A major collection of Italian opera libretti is now accessible through an online database at the Harry Ransom Center, a humanities research library and museum at The University of Texas at Austin. The opera libretti database can be accessed online.
The collection of 3,421 items was donated in 1969 by New York rare book dealer Hans P. Kraus. The collection consists primarily of texts of Italian operas but also includes Italian cantatas, serenatas, oratorios, dialogues and Passions.
The collection, which dates from the 17th through the 20th century, documents musical performances by Italian, French, German and Austrian composers performed in numerous Italian cities and elsewhere.
“This extraordinary collection gathers in a single place rare and, in some instances, unique testimonies of the evolution of Italian opera from its origins in the 1600s to the 20th century,” said Guido Olivieri, a musicologist in the Sarah and Ernest Butler School of Music at The University of Texas at Austin. “The study of these libretti is of the utmost importance to the history of vocal music. It offers to musicologists and opera historians the possibility of analyzing the relationship between text and music and comparing different versions of the same libretto. It also provides valuable details on the organization of specific events and crucial information on the context of their production.
“The collection, however, is also a precious resource for Italianists and cultural studies scholars to reconstruct the transformations of Italian language and narratological structures, look at the evolution of theatrical and social conventions, and examine the broader cultural contexts in which these works originated.”
By the late 19th century, libretti were printed for audience members at almost every musical production, and they became a detailed and reliable source of information on the performance of individual operas, as the libretto was often the only surviving record of an opera’s performance. A researcher could glean from a libretto, for example, information about the date of the production, the size and composition of the orchestra, the composer, the poet, the singers, the director, the impresario, the scene designers and various other members of the stage staff.
Researchers can also learn about how libretti of important librettists were treated in a variety of performances, the popularity of given works and the musical activity at the courts, theaters and oratories of such centers as Venice, Milan, Rome, Florence, Naples, Palermo and Bologna.
Significant individual items in the Kraus libretti collection include the first edition of what is generally considered the earliest opera, “Ottavio Rinuccini,” and Jacopo Peri’s “La Dafne,” performed in Florence in 1600, published in 1597. Also present is the first edition of Rinuccini’s “L’Euridice,” produced in Florence in 1600 for the marriage of Henry IV of France and Maria de’ Medici and the earliest opera for which music is preserved. Other important works include Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Fidelio” (Rome, 1886) and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Il Flauto Magico” (Milan, 1886) and “Il Don Giovanni” (Florence, 1818).
The collection also includes works by poets Apostolo Zeno and Pietro Metastasio and composers Giuseppe Verdi, Domenico Cimarosa, Giovanni Paisiello, Saverio Mercadante, Gaetano Donizetti, Johann Simon Mayr and Gioachino Rossini.
The Kraus libretti collection joins other music holdings at the Ransom Center, including an opera collection that consists of biographical materials on operatic performers from the 1880s through the 1950s. The careers of about 1,000 performers from this period are documented with photographs, clippings, prints, programs and playbills. The collection also includes production photographs relating to operatic works produced for the American stage and materials documenting the history of prominent opera companies in the United States and in Europe.
The Ransom Center also holds the library of bibliophile, collector and concert violinist Edwin Bachmann, which includes first and early editions of music by major western European composers (with particular strengths in Beethoven, Mozart and Frédéric Chopin), early treatises on music and a few copyist’s manuscripts, including works by Joseph Haydn, Mozart and Giovanni Battista Viotti.
The Carlton Lake collection contains manuscript scores by Claude Debussy, Gabriel Fauré, Maurice Ravel, Paul Dukas and Albert Roussel, as well as works by Franz Liszt, Camille Saint-Saëns, Erik Satie, Igor Stravinsky and Giuseppe Verdi.