This incredible survivor is a broadside bill advertising a performance of Gaetano Donizetti’s opera buffa (comic opera) masterpiece Don Pasquale, headlined by the legendary basso buffo singer Vincenzo Galli, performed on the night of May 16, 1855, at the Naum Theatre, one of the most important cultural centres of Tanzimat Era Constantinople (Istanbul). The Naum Theatre was in the heart of the Pera District (modern Beyoğlu), a culturally vibrant neighbourhood that had for centuries been the nexus of western and eastern cultures, and which during the 19th Century was enjoying a renaissance.
The Naum theatre, and its featured opera performances in particular, were considered be major events on the Constantinople social calendar, as well as a major nexus of cross-cultural exchange. Accordingly, the broadside features the title printed in Italian, Ottoman Turkish, Greek, Armenian and Armenian printed in the Ottoman Alphabet (a mode of communication preferred by a small number of Constantinople’s residents)!
The broadside was commissioned by the Naum Theatre and lithographed locally by the house of A. Domenichini, who is recorded as having printed several other promotional works for the theatre.
We cannot trace another example of the present broadside. Indeed, all such ephemeral works from mid-19th Century Constantinople are exceedingly rare, with original documents relating to the Naum Theatre being especially so, as both the theatre and much of Pera neighbourhood burned to the ground in 1870.
The Naum Theatre & Pera during the Tanzimat Era
The Naum Theatre, and the Pera District in which it was located, occupied the epicentre of a movement of transformative cultural change that swept Constantinople during the mid-19th Century. Pera, located above the northern bank of the Golden Horn, had for many centuries been home to foreign traders. During the last period of the Byzantine Era, from 1273 to 1453, Pera was a Genovese Colony. While the Ottomans removed the neighbourhood’s extraterritorial status, they permitted a large permanent community of Western Europeans, called ‘Levantines’, to reside in the district, where they were largely permitted to live as they chose if they did not offend the area’s Turkish residents. Pera was always multi-ethnic, liberal and lively; far more so than the majestic, but very formal Fatih District across the Horn. This all being said, for many generations there were limitations on the types of establishments that Europeans in Pera could open to the public, as well as restrictions on the types of social interaction that would generally occur between Westerners and Turks. Some of these limitations were due to cultural custom, where others were a matter of law. Notably, while Westerns were permitted to hold theatre and musical events in private homes, to be enjoyed by invited guests, public theatres were not permitted.
Sultan Abdülmecid (1823 – 1861; reigned 1839 – 1861) initiated what is known as the Tanzimat (‘Reformation’) Era, which lasted from 1839 to 1876. This period brought about sweeping changes to the Ottoman bureaucracy, economy, military and cultural laws. The aim was to modernize the empire, and while the goal was not to completely overturn the established social order, it embraced many aspects of Western cultural and liberalization.
Key to the Tanzimat programme was to integrate Turkey’s massive Armenian, Greek, Arab and Slavic minorities into mainstream Ottoman society and to encourage cross-cultural exchange with Western Europeans. This was especially significant in Constantinople, in which most of the residents were not ethnically Turkish or Muslim.
During this period, Pera flourished as the one of the most economically prosperous and culturally diverse and vibrant places in the world. It was home to foreign embassies, trading houses, shops, merchants’ mansions, restaurants, private clubs, hotels, schools, churches, synagogues and mosques. The nucleus of social life in the district was the Grande Rue de Péra (today’s Istiklal Avenue), while the financial centre of the Ottoman Empire was on Bankalar Caddesi (Bank Street). Indeed, in 1856 (the year after the present broadside was issued), the de facto centre of the Ottoman government was moved from the Topkapi Palace to Dolmabahçe Palace, located near Pera.
During the Tanzimat Era, Western cultural activities, such as theatre, music, visual art, design and literature, while always a part of the scene in Constantinople, were henceforth not only to be permitted in Pera, but were openly encouraged and patronized by the Ottoman government at the highest levels. French became the language of commerce and the Western arts scene, while opera, and Italian opera in particular, was held to be the height of cultural sophistication, counting Sultan Abdülmecid as an avid fan. Importantly, The Tanzimat reforms saw the rise of a sizable bourgeoisie class who, in addition to the elite classes, could afford to patronize cultural activities.
A major driver of the acceptance of Western music, and particularly Italian opera, in the Ottoman Empire was Giuseppe Donizetti (1788 – 1856), the eldest brother of the famous opera composer Gaetano Donizetti (and the creator of Don Pasquale), and formerly the music director of the court of Sultan Mahmud II (reigned 1808-39). Donizetti succeeded in making opera a beloved feature of the repertoire at the Topkapi Palace; however, he was for years frustrated that such music was not permitted to reach a broader audience in Constantinople. In 1831, prior to the Tanzimat reforms, he wrote home to Italy that “in this country we are deprived of all the entertainments like theatre, opera and plays provided by civilised societies. I am sure if you were here [in Constantinople] …you would be bored stiff”.
Pursuant to the reforms, in 1840, the Sultan Abdülmecid granted the Italian magician and impresario Bartolomeo Bosco the exclusive license to open the first Western Style public music hall in Constantinople. The Théâtre Bosco, located on the Grande Rue de Péra, immediately across the street from the Imperial School of Medicine (today’s Galatasaray Lisesi), was a relatively modest Ottoman-style wooden building. Beginning with the theatre’s maiden performance, of Verdi’s Norma, its shows were almost always sold out.
In 1844, the theatre was bought by the brothers Michel (c. 1800 – 1868) and Joseph Naum (c. 1814 – 1874), Christians from Aleppo, who renamed it the Théâtre de Pera, although it would always be popularly known as the Théâtre Naum. The Naum brothers were curious characters who worked in many different trades until settling upon showbusiness. Michel was, in his youth, the translator and favoured assistant of Lady Hester Lucy Stanhope, the eccentric archaeologist and adventurer, before manufacturing fez hats for Sultan Mahmud II’s court.
In 1847, a fire struck Pera and the old wooden theatre burned down. The Naums engaged William James Smith, the architect of ‘Pera House’, Britain’s grand embassy, located only a few blocks away, to design the new premises. The proposed cost was immense, so the brothers approached Sultan Abdülmecid for financial assistance, which was happily granted. The new theatre was opened in 1849, and could seat 1,000 people, on three tiers of boxes, under a grand chandelier imported from London. Appropriately, the Sultan was given is own crimson and gold-lined box.
The Naums were able to attract several of Europe’s most important singers to make the trek to Constantinople, where the repertoire was anchored in the masterpieces of Verdi, Bellini, Rosselli and Donizetti. The theatre also featured many popular non-operatic performances, as well as maintaining outreach programmes to bring in audience members from Üsküdar who were not otherwise familiar with Western music.
The opera performances became prime events of Constantinople’s social calendar. Notably, Sultan Abdülmecid frequented the theatre, often on Friday evenings after prayers, a tradition that was followed by his successor Abdülaziz.
Importantly, the theatre’s shows provided an opportunity for figures from diverse ethnic and professional backgrounds to socially engage each other on an informal level. For instance, Jewish merchants had conversations in the lobby with Turkish Muslim government officials, while Armenian writers shared drinks with French bankers; the theatre was an incredibly enlightened social experiment. The Naum Theatre’s role in the regard was prophesised by a local French language newspaper, the Journal de Constantinople, which commented that the “theatre is one of the greatest achievements of mankind, may be one of these days we will have the Muslim population and the Europeans watching performances together, side by side” (Journal de Constantinople, November 4, 1848).
During the Crimean War (1853-56), when the present broadside was issued, the Naum Theatre was often patronized by French and British military officers, who were otherwise engaged in buttressing the Ottoman Empire’s (successful) efforts against Russia. These officers, upon their return home, did much to solidify the theatre’s international reputation.
However, it appears not everyone was a fan of the Naum Theatre. Charles Dickens, who patronised the establishment shortly before the present broadside was made, recalled: “It is about seven o’clock in the evening of a pouring December day, and the polite or impolite world of Pera are going as best they can to the opera. I cannot say that the opera of Pera absolutely claims a visit from the connoisseur. There is an unhealthy smell of dead rats about it; a prevailing dampness and dinginess; a curious fog; a loudness; a dirtiness, which induces me generally to prefer an arm chair and a dictionary – a cup of tea and a fire […] I shall not have half so much fun in the theatre, where an English autumnal prima donna is tearing one of Verdi’s operas into shreds, and screaming in a manner which is inconceivably ear-piercing” (Charles Dickens, ‘The Roving Englishman at the Pera Theatre’, Household Words, 1854, vol. 10, pp. 570-2).
The Naum Theatre remained a cultural centre point of Constantinople until the Great Fire of Pera (1870) completely swept it away in flames. Joseph Naum, then without the partnership of his older brother (Michel died in 1868) decided not to rebuild, and the prime land plot was sold to the local Greek banker Hristaki Zoğrafos Efendi. Zoğrafos commissioned the architect Kleanthis Zannos to design the Çiçek Pasajı (Flower Passage) building, which completed in 1876, remains as one of Beyoğlu’s most beloved landmarks. Today, the only physical reminder of the Naum Theatre is a marble plaque on the current edifice.
Istanbul Opera Imprints by the Domenichini House
The present broadside was lithographed by the printing house of A. Domenichini, one of several local European-run publishers and stationers. Domenichini seems to have had a contract to print the Naum Theatre’s promotional materials from at least as early as 1851 to at least as late as 1857. These works would have included playbills, invitations and pamphlets with musical lyrics. However, due to the ephemeral nature (and often low print runs) of these pieces, only a few examples of what were probably many titles have survived to the present day. Indeed, the present broadside advertising Don Pasquale is the only known example.
Other known surviving Domenichini imprints include a broadside bill similar to the present piece, Teatro Naum in Pera in Costantinopoli / Sabato 10 Novembre 1855 / Lucrezia Borgia: Musica del Maestro Cav Gaetano Donizetti / Poesia di Felice Romani. [Constantinople], 1855, that was sold in Britain some years ago (current whereabouts unknown); a 20-page pamphlet of lyrics, Una Notte di terrore: melodramma giosco divisive in due atti posto in musica dal basso comico Carlo Duchaliot e dedicato all’egregia artista di canto signora Adelina Murio-Celli (1857) (Albert Schatz Collection, Library of Congress, 2010658209. Libretto. ML48 [S2827]); and a 105-page work, La bibbia: canto di Giuseppe Regaldi (1851) (University of Vermont, George Marsh Library: PQ4730.R3 B5 1851).
References: N/A – Apparently Unrecorded. Cf. [Re: the Naum Theatre:] Emre Araci, ‘Naum Theatre: The Lost Opera House of Istanbul’, Turkish Area Studies Review, Spring 2011, issues 17 and 18.