The Gambler by Sergei Prokofiev

Most of you can probably name at least a few operas that involve gambling. There's The Queen of Spades by Tchaikovsky, in which the hero is destroyed by gambling; there are Massenet's Manon and Verdi's La Traviata, both with key scenes in which a man foes to the the tables out of love for a woman and encounters disastrous results. Then, there's this week's opera, The Gambler, by Prokofiev. It actually has a whole cast full of gamblers -- and none of them has much luck.

And yet, while gambling is often seen in an opera, we don't think of it as something you'd find at the opera. That is, you don't expect to find slot machines and blackjack tables in the lobby at your local opera house. But that wasn't always the case. According to the New Grove Dictionary of Opera, gambling was an essential source of funding for opera from the early 1700's century right up until about 1814. There was a time when the Italian and Austrian governments swung back and forth between banning all games of chance and profitting from gambling by creating a monopoly on it. In the latter scenario, they'd farm out that monopoly to impresarios like Dominico Barbaia and Carlo Balochino, who sometimes divided their profits between the poor -- and the opera house.

Barbaia was a scullion in local cafes and bars around Milan, and Balochino was an ex-croupier. Both of them had a yen for gambling and opera, probably in that order. When Barbaia managed to put aside enough money from his more low-level enterprises to lease the gambling tables in the foyer of La Scala, Balochino became the house manager. An enormous amount of the gaming proceeds were then diverted into the opera budget. Of course, a considerable amount was probably diverted into their pockets as well. You know, "doing well by doing good," and all that.

Even so, Barbaia wound up playing an important role in the overall development of 19th-century opera. In 1809, he was appointed manager of the Royal Opera House in Naples, where he used the profits from his gambling tables to commission operas from composers like Gluck, Rossini, and Donizetti. He also had an ear for new singing talent. Productions at La Scala and Naples were acclaimed for the brilliance of their vocalists. Unlike most impresarios of the time, who were considered on the same level as pickpockets and confidence men, Barbaia apparently was content with his legitimate share of the gambling revenue, and felt no need to cheat anyone. In fact, he was held in such high esteem that his death in 1841 was mourned throughout Italy. The writer Emil Luka based the title character in his novel The Impresario on Barbaia; he also turns up as a character in Auber's opera, The Siren.

Barbaia's seasons at La Scala and Naples weren't the only times when opera and gambling had a successful mix. The Austrian Empress Maria Theresa authorized legal gambling in order to support opera houses in Prague, Trieste, and Milan. Later, opera companies in places like Baden-Baden and Monte Carlo benefited from the invention of the roulette wheel, and used the proceeds to commission operas by the likes of Massenet, Saint-Saens, Puccini, and Ravel.

Now, it's true that "gambling problems" have destroyed many upstanding invividuals, as today's opera makes clear. Still, think how much today's opera coffers might swell if we could just get a deal like the one Barbaia and Balochino got with their government back in the 1800's. If, say, the proceeds from the state lottery went to finance opera companies or to commission new works. They might even be used to produce a cautionary, anti-gaming opera -- like Prokofiev's The Gambler.

In fact, Prokofiev's drama could well serve as a stern warning -- a sort of operatic public service announcement -- but it's also much more than that. The Gambler is a fascinating and innovative opera by one of the 20th century's most popular composers. And it's based on a story by one of Russia's most heralded authors, Fyodor Dostoevsky. So, for more on The Gambler -- and chances are you haven't heard much about it before -- tune in this week's edition of At the Opera. Host Lou Santacroce will discuss the literary background of the piece with Dr. Julie Buckler of Harvard University, an expert on both Russian literature and Russian opera. Lou also talks with regular guest Michelle Krisel on why we don't hear more Prokoviev in the opera house. Then, conductor Scott Speck will fill us in on the unusual music you'll hear in The Gambler -- Prokofiev actually considered the piece more a "sung play" than an opera. It's all At the Opera, just 30 minutes before curtain-time at the Metropolitan, from NPR.


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