"The place seemed to be a theatre. The doors were locked and he wanted to enter. […] The place had been hit, and a bomb had made a big opening there and, before he realized what he was doing, he was climbing up over piles of masonry, and was soon among the ruins of the former lounge."
On 4 November 1943, just over a month after the first Allied troops entered war-torn Naples, Lt. Peter Francis of the Royal Artillery made his first acquaintance with the ruins of the Real Teatro di San Carlo, one of the oldest and most prestigious opera houses in the world. The theatre had been closed in 1942 and it was now in a terrible state: bomb damage had blasted the foyer, debris and layers of dust covered the internal surfaces, there was no electricity or water and a German machine gun nest was still installed on its roof. The British requisitioned the building and, under Peter Francis’s authority, on 15 November 1943, with the frontline just 30 miles away, the theatre officially re-opened its doors to soldiers and civilians.
The news that the theatre was about to reopen and in need of workers quickly spread around the city causing excitement among the Neapolitans. The first production of the theatre’s new course was an improvised Italian revue significantly titled So this is Naples. After an initial series of lighting issues causing a thirty minutes delay, the decidedly diverse production offered the crowded auditorium ‘dancers wearing brassieres and “G” strings’, a band playing ‘the latest popular successes in swing time’, and a tenor singing Torna a Surriento. Regardless of the mixed success of this first performance, Francis’s ambitious plan to open a proper opera season eventually materialised on Boxing Day 1943, with a performance of La Bohème. From then on the San Carlo Theatre offered opera performances and symphony concerts on an almost daily basis.
With 480,000 soldiers attending its performances in the first year of occupation, opera became one of the troops’ favourite authorised entertainment activities. It was also an opportunity for occupiers and occupied to both work on the productions together and to see them as audiences. By the end of the war, a total of 4 million soldiers had enjoyed opera throughout the country. The San Carlo’s wartime activity played a central role in the Allied propaganda campaign and marked the occupation as very different from that of the recently departed Germans. In their strategy, the Naples theatre epitomised an occupation ‘of a very different kind’, one characterised not by round-ups and imprisonment, but by concerts, clubs and exhibitions – a forthright demonstration of Western countries’ democratic values.
During the Allied occupation of Naples, the theatre experience captured the imagination of the soldiers and played a key role in their later recollections of their war experience: descriptions of its productions can be found in numerous veteran’s accounts. Moreover, in September and October 1946, Italian artists of the newly founded C.M.F. San Carlo Opera Company toured London and were the first to reintroduce Italian operas to Covent Garden since the war. Today, the memory of the British authorities’ requisition and resurrection of the Real Teatro di San Carlo is still visible in an inscribed marble plaque on the wall of the newly reconstructed theatre’s foyer.