The Portent


Because it was politically sensitive, Giuseppe Verdi’s new opera Un ballo in maschera made the Italian censors nervous. They forced Verdi to change the action to someplace farther from home.

He chose seventeenth-century Boston. The King of Sweden became the Governor of Boston.

When Un ballo in maschera came to the United States in 1861, it was quite the rage despite some absurdities, such as Puritans holding a masked ball.

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When the opera played at the Academy of Music in New York on February 20, 1861, its audience included President-elect Abraham Lincoln, who was en route from Springfield, Illinois, via Albany and New York to Washington, where he was to be inaugurated as president two weeks later.

It was the first opera Lincoln had attended, and he would become an ardent opera-lover, but he had come to the theater tired and concerned that his presence would detract from the performance.

During the first intermission, he was recognized and received a standing ovation, after which the curtain rose for a rendition of “’The Star-Spangled Banner.” Isabella Hinkley, the soprano playing the part of Oscar the page, sang the anthem’s first stanza half-turned toward Lincoln’s second-tier stage box. Then the entire company joined in, while a huge American flag, resplendent with thirty-three stars, dropped from the proscenium.

Adelaide Phillips, who was playing Ulrica the fortune-teller, took up the second verse to enthusiastic applause. Then came ”Hail, Columbia,” more cheering, and the continuation of the opera.

During the second intermission Lincoln left the opera and went back to his hotel. Despite his early departure, he was hooked on operas and went on to see eighteen more of them during his time as President, perhaps more than any other Chief Executive.

But he never saw the most controversial scene in Un ballo in maschera, the one in which Verdi had accommodated the Italian censors by changing the murder of a European monarch to the assassination of an American head of state.

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