Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

entry Apr 2007 updated Sept 2013           

he Re-Opening of San Carlo in 1943
WWII Oral History (5)
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I had an interesting note the other day from Michael Seligman of Santa Barbara, California. It read, in part:

...As you know, toward the end of the 2nd World war, Naples had suffered the most terrible bombing damage and was in ruins. Many of the beautiful piazzas were full of rubble. I was part of the Allied Forces…my job was primarily running radio stations for the armed forces radio service… I love classical, jazz, and other music and felt strongly that music was enjoyed by all, crossed language barriers, and could reduce the unhappiness of locals at having foreign military installations on their native soil…I was fortunate in being able to play a small part in discussions and planning for finding some quick way to help lift the local people out of their deep depression. The final choice for the quickest and possibly most effective thing we could do was to reopen the San Carlo…

We had a system of loud speakers in many locations throughout the city for announcements. We expanded this public address system and had auditions of both instrumentalists and vocalists broadcast all over the city and the positive reaction of the Neapolitans was dramatic. Thousands came to listen to the auditions, and the sound of their beloved music blocked out some of the despair over the visible destruction in the city. The re-opening of the San Carlo was a festive and beautiful event...

Mr. Seligman then asked me if I knew anything about it. I didn't. What follows is the result of a bit of research stimulated by his interesting note. I consulted a few sources, among which were

-"The San Carlo Chronicles" by Guido Pannain in Il Teatro di San Carlo, published by the autonomo del teatro, no date given but approx. 1950; and

-a number of items that appear on the marvelous website, Opera in Naples, 1944.


Italy entered WWII on the side of Germany on June 10, 1940, with a declaration of war against Britain and France. In November of that year, the Italian ports of Brindisi, Bari and Naples were bombed by the British. By September, 1943, Naples had suffered some 200 British and US air raids and was the most heavily bombed Italian city of the war.

In spite of all that, the cultural life of Naples continued, certainly not unabated, but given the circumstances it is amazing that there was any cultural activity at all. San Carlo did indeed continue opera for the 1940/41 and 42/43 seasons. Bombing damage in 1943, however, though it did not destroy San Carlo, was severe enough to close the theater, apparently "for the duration." The "duration" was not long in coming. The Allies landed at Salerno on September 9, 1943 and had liberated Naples by October 1.

The published history of the theater (Pannain, above) says: "Substantially spared, although damaged in some parts of the structure…, the San Carlo was requisitioned by the English military authorities during October, 1943. [Opera] performances recommenced on December 26 of that year, intended for the Allied troops. The civilian population was admitted, but only to the gallery and loggia. The occupation lasted until 1946." 

This  image (above, right) of a San Carlo program from 1945 comes to me through the kindness of Pat White in the UK. 

British sources (cited at Opera in Naples, 1944, above) say:

…when Capt. Francis visited the Theatre on November 7th and opened the doors for the first time…the scene was amazing…Bomb damage had blasted the foyer that runs the whole length of the theatre…there were no curtains or scenery on the stage…Many of the boxes on the sixth floor were unusable. All the dressing rooms had been hit, the scenery and paint shop, the costume and wardrobe stores were beyond repair…The only things left standing were the music stands in the vast orchestra pit and these only because they were fixed to the floor.

In one week (!) the theater was cleared, at least for some musical productions, if not opera. Allied military revues played in November and December. In the meantime, the word went out to search for members of the old opera company, the musicians, singers, conductors, chorus, stage hands, etc. A symphony concert by a 60-piece orchestra was given in San Carlo on Sunday, November 21. On Sunday, December 26, the opera season opened with La Boheme.

To mark the one-year anniversary of the re-opening, Brian Grayson, Captain, R.A.S.C. made the following comments (cited at Opera in Naples, 1944, above):

Just a year ago, on November 15th l943, when the battle raged but a few miles away, we opened with an Italian revue. Since then, with the exception of a few days of rehearsals, not a day has passed without a presentation on this stage…On December 26th, true to Italian tradition, the Opera Season opened with La Boheme, and from that date onwards…opera has been presented daily…The orchestra of 98 is permanently engaged and 260 Italians form the theatre staff. Civilians are permitted to visit the Opera; thus we have given back to the Italian people something which is very precious to them, and in so doing gave added proof of our wish to liberate and not to conquer…

Readers should note the extreme circumstances under which the Phoenix-like rebirth of San Carlo took place. The months of October and November, 1943, were anything but stable in Naples. The front was just a few miles to the north, and the retreating German army had placed time-bombs in the city. One exploded at the Naples post office on October 8, killing 100 persons, and smaller ones went off on October 10 and 21. Electrical power was restored on Nov. 2, an event that forced the evacuation of 500,000 persons(!) from the inner city to the suburbs out of fear that the new flow of current would set off more time bombs. That did not happen, but "jittery" doesn't begin to describe the atmosphere of the city on the days preceding the re-opening of the theater. Yet, on the day after Christmas, Mr. Seligman's "festive and beautiful event" came to pass. He reports that he was "smitten" by the soprano! I remain smitten by the whole story.

update September 2013:

This month marks the 70th anniversary of the Allied invasion at Salerno that led to the liberation of Naples and the subsequent brutal winter campaign northward to Monte Cassino and Rome. Wartime Naples has inspired significant historical fiction, much of it written when the events were still fresh in our memories; that is, the late 1940s. Yet, those events continue to inspire novelists; I note with interest the publication of Theatres of War by RJJ Hall. The publication was timed to coincide with the Salerno landings. From the author: " is set in and around Naples in 1943/44 and includes a fictional account of the reopening of the San Carlo theatre......a love story about sacrifice and duty, and a war story about self-discovery and love. Seen through the eyes of combatants and civilians, it evokes the convulsions of the forgotten Italian campaign of World War II...for anyone with an interest in historical wartime novels, Italy, opera and love stories." Further information may be had at the link to the author (above). Judge as you will, but note the author's accurate phrase, "forgotten Italian campaign of World War II." Unfortunately, that is true. Novels such as this one may help.

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