Collection of Italian Opera Libretti Now Accessible at Harry Ransom Center

The opera
libretti database
can be accessed online.

The collection of 3,421 items was donated in 1969 by New York rare book
dealer Hans P. Kraus. The collection consists primarily of texts of Italian
operas but also includes Italian cantatas, serenatas, oratorios, dialogues and

The collection, which dates from the 17th through the 20th century,
documents musical performances by Italian, French, German and Austrian
composers performed in numerous Italian cities and elsewhere.

“This extraordinary collection gathers in a single place rare and, in
some instances, unique testimonies of the evolution of Italian opera from its
origins in the 1600s to the 20th century,” said Guido Olivieri, a
musicologist in the Sarah and Ernest Butler School of Music at The University
of Texas at Austin. “The study of these libretti is of the utmost
importance to the history of vocal music. It offers to musicologists and opera
historians the possibility of analyzing the relationship between text and music
and comparing different versions of the same libretto. It also provides
valuable details on the organization of specific events and crucial information
on the context of their production.

“The collection, however, is also a precious resource for Italianists
and cultural studies scholars to reconstruct the transformations of Italian
language and narratological structures, look at the evolution of theatrical and
social conventions, and examine the broader cultural contexts in which these
works originated.”

By the late 19th century, libretti were printed for audience members at
almost every musical production, and they became a detailed and reliable source
of information on the performance of individual operas, as the libretto was
often the only surviving record of an opera’s performance. A researcher
could glean from a libretto, for example, information about the date of the
production, the size and composition of the orchestra, the composer, the poet,
the singers, the director, the impresario, the scene designers and various
other members of the stage staff.

Researchers can also learn about how libretti of important librettists were
treated in a variety of performances, the popularity of given works and the
musical activity at the courts, theaters and oratories of such centers as
Venice, Milan, Rome, Florence, Naples, Palermo and Bologna.

Significant individual items in the Kraus libretti collection include the
first edition of what is generally considered the earliest opera,
“Ottavio Rinuccini,” and Jacopo Peri’s “La
Dafne,” performed in Florence in 1600, published in 1597. Also present is
the first edition of Rinuccini’s “L’Euridice,” produced
in Florence in 1600 for the marriage of Henry IV of France and Maria de’
Medici and the earliest opera for which music is preserved. Other important
works include Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Fidelio” (Rome, 1886)
and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Il Flauto Magico” (Milan,
1886) and “Il Don Giovanni” (Florence, 1818).

The collection also includes works by poets Apostolo Zeno and Pietro
Metastasio and composers Giuseppe Verdi, Domenico Cimarosa, Giovanni Paisiello,
Saverio Mercadante, Gaetano Donizetti, Johann Simon Mayr and Gioachino

The Kraus libretti collection joins other music holdings at the Ransom
Center, including an opera collection that consists of biographical materials
on operatic performers from the 1880s through the 1950s. The careers of about
1,000 performers from this period are documented with photographs, clippings,
prints, programs and playbills. The collection also includes production
photographs relating to operatic works produced for the American stage and
materials documenting the history of prominent opera companies in the United
States and in Europe.

The Ransom Center also holds the library of bibliophile, collector and
concert violinist Edwin Bachmann, which includes first and early editions of
music by major western European composers (with particular strengths in
Beethoven, Mozart and FrÈdÈric Chopin), early treatises on music and a few
copyist’s manuscripts, including works by Joseph Haydn, Mozart and
Giovanni Battista Viotti.

The Carlton Lake collection contains manuscript scores by Claude Debussy,
Gabriel FaurÈ, Maurice Ravel, Paul Dukas and Albert Roussel, as well as works
by Franz Liszt, Camille Saint-SaÎns, Erik Satie, Igor Stravinsky and Giuseppe

image_description=Title page of the libretto for Jacopo Peri and Ottavio Rinuccini’s “L’Euridice,” Florence, 1600. [Courtesy of University of Texas]
product_title=Collection of Italian Opera Libretti Now Accessible at Harry Ransom Center
product_by=Above: Title page of the libretto for Jacopo Peri and Ottavio Rinuccini’s “L’Euridice,” Florence, 1600. [Courtesy of University of Texas]