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A Note on Transcribing
English Opera Librettos of this Era

R. Burdekin, October 2018


Possible sources for opera librettos of the era 1834-1870 all have their problems when trying to establish what exactly was staged. There can be up to three such sources: the manuscript submitted to the Examiner, a printed edition of the libretto and the printed text of songs and choruses.

In the case of the original manuscript we often do not know, particularly prior to 1843, whether it was approved without any changes being required or, if there were changes needed, what they were.  For example, in Rodwell and Fitzball’s The Sexton of Cologne there were two “Oh, God”s which would almost certainly have been struck out by Colman, who was notoriously sensitive to any religious references (Jeremy F. Bagster-Collins, George Colman: The Younger. New York: King’s Crown Press, 1946: 290-306).  The many “Heaven”s would also have been rejected (Richard Brinsley Peake, Memoirs of the Colman Family. Vol 2. London: Richard Bentley, 1841: 430). However, there is no sign on the manuscript of this as by that time Colman merely listed the changes he required and sent them either written on the licence or as a separate note and did not bother to include them on the manuscript. These lists of detailed changes have often been lost and thus one cannot be sure exactly as to what was approved for staging.

From 1843, Examiners logged whether a play or opera had been approved without changes or otherwise what changes were required (e.g. in the Lord Chamberlain’s Plays Supplementary Papers. Vol. II, London: British Library, Add MS 71565). In these cases one might feel more confidence in what was staged, although last minute cuts by the management would not necessarily be apparent and there is an assumption that managers and singers complied with any licence stipulations. Printed material was not censored and thus cuts could be restored in a printed libretto or printed vocal items. There is also a suspicion sometimes that material was added later to improve the libretto or to make a song saleable as an independent item but that they were not used on the stage, e.g. the many differences in the published libretto for Romer’s The Pacha’s Bridal. Thus the printed editions are not a foolproof guide either as to what was staged.

The transcription process for librettos on this site is usually to use the printed version of the full libretto if it exists, if not then to use the printed song and chorus texts, if they exist and finally to use the manuscript where there is no printed version. The reason for this ordering is that the printed version is most likely to represent what the author/composer intended undistorted by the Examiner’s foibles. In any case, the differences are often minimal and have been usually noted in a footnote.

An attempt has been made to retain the sometimes eccentric punctuation and spelling unless it impaired comprehensibility. Stage directions are in italics and shown between ( ) if within a speech and in [ ] if not. Minor differences in stage directions have not always been noted. Manuscripts often capitalised nouns but this has not been followed.



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