Italian Opera in Early Republican Mexico City: Anatomy of a Cultural and Economic Exchange

Friday, January 6, 2017: 10:30 AM
Room 203 (Colorado Convention Center)
Lance R. Ingwersen, Vanderbilt University
This paper examines the cultural dimensions and economic limitations of state and nation building in 1830s Mexico through the campaign to recruit the first Italian opera company to Mexico City. Using account books, correspondence and other miscellaneous documents from Mexico’s Interior Ministry archive, I illuminate the creative financing strategies and political animus of a small cadre of high ranking officials determined to recruit, contract, and sustain a company of opera singers “worthy of the reason and progress of the republic’s residents.” Officials redirected funds from customs duties and spent liberally from gastos extraordinarios y secretos to fund this venture. But, they did so in a time of fiscal penury, and at great political cost.

I assess in this paper one of the first attempts at state-sponsored cultural nation building in early republican Mexico and the challenges that empty treasuries, unfavorable contracts, and political maneuvering presented for the regime in power. Its decision to subsidize Filippo Galli’s Italian opera company, undergirded by the belief that opera, a symbol of openness and cosmopolitanism, would signal Mexico’s readiness to enter into the world of international exchange, had at least two identifiable consequences. First, European performers took notice, and in the following seventy years, eighty-five more opera companies, mostly Italian, would perform on Mexico City stages. The capital would emerge as a hub in a global opera network. Second, the state-subsidized cultural nation-building project attempted in the 1830s would not be replicated. Private individuals or groups provided the equity and assumed all financial risk.

This remarkable episode offers a unique lens into the nation-building efforts of a weak state that on the brink of fiscal collapse tried to fashion itself as strong and stable. It also reveals how cultural and economic exchange continued and intensified in the absence of strong institutions.

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