Active at the height of the apartheid regime, the Eoan Group treated South Africans to operas ‘in the true tradition of Italy’. The group relied on elaborate, naturalistic stage settings and the most stereotypical of operatic conventions to construct a hereditary link between itself and Italy, thus creating an alignment with the cultural ideal of Europe and its colonial representative –whiteness. This article offers a materialist reading of the Eoan Group’s first operatic endeavour, La traviata in 1956, to argue that their invocation and emulation of the ‘Italian tradition’ served to situate them within a class-based discourse of racially inscribed civility. Drawing on archival records relating to props, costumes, advertisements and funding, it shows how the group constructed an imagined Italian heritage both to emphasise the quality of their productions, and to create an affinity with their white audiences. In this reading, the construction of an Italian operatic tradition functions not as a neutral aesthetic category, but as a historically situated politics of race and class.