This article considers the 1830 London premiere of Bellini’s Il pirata as virtual tourism. Musicologists, singers, and critics have long acknowledged opera’s power to transport listeners into other worlds, but there has been no sustained critique of opera as a mediation of tourist experience. Here I confront opera’s impulse to virtual tourism through a reading of Bellini’s Il pirata, its opening shipwreck, and its Byronic source history. I also examine the opera’s staging within the context of other technology-driven entertainments of the early nineteenth century, such as panoramas and aquadramas. Like other contemporary spectacles, operas were judged by how well they transported audiences elsewhere.
William Grieve’s extravagant stage designs dazzled audiences, especially the opening shipwreck of Gualtiero, the opera’s Byronic hero. This simulated shipwreck connected several British obsessions, including the ocean as a symbol of the sublime, the rise of the shipwreck as a site for disaster tourism, and the hero’s status as a suffering traveler—all areas of Romantic culture that entangled intensity and immersion, literal and aesthetic transports, and tourist and theatrical modes of consciousness. British critics treated Bellini’s Il pirata not as literature, but as a mediation of tourist experience, and in so doing, they activated a range of contemporary anxieties about the traveler’s aesthetic authority against the rising tides of mass tourism and popular taste.