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September 27, 2009

Priest brings opera written by a pope to Chicago Shrine of Our Lady of Pompeii to host ‘La Comica del Cielo’ on Oct. 11

By Pam DeFiglio


Every opera tells a dramatic story. But the tale of how a music-loving pope wrote a comic opera and a Chicago priest dug it out of the Vatican archives 340 years later, and is putting it on stage Oct. 11, would rival many of them. This performance will also have the beautiful setting of the Shrine of Our Lady of Pompeii, 1224 W. Lexington Ave.

Father Edward McKenna, a distinguished musician in his own right, went to Rome in 1989 to sing with the Sistine Choir. He learned that Pope Clement IX had written the libretto for “La Comica del Cielo” (“The Heavenly Comedienne”) in 1668, and as an opera buff, his interest was piqued.

“How many popes have written a libretto for an opera?” he asked rhetorically.

McKenna, who has a degree from the University of Chicago music school, went to the Vatican Apostolic Library in 1990 with a letter of introduction. He asked the librarians to see the opera, and they handed him a very old document. It was the original manuscript from 1688.

Historical significance

That reinforced the historical significance of the opera. Pope Clement IX, whose lay name was Giulio Rospigliosi, only served from 1667-69 as pope, but was noted for his skill in international diplomacy, personal warmth and missionary outreach to the poor of Rome and the world, McKenna said.

“He’s kind of a saintly figure,” he added.

In addition, the pope was an artist. He wrote plays and poems, opened Rome’s first opera house and believed the arts could influence the human heart, McKenna explained.

As he read “La Comica del Cielo” for the first time in the Vatican Library, McKenna realized it was more than a historical work— it was a beautiful opera.

“I thought, wow, this is a lovely aria,” he said. After Pope Clement IX wrote the libretto, composer Antonio Maria Abbatini wrote the music.

The story concerns an actress who’s in the middle of performing a play when she hears God’s call. She walks out of the performance to venture into the desert for the life of a religious hermit. The comedy comes in when her friends Alvero, Lisa and Biscotto (which means cookie) follow her and try to talk her out of it. The Demon also tempts her.

“The piece is charming and funny,” McKenna said. “The music is so beautiful we know there’ll be a lot of interest in it from musicologists.”

The piece reflects the Roman baroque style, since it was written in the period when opera was just beginning in Italy. Chicago audiences may be more familiar with the work of later composers, such as Verdi and Puccini, which are more frequently staged by the Lyric Opera of Chicago and other opera companies.

International interest

The opera has already attracted international stirrings of interest. An early music group in Scotland was translating the opera at around the same time McKenna discovered it, so he used their translation. They staged it in Glasgow in 1992.

McKenna staged the second act of the opera in Chicago at Our Lady of Pompeii Church in 2006, and followed it with the third act in 2007, which Cardinal George attended, and the first act in 2008.

“They (the Scottish troupe) had the first modern performance, but we had the first performance in the Western hemisphere,” McKenna said.

The Oct. 11 performance will be a 2 hour and 20 minute-version of all three acts of the opera. It will be fully staged with costumes. Afterwards, all are invited to celebrate McKenna’s 70th birthday with ice cream and cake.