What to know about ‘Un ballo in maschera’

Before its premiere in 1859, Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera underwent a series of transformations, mainly due to political censorship, which moved the original setting of Sweden in 1792 to a century earlier in Boston. After the opera was established in the repertoire, many musicologists have speculated that Verdi could have revised the work to reflect its historical origins; however, he did not do so before his death in 1901.

Until the mid-20th century, most productions of Un ballo in maschera kept the action set in the United States. When the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus perform the opera in concert on June 23, 25 and 28, the “Boston” version will be heard. 

Other points of interest about Un ballo in maschera, Verdi’s 23rd opera, include the following:

An eerie coincidence: Inspired by an actual political assassination, the murder of Sweden’s King Gustave III at a masked ball, Un ballo in maschera seemingly presaged another such horrific event.

The opera received its U.S. premiere in a seven-performance run, beginning Feb. 11, 1861, at the Academy of Music in New York City. In the audience on Feb. 20: Abraham Lincoln, president-elect, who would take office on March 4. 

Writing in the New York Tribune, critic William Henry Fry noted the incongruity of setting Un ballo in maschera in colonial Boston. He also joshed that the opera’s conspirators, Samuel and Tom, were apparently meant to suggest real-life American political stalwarts Samuel Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

Un ballo in maschera was reportedly Lincoln’s first opera (and he went on to see 30 operas as president). Friedrich von Flotow’s romantic Martha was performed during Lincoln’s second inauguration, on March 4, 1865. 

Six weeks later, on April 14, Lincoln would be assassinated while watching the comedy “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. His assassin, famous stage actor John Wilkes Booth, was part of a conspiracy intended to support the Confederate cause. Lincoln died the next day. On April 26, Union soldiers tracked Booth to a Virginia farm, where he was hiding. He was shot, dying three hours later.

John Wilkes Booth shoots President Abraham Lincoln at Ford's Theater, in Washington, D.C., in April 1865.


A new Green deal: Un ballo in maschera had its premiere during the era of the Risorgimento, the sociopolitical movement to unite the Italian states into one nation. Unification finally occurred in 1861 when King Vittorio Emanuele II, King of Sardinia, became King of Italy. Risorgimento supporters realized that the first letters of the king’s name, Vittorio Emanuele, Re d’Italia, matched the acrostic V.E.R.D.I. In a stroke of marketing genius, walls throughout Rome bore the salutation “Viva Verdi!” just as Un ballo in maschera began its inaugural run in that city.

During the Risorgimento, people support the cause of Italian unification by writing "Viva Verdi!" on city walls.


An American milestone: Un ballo in maschera coincidentally played a role in the history of civil rights. American contralto Marian Anderson sang the role of the fortune teller Ulrica at New York’s Metropolitan Opera on Jan. 7, 1955, becoming the first Black artist in a leading role at the company.

Then almost 58 and nearing the end of her career, Anderson later admitted she felt the pressure of that first performance: “I was there onstage, mixing the witch’s [Ulrica’s] brew. I trembled, and when the audience applauded and applauded before I could sing a note, I felt myself tightening into a knot.” Despite her nerves, the performance received a huge ovation. The New York Times observed: “Men as well as women were dabbing at their eyes.”

Pride (in the name of love): In his 2004 book Tragic Manhood and Democracy: Verdi’s Voice and the Power of Musical Art, human-rights scholar David A.J. Richards contends that the composer suggests a gay subtext in Un ballo in maschera: “Verdi goes as far as one could go within the repressive conventions of his period to portray Gustavo (based on a widely known flamboyantly homosexual ruler) as either a gay man, or at a minimum, a bisexual man.” In a 2002 article published in the Cambridge Opera Journal, Ralph Hexter examines the coding of homosexual aspects of Riccardo/Gustavo and how those elements relate to the idea of masking throughout the opera.