was obliged to throw away five lire to see the performance in comfort.
I arrived at this decision: it is an opera in which there is absolutely nothing which causes any enthusiasm or excitement, and without the pomp of the spectacle, the public would not stand it to the end. When it has filled the house two or three times, it will be banished to the dust of the archives.
Now, my dear Signor Verdi, you can imagine my regret at having spent on two occasions 32 lire for these two performances. Add to this the aggravating circumstance that I am dependent on my family, and you will understand that this money troubles my rest like a terrible spectre. Therefore I address myself frankly and openly to you, so that you may send me the amount.
Here is the account:
Railroad: One way 2.60 lire; Railroad: Return trip 3.30 lire; Theater 8.00 lire Detestable dinner at the station 2.00 lire =15.90 lire Multiplied by 2= 31.80 lire
In the hope that you will extricate me from this embarrassment, I salute you from the bottom of my heart
Which is.... I mean... this motherf*cker. Giuseppe Verdi, who absolutely did not care what critics thought of his work, handled this in an interesting way. He sent this message to his publisher:
As you may readily imagine, in order to save this scion of his family from the spectres that pursue him, I shall gladly pay the little bill he sends me. Be so kind, therefore, as to have one of your agents send the sum of 27 lire, 80 centesimi to this Signor Prospero Bertani, Via San Domenico No. 5. True, that isn’t the whole sum he demands, but for me to pay his dinner too would be wearing the joke a bit thin. He could perfectly well have eaten at home. Naturally, he must send you a receipt, as well as a written declaration that he promises never to hear another one of my new operas, so that he won’t expose himself again to the danger of being pursued by spectres, and that he may spare me further travel expenses!
That would have been a really effective "Bye now" but Verdi took it a step further and had his agent publish the entire exchange in as many newspapers as he could.
And then a pile on that should be familiar to us internet-ers happened. Bertani got mocking and insulting letters, hate mail, and, yes, even a death threat. According to Professor Robert Greenberg,* Bertani could barely leave the house without getting crap from people.
Aida holds an esteemed place in the repertoire, is one of the most popular operas ever, and has been performed more than 1000 times since its premier in 1871.
So much for being "banished to the dust of the archives."
It appears I was wrong about the internet age; the impulses to leave entitled comments and to yell at the people who leave entitled comments are older than I thought. I'm sure we'll be finding Paleolithic trash talk on the cave walls of Lascaux soon.
* Robert Greenberg discussed this in Lecture 39 of his Teaching Company Course "How to Listen to and Understand Great Music."