Opera Scotland

Rev. Norman Macleod

Kirk reaction to La traviata

Posted 2 Aug

Preparing a note on the performance history of La traviata, one cannot help reflecting on the reaction of churches to the first Scottish performances in 1857. The run had opened with a single performance in Glasgow followed by two in Edinburgh during the two week opera season.  Some days before this first performance, the representatives of organised religion were already taking steps to warn against it. One advertisement trailed a sermon to be given on Sunday 15 February in the Church of England chapel in St Vincent Street, Edinburgh. The sermon was titled "The Immoralities of the Italian Opera" and specifically mentioned La traviata and Don Giovanni, "the former of which is stigmatized by the TIMES as the 'apotheosis of prostitution''"

On Sunday 1 March, and a week or so after the Glasgow performance, the Rev. Norman Macleod of the Church of Scotland (pictured) took up the cudgels.  His sermon in the Barony Parish Church, Glasgow, took as his text Isaiah v and 20 - "Woe unto them that put darkness for light and light for darkness."   What follows we have found in the Glasgow Herald of the day.  After alluding to the remarks he had made on the previous Sunday regarding the necessity for not confounding evil with good, Rev Macleod spoke as follows:-

"I was not aware at the time that my words had received such a verification a few nights before.  An opera was performed which has now become famous - or rather must I not say infamous in Europe. The leading public journals of the country have tried to banish the performance of it from the stage, and even the Lord Chamberlain of her Majesty refused to sanction it with his licence on the grounds of its licentiousness.  This production has attracted notice both in this country and over the country, and "large and fashionable audiences", as the phrase goes, have given it a hearty and rapturous welcome in this our religious country of Scotland. 

It is very difficult to give from the pulpit an adequate and unexaggerated impression of its character, without entering into such details as would be painful to every right mind, and might seem to profane the place I occupy. This much I cannot help saying however jarring to one's feelings - I will use plain words and say, without tawdry sentiment, that it is nothing more nor less than the life of a French prostitute, and I absolutely affirm that no woman could hear it without a blush, or without at least some other body blushing for her.  This heroine dies to the consolatory strains of "He claims thee as His own".  Could you for a moment imagine that a crucifed Saviour could ever countenance, by his presence such a thing?  Is mere vulgar fashion to be more regarded than righteous principle?  Is it come to this, that our daughters and wives are, by the presence and permission of their fathers and husbands, to have their minds convinced that this is a legitimate means of gratifying their taste and contributing to their amusement? When such an offence is perpetrated, can ministers be silent?  Are we to be permitted to denounce the drunkenness of the man who goes to redeem his physical depression by stimulants, which he inwardly curses as he pours them down his burning throat, while we allow those who possess wealth and luxury to countenance such representations as this? Are ministers to be guided by the rights and the usages of the world in such things?  Are we to be denounced as puritanical and strict, when with God's word in our hands, we utter our condemnation.

Why I bring forward this subject is because the interests of my fellow-citizens and fellow-countrymen are dear to me as my own, and because I fear these invasions from abroad.  I lift up my voice of warning, and you know it is from no jealousy on my part of innocent amusements, or from a disapproval of concerts on any day or any evening in the week.  I consider these performances should not be put down, because I have the most earnest desire to obtain for Christians - both poor and rich - the greatest amount of innocent amusement that God gives, apart from the selfishness of those men who by a wilful tendency, abuse and pervert any lawful amusement so that Christians cannot partake of them.  Besides, this gives a handle to those persons- for whom I profess little sympathy - who are against the enjoyment of all public amusements whatever.  I make no apology for taking up as much of your precious time in lifting up my voice against that which seems to me to be a greater evil than has visited society for many a long year.  The amusements to which I object are absolutely nothing compared to this.  I would therefore beseech you to beware of the hazardous experiment of countenancing such entertainments."

In those days, sermons were much longer than they are today, and were covered to considerable extent in the press. It seems unlikely that Rev Macleod saw the opera himself. But in the context of the kirk he was considered liberal for his time and, in addition to his pastoral work, went on to become a well known writer and national figure.

There is a profile of the Rev. Norman Macleod in Wikipedia which you may find worth reading - click here.

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