Despite boosterism, 'Story of Opera' is a major undertaking
'The Story of Opera'
Harry N. Abrams, Inc., $49.50
Review by Nicholas Ivor Martin
Web posted on: Monday, January 18, 1999 2:42:41 PM
(CNN) -- Forget about the Metropolitan Opera's problems with Kathleen Battle or Luciano Pavarotti's troubles in Chicago. In June of 1727, the rivalry of two famous opera divas spilled out right on stage: "... in the middle of the performance, they completely lost control of themselves and went at each other, spitting, scratching and screeching; it took the rest of the cast, as well as the stagehands, to separate them." The singers were Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni. The Princess of Wales was in the audience.Despite a modest sprinkling of such juicy tidbits, Richard Somerset-Ward's 283-page book, "The Story of Opera", is not an opera gossip book. It is a history spanning 400 years of opera, from the Florence "camerata" in the late 16th century right up to the "Three Tenors" tours of recent years. Opera has been on a 20-year upswing among audiences worldwide and Somserset-Ward means to capture its excitement and pageantry while educating neophytes about opera's glorious past. In this regard, the book's lavish color photography may be of as much interest to readers as the text itself. Such a book is a major undertaking for author and reader alike. As with any survey history, there simply is too much material. The history of opera composition, popular music theater, performance fashions, acting, lighting, scenography, theater, European court politics, musical institutions, claques and stage directors čto name a few topics) are all touched on. Somerset-Ward picks his material well and condenses it aptly. (The context and reforms of Joseph II's reign are covered in a single paragraph.)
And they sing, tooInevitably, there are omissions that will annoy opera fanatics. Despite Somserset-Ward's constant emphasis on acting, opera is about singing. The treatment of the history of singing and voice teaching is perfunctory, limited mainly to the complaints of Marchesi's famous pupils about her dictatorialness and a passing čand not very illuminating) reference to Garcia's laryngoscope. Rimsky-Korsakov's acceptance into the Russian musical establishment is mentioned, but his contribution as one of the most significant orchestrators of his time is omitted. The fact that Benjamin Britten "never ceased to feel like an outsider" is noted without any reference to his homosexuality. More significantly, the book's larger themes are not always well articulate --or supported -- by the author's research. In the preface we are told that "drama ... is the element that has been missing for too much of opera's 400-year history." For Somserset-Ward, this apparently means that there were no stage directors. But he repeatedly emphasizes the importance of drama to earlier generations beginning in the first decades of opera. As relatively late as Donizetti's time, we are told that "standing at the front of the stage and singing was no longer sufficient." This is hard to reconcile with the assertion in the preface that "only during the last fifty years has drama been given its rightful role as an equal of music." And of course what do we mean by drama? Somerset-Ward seems to mean acting -- an unfairly constricting definition in a form where much of the excitement comes from the sound of the human voice itself. He falls into the easy trap of confusing vocal ornamentation and flourish with boring drama. All of this assumes that our current propensity for naturalism in acting was a priority for previous generations. It wasn't.
On acting skills, and paying the billsIt is particularly interesting that he singles out Chaliapin for repeated praise as an actor. By all accounts, Chaliapin's acting was indeed mesmerizing -- but it would also be grotesquely "over the top" for a contemporary audience. Fashions change. It is naÔve to assume that past generations did not care about or experience drama because they did not produce opera as it is produced now. As John Kenneth Galbraith said, "To regard the people of any time as particularly obtuse, seems vaguely improper, and it establishes a precedent which members of this generation might regret." Many interesting questions are simply beyond the scope of the book. The emphasis on the success of opera stage directors in improving acting neglects important realities of the business. How can a director have a significant impact on performers' acting abilities when the performers show up a few short weeks before opening night to rehearse an opera they've already performed 20 times in 20 different productions? Isn't the curriculum and seriousness of the many young artist programs more significant? How good a job do these programs do? The author notes the general trend towards remounting older works instead of producing new ones. But what causes this, and what impact will it have on the future of opera? Has the trend away from patron financing (be it Medici bankers or government committees) had an impact on company's willingness to take chances? What of the nearly universal trend towards subscription seasons that limit a company's ability to add performances and thereby capitalize on popular productions? Somserset-Ward has produced a very readable and well-researched book, and the opera lover who wants a broad outline of the history of opera -- with a few anecdotes to keep things interesting -- will do well with "The Story of Opera." But while the author's boosterism of opera in the 1990s is laudable, statements like "we live, therefore, in the first truly great age of opera" should be taken with a grain of salt.
Nicholas Ivor Martin is the author of the "Da Capo Opera Manual" (Da Capo
Press, September 1997) and the production manager of Lyric Opera of
Chicago. He writes and lectures on opera and has been a stage director,
stage manager and lighting designer, as well as reviewing opera
productions for the National Endowment for the Arts. Previously, he was the publisher of "The Washington Monthly" and served two
years as a policy analyst in the Office of Management and Budget in the
Nicholas Ivor Martin is the author of the "Da Capo Opera Manual" (Da Capo Press, September 1997) and the production manager of Lyric Opera of Chicago. He writes and lectures on opera and has been a stage director, stage manager and lighting designer, as well as reviewing opera productions for the National Endowment for the Arts. Previously, he was the publisher of "The Washington Monthly" and served two years as a policy analyst in the Office of Management and Budget in the White House.
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