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Chapter One— Introduction: The Difference Is They Sing
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Chapter One—
The Difference Is They Sing



It is easier to explain the attractions of ballet, bullfighting, pro football, religious revivals, stadium rock concerts, TV talk shows, or Woody Allen films than the persisting, in fact the growing, appeal of opera. Tens of millions of intelligent adults in Europe, the Americas, Australia, and a few other countries, year after year, spend considerable sums of money, or wait in line for hours, in order to attend reenactments of nineteenth-, eighteenth-, occasionally twentieth-, and once in a great while seventeenth-century dramatic spectacles, frequently performed in languages they don't understand, in which most of the words are sung by specially trained performers accompanied by (indeed, often in aural competition with) an orchestra of musicians.

In 1989, as part of its celebration of the bicentennial of the French Revolution, the city of Paris opened a new opera house on the site of the Bastille, at a cost of more than $400 million. During the incendiary 1960s, the French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez had proposed blowing up the world's opera houses, as French revolutionaries had once destroyed earlier symbols of superannuated power and prestige, like the Bastille.

Since he made that remark, Boulez has conducted performances of eight well-known operas at well-known opera houses. Perhaps he has changed his opinion. What he was apparently implying in 1967 was that this particular art form had become shamefully passé, absurdly costly to maintain, and socially indefensible. No longer, its detractors continue to insist, does opera as it is most often performed bear any relation to what matters or is worthy of public support in the last decade of the twentieth century.

But opponents of opera were making such charges in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, even more forcefully than they make them today. Early


detractors were impatient with what they saw as the unnatural conventions of the form and the unnatural behavior of its practitioners, compared with those of the spoken drama. "The whole piece is sung from beginning to end," complained the French critic and freethinker Charles de Saint-Évremond in 1677,

as if the characters on stage had conspired to present musically the most trivial as well as the most important aspects of their lives. . . . There is nothing more ridiculous than to make someone sing while he is acting, whether he is arguing in a council meeting, or giving orders in a battle. . . . Who can endure the boredom of a recitative, which possesses neither the charm of the song nor the forcefulness of the spoken word? . . . [Opera] is a bizarre mixture of poetry and music where the writer and the composer, equally embarrassed by each other, go to a lot of trouble to create an execrable work. . . . Nonsense filled with music, dancing, stage machines, and decorations may be magnificent nonsense; but it is nonsense all the same.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (who wrote a successful comic opera of his own in 1752, and who was in part arguing a case against the excesses of French opera, and in favor of the Italian) put words in the mouth of one of his fictional characters, in order to describe with disgust the unhealthy strain and artifice of the court-sponsored tragic operas he had witnessed in Paris.

What you could not possibly imagine are the frightful cries, the long-drawn-out groans which fill the theatre throughout the performance. . . . One sees the actresses, almost in convulsions, violently extracting this screeching from their lungs, their fists clenched against their breasts, their heads held back, their faces inflamed, their blood vessels swollen, their stomachs quivering. . . . The most difficult thing to understand is that these screeches are almost the only things the spectators applaud.

Soon after Italian opera arrived in London in 1705, Joseph Addison, in The Spectator papers, mocked what he regarded as the absurdity of foreign-language productions, improbable scenic allusions, recitative, and bel canto vocalise. "I have known the word 'And' pursued through the whole Gamut, have been entertained with many a melodious 'The,' and have heard the most beautiful Graces, Quavers, and Divisions bestowed upon 'Then,' 'For,' and 'From,' to the eternal Honour of our English Particles." In 1779, Samuel Johnson characterized the Italian opera (quite correctly) as "an exotick and irrational entertainment, which has always been combated and always has prevailed." Lord Chesterfield, Johnson's legendary adversary, dismissed operas in a letter to his son as "essentially too absurd and extravagant to mention. I look upon them as a magic scene,


contrived to please the eyes and ears at the expense of the understanding. . . . Whenever I go to an opera, I leave my sense and reason at the door with my half-guinea, and deliver myself up to my eyes and my ears."

The most notorious antiopera statements by a writer of note are those of Leo Tolstoy, who attacked the genre first in his novel War and Peace , and later, even more resolutely and radically, in a tract called What Is Art? For the novel, Tolstoy invented a ludicrous Bellini-like opera attended by Natasha Rostova and her family in Moscow, in which the fatuousness of what takes place onstage is underlined by Natasha's girlish confusion and naïveté.

The floor of the stage consisted of smooth boards, at the sides was some painted cardboard representing trees, and at the back was a cloth stretched over boards. In the centre of the stage sat some girls in red bodices and white skirts. One very fat girl in a white silk dress sat apart on a low bench, to the back of which a piece of green cardboard was glued. They all sang something. When they had finished their song the girl in white went up to the prompter's box and a man with tight silk trousers over his stout legs, and holding a plume and a dagger, went up to her and began singing, waving his arms about.

First the man with tight trousers sang alone, then she sang, then they both paused while the orchestra played and the man fingered the hand of the girl in white, obviously awaiting the beat to start staging with her. They sang together and everyone in the theatre began clapping and shouting, while the man and woman on the stage—who represented lovers—began smiling, spreading out their arms and bowing.

After her life in the country, and in her present serious mood, all this seemed grotesque and amazing to Natasha. She could not follow the opera nor even listen to the music, she saw only the painted cardboard and the queerly dressed men and women who moved, spoke, and sang so strangely in that brilliant light. She knew what it was all meant to represent, but it was so pretentiously false and unnatural that she first felt ashamed for the actors and then amused at them. She looked at the faces of the audience, seeking in them the same sense of ridicule and perplexity she herself seemed to experience, but they all seemed attentive to what happened on the stage, and expressed delight which to Natasha seemed feigned. . . .

In the second act there was scenery representing tombstones, and there was a round hole in the canvas to represent the moon, shades were raised over the footlights, and from trumpets and contrabass came deep notes while many people arrived from right and left wearing black cloaks and holding something like daggers in their hands. They began waving their arms. Then some other people ran in and began dragging away the maiden who had been in white and was now in light blue. They did not drag her away all at once, but sang with her for a long time and only then did they drag her off, and behind the scenes something metallic was struck three times and everyone knelt down and began to sing a prayer. All these things were repeatedly interrupted by the enthusiastic shouts of the audience.


The imaginary third-act ballet and storm scene are described so as to appear even more foolish, from the disingenuous point of view of Tolstoy's ingenue. In the fourth act, "there was some sort of a devil who sang waving his hand, till the boards were withdrawn from under him and he disappeared down below."

When thirty years later he came to write What Is Art? Tolstoy had no need to invent an imaginary opera to deride. Instead he described, in much the same disdainful, amazed-rationalist, antitheatricalist tone, an actual performance he had attended of the Moscow première of Wagner's Siegfried in 1889 (or at least two acts of it): "I could stand no more of it and escaped from the theatre with a feeling of revulsion which even now I cannot forget."

He begins his case against Siegfried with a device the American comedian Anna Russell made famous, which is simply to relate the plot of an opera in a wide-eyed, Man-from-Mars way that makes everything about it seem absurd. (This was one of his standard literary tricks, called in Russian ostranenie , or "making it strange.") Tolstoy repeatedly describes the actors' physical and histrionic shortcomings and the odd way they open their mouths. He makes no reference to their voices or to what they are singing, except to call it "incomprehensible" and to complain of the excessive length of their "strange sounds," their nonmelodic chanting. He describes Wagner's leitmotivs in a mocking and elementary way, condemns the orchestral score for its expressive simplemindedness, and complains of the composer's frustrating practice of forever starting up musical ideas he doesn't finish. Tolstoy is severe on Wagner's practice of having one character recount to another (for the benefit of the audience) previous events both of them must already know. He dismisses the dragon scene as something out of a booth at a village fair. "It is surprising that people over seven years of age can witness it seriously; yet thousands of quasi-cultured people sit and attentively hear and see it, and are delighted." He adds:

Of music, that is, of art serving as a means to transmit a state of mind experienced by the author, there as not even a trace. . . . What as happening onstage meanwhile is so abominably false, that it is difficult even to perceive these musical snatches, let alone to be infected by them. . . . The author's purpose is so visible that one sees and hears neither Siegfried nor the birds, but only a narrow-minded, self-assured German of bad taste and bad style, who has a most false conception of poetry and in the crudest and most primitive manner wishes to transmit to one these false and mistaken conceptions.

What disgusted Tolstoy more than anything else was the witless complacency of the upper-crust Moscow audience—"a crowd of three thousand people who not only patiently witnessed all this absurd nonsense but even considered it their duty to be delighted with it. . . . The cream of the cultured upper classes sits out six


hours of this insane performance, and goes away imagining that by paying tribute to this nonsense it has acquired a fresh right to esteem itself advanced and enlightened."

Tolstoy can explain the effect Wagner's operas have on other people only by comparing it to the experience of a medium's séance or to the effects of getting drunk or smoking opium.

Sit in the dark for four days with people who are not quite sane, and through the auditory nerves subject your brain to the strongest action of the sounds best adapted to excite it, and you will no doubt be reduced to an abnormal condition and be enchanted by absurdities. . . . And this meaningless, coarse, spurious production finds acceptance all over the world, costs millions of rubles to produce, and assists more and more to pervert the taste of people of the upper classes and their conception of art.

One could simply class this notable harangue as one of the many nineteenth-century attacks against Wagner (and more specifically against Wagner's Ring ) rather than as an attack against opera in general.[1] But elsewhere in this notorious booklet, and elsewhere in his writings, Tolstoy extends his condemnation to opera of every kind. Of an opera rehearsal he once attended, he writes, "It would be difficult to find a more repulsive sight. . . . The opera . . . was one of the most gigantic absurdities that could possibly be devised. . . . People do not converse in such a way as recitative, and do not place themselves at fixed distances, in a quartet, waving their arms to express their emotions."

Instructively the question presents itself: for whom is this being done? If there are occasionally good melodies in opera, to which it is pleasant to listen, they could have been sung simply without these stupid costumes and all the processions and recitatives and hand wavings.

The ballet, in which half-naked women make voluptuous movements, twisting themselves into various sensual wreathings, is simply a lewd performance.

So one is quite at a loss as to whom these things are done for. The man of culture is heartily sick of them, while to a real working man they are utterly incomprehensible.

To be fair, I should point out that Tolstoy had enjoyed operas—in particular Rossini's—as a young man; but by the time he wrote What Is Art? at the age of


sixty-nine he had converted to a kind of radical-puritan hatred of all art that did not directly appeal to the suffering masses, inspire elevated religious sentiments, or "unite people in a community of feeling." If Wagner's neurotic depravity felt the sting of Tolstoy's lash, so did virtually all of the music, art, and literature of his century, including most of his own earlier work. "I saw plainly that all this music and fiction and poetry is not art," he wrote in his diary at the time, "that men do not have the slightest need for it, that it is nothing but a distraction for profiteers and idlers, that it has nothing to do with life." In "The Kreutzer Sonata," he turns a Beethoven violin and piano sonata into something lewd and diabolical.

But if he censures Beethoven and Berlioz, Ibsen and Zola, Rodin and Monet as decadent, godless, and inaccessible to good common folk—if in the end he feels obliged to dismiss as well Shakespeare and Dante, Michelangelo and Raphael, even the "rude, savage, meaningless" Greek tragedians—it is for opera, this exclusive, Insincere, dramatically absurd, outrageously extravagant, and socially useless (indeed, socially harmful) form, that Tolstoy reserved his harshest scorn.

The attacks on opera—opera as an art form, opera as it is currently produced, opera as a social institution, opera as a drain on the public purse—continue today, and will no doubt go on until the institution dies. In 1962, the German sociologist and philosopher Theodor Adorno declared that conscientious people (like him) had been expecting the death of opera for at least thirty years. As early as the late 1920s and early 1930s, according to Adorno,

People began to realize that opera, by reason of its style, its substance, and its attitude, no longer had anything in common with the people on whom it depended; its pretentious forms could not possibly justify the extravagant resources they required. Already, at that time, it was Impossible to believe that any public was capable of making the antirationalist, antirealist efforts that the stylization of opera demanded. . . . The reduction of the entire current repertoire in America to at most fifteen titles—including Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor! —only confirmed the petrifaction of the institution.

In September 1987, a typically rabble-rousing piece entitled "Do We Need Opera?" appeared in a London paper:

There are some fine tunes in them, decent orchestral stuff, some good choruses, and some tolerable dancing. There can be dreadful dross between the arias—recitative is surely the most tiresome form of communication devised by man—but the pleasure of hearing a tenor or soprano busting a gut belting out "Celeste Aida" or "Casta diva" at Covent Garden can be most affecting, and is not to be sniffed at. As popular entertainment, grand opera is no more to be faulted than melodrama or music hall—Victorian art forms to which it is closely related.


But the writer, George Gale, asks, Is it art?[2] "Watching and hearing Aida [on TV] from La Scala, I thought no one could possibly claim that the characterization was other than perfunctory and the action other than merely melodramatic; we are involved in no tragedy, but were simply spectators at a spectacle. It was noisy and moving and empty, like a beaten drum."

Why, then, he asks, does it continue to demand and attract millions of pounds in public subsidies, in cities all over the world? "The answer," he answers,

can only be that grand opera, meaning and saying nothing much, does not and cannot threaten any regime, however obnoxious; that little or no understanding of what is going on is necessary to enjoy it; that it provides an undemanding but flashy way of showing off; that grandiose spectacle is especially attractive to the vainglorious; that opera-goers are so unsure of their own taste, discrimination, and position in society that they support these 19th-century continental equivalents of Cecil B. De Mille's epics, fondly hoping thereby to establish their own true cultural ancestry and social worth; and that we would be culturally better off not bothering to subsidize so vain, inferior, and foreign an expression of art. . . . It is its failure to attract the mass audience, for which it was originally devised and remains intellectually suited, that finally characterizes grand opera as rumor and meretricious art, rather than rubbish.

Two and a half years later, Geoffrey Wheatcroft, a columnist for the London Sunday Telegraph , "sated and exhausted" by a year of operagoing, raised much the same question: "Why so much expenditure of time and money and effort on what, when looked at from one angle, is surely a marginal artistic activity?"


These people are not all objecting to the same things. As a hybrid form of drama combined with music, or as an institution—and (in either sense) as something that has changed greatly over nearly four hundred years—opera has offered its detractors a great many things to dislike. Simplest-minded of the antiopera crowd are the imagination-deficient literalists, who object to anything less on stage than absolute naturalism; those tiresome people who protest that characters in opera (or theatre or ballet or, I presume, puppet shows) do not behave the way people do in real life. Tolstoy appears to disdain the very use of costumes, sets, and stage lighting.

Others, slightly more tolerant, object that opera is more unnatural than other forms of theatre, further from "real life," because in real life people do not


regularly express themselves by singing or "converse in such a way as recitative." The fact that operas are sung, moreover, and frequently sung in a language other than that of the audience renders a large portion of them incomprehensible as drama. Beyond these basic stumbling blocks, such critics object that opera performances are full of dramatic absurdities no audience would tolerate in a spoken play. Although operas may look like drama, they argue, in fact they have none of the thought-filled, intellectual substance of serious plays.

In some ways more interesting than such critiques of opera's "unnaturalness," or its deficiencies when contrasted to the spoken stage, are objections based on its perversity, even its wickedness as a social and economic institution. One may discount the claims, made by patriots of one nation or another, that imported operas are dangerously "foreign" and thus unwelcome. The argument that opera is extravagantly costly is more complicated, involving as it does fundamental social and political values. A good deal of criticism is directed at opera audiences as much as at opera itself. The institution of opera, it is claimed (the claim was made in past centuries, as it is made today), plays a meretricious, antiartistic, exclusionist role in serving primarily as a self-certifying symbol of "cultural chic" for those who can afford to patronize it: hence the palatial houses, the private boxes retained by old families (or auctioned off to social climbers), the high price of tickets, the ritual of formal dress. Part of the attack on public subsidies for opera, which have replaced court and aristocratic support, is based on the argument that it does not —as it may have done at other times and places—enjoy sufficiently broadly based appeal, accessibility, or popularity. (Statistically, this argument is open to question. In some cities, more people attend opera than attend professional sport.)

Some antiopera attacks are openly moralistic in a more personal sense: opera is bad for you. This attitude is apparent in attacks on Wagner by people like Tolstoy and the Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick, who attacked the Ring (and the phenomenon known as Tristanism) as a vaporous, antirational, thought-dissolving drug especially dangerous to women; and in claims that the vain and vulgar showiness of opera (which includes exhibitionist vocalism as well as lewdly costumed dancers), the flashy tricks, and the opulent spectacle appeal to people at their most mindless, undiscriminating, and base.[3]

A large part of this criticism—and of opera criticism generally throughout the centuries—has been directed not so much at the genre itself as at inadequate realizations; not so much against all opera as against bad opera, or (most often)


against opera badly produced and performed. Tolstoy declaiming in 1889 against thick legs, cheesy costumes, or singers "waving their arms about," eighteenth-century observers protesting against extravagant stage spectacles and show-off vocalizing can be regarded more as judicious critics than as Jeremiahs, as sympathetic observers suggesting ways in which opera could be better.

In fact, a good deal of what might appear to be radically antiopera criticism is written by people who actually like opera, who take it seriously, and who wish that those who produce and perform it took it seriously as well. What they are objecting to, often fiercely, are the weaknesses or excesses of opera production practice—and, to some degree, the overly tolerant embrace of the established repertory—at the time or place they are writing.

In 1720, the Venetian composer and civic leader Benedetto Marcello depicted the grosser excesses of contemporary Italian performance practice in a satirical essay, at once revealing and clever, entitled "Il teatro alla moda" ("or A sure and easy method to compose well and produce Italian operas in the modern fashion"), addressed in part to his colleague and fellow Venetian Antonio Vivaldi. Marcello's fundamental point, in this richly detailed essay, is that spectacle-conscious impresarios and egocentric singers were calling all of the shots. All that the poor composer and librettist could do was to follow their orders, whatever the cost to dramatic or musical integrity. By means of his numerous "recommendations" (to writers, composers, singers, impresarios, musicians, stage designers, the soprano's parents and protectors et al.), Marcello compiled a catalogue of abuses, only very slightly exaggerating the grotesque, artistically indefensible circus that opera had become in many Italian theatres by 1720.

Real life is imparted to the opera by the use of prisons, daggers, poison, the writing of letters on stage, bear and wild bull hunts, earthquakes, storms, sacrifices, the settling of accounts, and mad scenes. . . .

The librettist should pay frequent social calls to the prima donna since the success of the opera generally depends on her. He should change his drama as her artistic genius may order him to do so, making additions or cuts in her part or that of the bear or other persons. . . . [The composer] should speed up or slow down the tempo of the arias according to every whim of the stager and he should swallow all their impertinences, remembering that his own honor, esteem, and future are at their mercy. . . .

In an ensemble scene, when addressed by another character or while the latter might have to sing an arietta, he [the male lead] should wave greetings to some masked lady-friend in one of the boxes, or smile sweetly to someone in the orchestra or to one of the supers. In that way it will be made quite clear to the audience that he is Alipio Forconi, the famous singer, and not the Prince Zoroastro whose part he is playing. . . . When he reaches the repeat in the da capo aria he should change it completely in any way he pleases, regardless of whether or not these changes will go with the accompaniment of bass or violins, and whether they will distort the tempo entirely. . . .


As soon as she [the seconda donna] receives her part she will carefully count both notes and words. If there should be fewer of either than in the prima donna's part she will resist that librettist and composer change this by making both roles equally long. She will be particularly insistent about the length of her tram, the ballet, the beauty spots, trills, embellishments, cadenzas, protectors, little owls, and other equally important paraphernalia.

Between 1883 and 1894, George Bernard Shaw wrote reviews of London musical productions for a number of papers, under a number of names. Collected in three volumes, they comprise, for all of Shaw's idiosyncrasies, one of the wittiest, soundest, and most salient commentaries on "music as performed" ever written. During that time, he wrote reviews of hundreds of opera performances, (the greater part of which he disliked) including the British premières of Otello, Cavalleria rusticana and I pagliacci, and Manon Lescaut .

Sometimes it was the work that displeased him. He "saw through" Meyerbeer and his imitators earlier than most operagoers and critics. Le Prophète , he wrote, "meant to be luridly historical, is in fact the oddest medley of drinking songs, tinder-box trios, sleigh rides, and skating quadrilles imaginable." "Who wants to hear Samson et Dalila? " he once asked, rhetorically. "I respectfully submit, Nobody." Of a mediocre new Italian opera that had been paired with Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana in 1891, he wrote, "Any grasshopper with a moderately good ear could write reams of such stuff after spending three months in Italy. Offenbach's lightest operetta looms in intellectual majesty above this brainless lilting, with its colorless orchestration and its exasperatingly light-hearted and empty-headed recitatives, accompanied by sickly chords on the violoncello with the third always in the bass."

There can be no question that Shaw was a devoted and serious lover of opera. He was, in fact, an uncommonly prescient and perceptive admirer of the operas of Mozart, Verdi, and Wagner. What he hated was what Victorian London was doing to them. The wonder is that he was able to maintain his fervent admiration for their great works through the mutilated, Unmusical, and antidramatic performances in which he inevitably saw them on stage.

Ever since I was a boy I have been in search of a satisfactory performance of Don Giovanni;[4] and at last I have come to see that Mozart's turn will hardly be in my time. . . . The vigorous passages were handled in the usual timid, conventional way; and the statue music, still as impressive as it was before Wagner and Beethoven were born, was muddled through like a vote of thanks at the


end of a very belated public meeting. The great sextet, "Mille torbidi penslen," . . . deprived of its stage significance, became a rather senseless piece of "absolute music." . . . I am sorry to say that alterations of Mozart's text were the order of the evening, every one of the singers lacking Mozart's exquisite sense of form and artistic dignity. . . . [Zélie de Lussan] is one of those Zerlinas who end "Batti, batti" on the upper octave of the note written, as a sort of apology for having been unable to do anything else with the song. The effect of this suburban grace can be realized by anyone who will take the trouble to whistle "Pop goes the Weasel" with the last note displaced an octave.

Verdi's opera [La traviata ] is one thing: the wilful folly of the Covent Garden parody of it is quite another. Take any drama ever written, and put it on a stage six times too large for its scenes, introducing the maddest incongruities of furniture, costume, and manners at every turn of it; and it will seem as non-sensical as La Traviata , even without the crowning burlesque of a robust, joyous, round-checked lady figuring as a moribund patient in decline. . . . The truth is that La Traviata , in spite of its conventionalities, is before its time at Covent Garden instead of behind it.

The popular notion of [Verdi's operas] is . . . founded on performances in which the superb distinction and heroic force of the male characters, and the tragic beauty of the women, have been burlesqued by performers with every sort of disqualification for such parts, from age and obesity to the most excruciating phases of physical insignificance and modern cockney vulgarity. . . . At the thought of that dynasty of execrable imposters in tights and tunics, interpolating their loathsome B flats into the beautiful melodies they could not sing, and swelling with conceit when they were able to finish "Di quella pira" with a high C capable of making a stranded man-of-war recoil off a reef in mid-ocean, I demand the suspension of all rules as to decorum of language until I have heaped upon them some little instalment of the infinite abuse they deserve. Others, alas! have blamed Verdi, much as if Dickens had blamed Shakespeare for the absurdities of Mr. Wopsle.

"I hate performers who debase great works of art: I long for their annihilation," Shaw wrote in 1894. Among the debasers he heard and hated were singers now regarded as part of one of opera's "golden ages"—Jean de Reszke, Nellie Melba, Emma Calvé, Victor Maurel. Of Calvé's performance as Carmen, he wrote: "She carried her abandonment to the point of being incapable of paying the smallest attention to the score." Of de Reszke: "His acting as Otello was about equally remarkable for its amateurish ineptitude and for its manifestations of the natural histrionic powers which he has so studiously neglected for the last fifteen years." Of Katerina Rolla's Amelia in Verdi's Un ballo in maschera : "Her acting consisted of the singular plunge, gasp, and stagger peculiar to the Verdi heroine, whose reason is permanently unsettled by grief."

Shaw cared profoundly for the music of good opera, as witness his outrage at the


casual mistreatment and butchery of scores. But he was fundamentally a man of the theatre, and (as his appalled descriptions of Victorian opera acting suggest) he was most distressed by the blind, blank inability of contemporary productions to realize the vivid drama (even melodrama) implicit in the better opera scores and texts.

In 1962, another magisterial "man of the theatre"—Eric Bentley, at the time America's most insightful and authoritative drama critic, a great admirer of Mozart's operas and of the opera productions of Walter Felsenstein in East Berlin—undertook to describe a season at the Met for Theatre Arts magazine. (In 1955, Bentley had edited a paperback collection of Bernard Shaw's best music reviews.) At the Metropolitan, Bentley was appalled by the empty-headed foolishness of the audiences, which seemed to wake up only to cry out "Bravo" (or, to demonstrate their knowingness, "Brava ") at the end of arias. "The provocation for these little interruptions," he wrote, "is commonly an extremely high note sung very loudly, preferably (this season) by a soprano. . . . The spontaneity of the Italian outcries is suspect." To many people present, he thought the opera was no more than "an interruption of the intermissions."

While acknowledging that some great music was played (although often too loudly), that some great voices were on display (Richard Tucker's, Birgit Nilsson's), and that a few haute couture designers had been hired, "the issue for me," he wrote, "is the art of opera. Singers would sing had opera never been invented. The question of opera is the question of musical drama"—and drama was precisely what he found missing at the Met. Although every great opera composer, according to Bentley, is at heart a great dramatist, "the Met ignores dramatic values." whether comic, romantic, melodramatic, or tragic. "The Met employs singers, not actors; it provides a dog show for soprano-fanciers."

He preferred what theatre director Cyril Ritchard did to Offenbach's La Périchole (for all its lack of essential French values) to the Met's dead, waxworks stagings of Verdi: "At least it was something , something produced, something directed." Better second-rate music (like Offenbach's), or second-rate singers (like Felsenstein's), if the result is living theatre. "I have been speaking," Bentley concluded,

of two things: the public and the performance. Together they make up a perfect specimen of the effete. The public: overprivileged, overfed, overconfident, exclusive, uncommitted, uninvolved. The performance: overdecorative, overinflated, overcharged, chi-chi, lush, a mere exhibition, whether of coloratura or chiaroscuro. It's the familiar phenomenon of the jaded palate and the overspiced condiments that are used to please it. It is possible that nothing can be done except exactly what Mr. Bing is doing [Rudolf Bing was general manager of the Met from 1952 to 1974], in which case one can either admire him


for his sense of reality, or pity him for his helplessness. But if it is inevitable that the Met be what it is, it is not inevitable that one continue to go there.

Andrew Porter is probably the most knowledgeable and influential music critic writing in English today. After writing in London for the Musical Times , the Financial Times , and Opera , he began serving as regular music critic for The New Yorker in 1972. In 1974, the composer and critic Virgil Thomson wrote, "Nobody reviewing in America has anything like Porter's command of [opera]."

He has also translated into English the librettos of several important operas, produced operas by Handel and Verdi, and performed scholarly investigations of Macbeth and Don Carlos . Most of his reviews, in fact, incorporate a fair amount of (sometimes irrelevant) state-of-the-art scholarship, to the point that reading them en bloc (they currently fill five volumes) provides one with a serendipitous education in musical history. Porter is open to new music and new production ideas, and frequently finds things to admire in the work of smaller (even amateur) opera companies, lesser-known festivals, and works dismissed as unimportant by other critics and scholars. But his published response to the "grand" opera of his day—which has generally meant, since 1972, the Metropolitan Opera in New York—is depressingly similar to that of Bentley and Shaw.

Between 1972 and 1990, Andrew Porter made more than passing mention of some 140 productions at the Metropolitan Opera in his New Yorker reviews. Writing a century after Shaw, he is disgusted at the sloppy, tasteless things that producers and singers are still doing to Verdi. "The Metropolitan Opera's current production of Verdi's Macbeth ," he wrote in 1973, "is a limp, bloated relic." Eleven years later, he found a revival of the same opera equally depressing: "The Met chorus is surely one of the dullest and least dramatic opera choruses ill the country. The choristers stood or sat about like dummies—features blank, postures inexpressive, eyes on the conductor—and produced much the same sort of timbre and attack whether they were playing warriors, courtiers, exiles, bards, or witches."

Of a 1973 production of Il trovatore, he remarked, "All in all, it was the sort of evening that brings grand opera into disrepute and keeps musical people away from the Met. . . . The time has come to treat Verdi's music as seriously in opera houses as it is treated by serious musicians." Of the Met's Aida and Trovatore in 1976, he wrote, "From a dramatic point of view both productions must be deemed failures." Eleven years later, things were no better: "At the Met, it was grand opera as usual—no, worse than usual—on the first night of Il trovatore ." Taking note of the noises of displeasure that greeted the designer and director, Porter wrote, "Booing is an ugly sound, but here it reflected recognition that this staging is ill-conceived—inimical to the drama and unhelpful to the singers. The cast needed


help. Luciano Pavarotti, who took the title role, is no sort of actor, physically, visually, or, any longer, vocally." Joan Sutherland's Leonora was distressing to hear; the Azucena and the Count de Luna both sang off pitch. "The performance made a poor case for [Il trovatore ], and for grand opera in general."

A 1983 presentation of Verdi's La forza del destino "was put on with a lineup of big names . . . but it was an unworthy, an almost meaningless representation of Verdi's drama. . . . If there was any line or purpose in John Dexter's direction, I missed it." A new production of Ernani that year "was a tame and vapid affair," its stars (Leona Mitchell, Luciano Pavarotti, Ruggiero Raimondi) "dramatic ciphers. In the remarkable trio that constitutes the last act, they stood in a row, as if lined up before microphones in a recording studio. One forgives singers who can't act if by their singing they bring the drama to life. These singers didn't."

What appears to dismay Porter most, on the basis of the increasing number of "failing" reviews he gives to Metropolitan Opera productions, are poor singing by famous singers (colorless, weak, forced, off-key), many of whom cannot or will not act; bloated, extravagant, vulgar visual productions that contribute nothing to—in fact often war with—the drama; radical choppings and changings of the original scores, in works such as Handel's Rinaldo and Giulio Cesare; and a boring, depressing, overall absence of any sort of spirit or dramatic content: operas that are little more than what he calls "concerts in costume," and often not very good concerts at that. "The whole was undramatic, untheatrical, unworthy," he wrote of the Met's new Der Ring ties Nibelungen in 1989. "This was a shallow, unpoetic, mindless account of the great drama." He was scarcely happier with the Met's previous Ring in 1975.

Again and again, Porter grows angry and bitter at the company's penchant for costly and overblown productions—the Zeffirelli Bohème and Traviata , a gross and joyless Die Fledermaus , an elephantine Manon . "While other big opera companies seek to rediscover dramatic values in familiar works of the past—sometimes stylishly, sometimes with reckless abandon—the Metropolitan Opera prefers elaborate, extravagant spectacle. . . . The company cultivates an audience that doesn't really listen to a score, that is eager to drown the music with its applause for scenic effects and for the entries of well-publicized artists."

Much of the weakness Porter traces to "the company's repertory system, essentially unchanged in a hundred years, [which] precludes the single-minded attention to one opera at a time which many European houses can now afford." He himself is often more enthusiastic about opera productions at less richly endowed companies and festivals in the United States and abroad.

The vociferous objections in all four of these last cases come from people not radically opposed to opera; not even from people who like operas only when the works performed are very, very good (Shaw defended Mascagni, and Porter has


admitted to enjoying Meyerbeer); but from people who take opera seriously and who acknowledge, as I do, its potential as the "ultimate art." They are dismayed and disgusted by the ways in which producers and performers have betrayed this potential, either by the injustice they have done to the music, or by the fact that they have ignored the importance of opera as drama.


The basic production elements of live opera as most people think of it today—what the French, and later the Americans, took to calling "grand" opera—were set into place between 1870 and 1920. This kind of opera, opera as produced at the Metropolitan Opera, Covent Garden, La Scala, the Vienna Staatsoper, and the Paris Opera, could easily be starved to death by the public agencies and private philanthropies that maintain it—precisely because it is so expensive to produce, and hence so dependent on external support.

New productions of "grand" operas at the world's best-known houses now cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to mount, often (compared to successful productions in the commercial theatre) for relatively few performances. These productions frequently involve several elaborate sets, a great many custom-made costumes, intricately programmed lighting, and a corps of professional dancers. They may require the work of a hundred or more highly skilled musicians, as well as more hundreds of technical personnel, administrators, and office staff. They are presented in purpose-built, often palatial auditoriums seating from one thousand to three thousand or more. To perform the leading roles in such productions, audiences in many cities have come to expect (and occasionally the scores demand) singing actors possessed of rare and fragile gifts, a situation that allowed the best-known of these singers to command fees of $10,000 or more per performance in 1990.

It is impossible to write sensibly and analytically about "opera" as it exists today, to make coherent and universally applicable remarks about it as a written and a performing art. There are simply too many kinds of opera, performed in too many different ways, from Help, Help, the Globolinks! to Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen , from a church hall performance with piano accompaniment to a von Karajan première during Easter Week at Salzburg.

Student, amateur, semistaged, piano-accompanied, or otherwise inexpensive versions of opera can be heard in hundreds of places. These often provide excellent entertainment and respectable hearings of popular operas for audiences that would not otherwise be able to experience them live. Occasionally, student and amateur opera groups offer new or rarely performed works, or revealing insights into repertory standards.

With all appropriate respect for the college and church hall players, Gian Carlo


Menotti's Globolinks (an amusing children's opera), and the more than two hundred other-than-grand opera companies in America, what interest me are the kinds of opera and opera production that dominate the Western imagination, for better or worse: those that fill the big houses, attract the largest audiences (and the greatest amount of publicity), and end up recorded on disk, videotape, or film, broadcast by radio and television, thus to be seen and heard by millions of people.

The operas regularly performed by the so-called "international," or by the leading national/regional repertory companies are by definition the most enduring of the thousands that have been written since 1600. Occasionally, of course, such companies venture novelties and rarities, very few of which win places in the standard repertory. But it is by means of such ventures that the standard repertory does , in fact, alter over time.

In at least fifty-five cities—forty-seven of them in Europe, six in North America, and two in Australia—one could attend in any given recent year at least ten different operas, and a total of at least forty opera performances, in fully staged professional productions. (I lack figures for the Soviet Union and some cities in Eastern Europe.) At least eighteen of these cities are in Germany or Austria—thanks to exceptionally generous government subsidies, which generally cover 85 percent or more of a company's expenses; eight are in Italy; seven are in France; three each are in Switzerland and Britain; and two each are in Belgium and Spain. (The two British companies on the list based outside of London—Opera North in Leeds and the Scottish Opera in Glasgow—also tour extensively. In fact, with the three other professional touring companies of the United Kingdom—the Welsh National Opera, the Glyndebourne Touring Company, and the Kent Opera—they offer each year a total of almost five hundred performances of some fifty different productions in British cities outside London.) In nineteen of these cities (thirteen of them German-speaking), one could have a choice of one hundred or more opera performances a year staged by permanent and professional companies. And in five of them—Berlin, London, Munich, New York, and Vienna, each of which houses at least two full-time major opera companies—at least three hundred professional opera performances are mounted every year.[5]

Three of the best-known and most elegant European opera houses—the Teatro alla Scala in Milan (which opened in 1778), the Paris Opera (1875), and the Teatro


dell'Opera in Rome (1888)—offer relatively limited seasons, closer in numbers to those of Chicago or San Francisco than to those of, say, Hamburg or Zurich. With the opening of the Opéra-Bastille, in fact, the "old" Paris Opera is now used primarily for dance and baroque music concerts. The historic eighteenth-century houses in Naples and Venice offer too few performances today to make the list.

Qualitative distinctions among these companies are difficult to make, unless one is able to attend several productions in each of them over a number of seasons. Over thirty-eight years, I've attended more than six hundred productions of 160 different operas in thirty of these cities, as well as in several other places. But this is nowhere near enough to venture meaningful comparisons.

Many serious devotees and regular music critics have seen a great deal more opera than I have. Such assiduous operagoers may learn a great deal about the repertory, about individual performers, and about productions, but they are still likely to know the offerings of only one region. Only a few music critics and opera fans have enjoyed the freedom to travel extensively year after year and compare performances around the world.

The important second companies in the cities that have more than one—the Komische Oper in (East) Berlin, the Volksoper in Vienna, the English National Opera in London, the New York City Opera, the several "second companies" in Paris, and the Theater am Gärtnerplatz in Munich—tend to offer more light opera and operetta, as do many of the smaller German companies. In the latter, as at the Volksoper and the Gärtnerplatz, an "opera" season will often include performances of My Fair Lady or Fiddler on the Roof as well as The Gypsy Baron and The Merry Widow—and Mozart, Puccini, and Weber.

Most European companies, some with an annual repertory of thirty, forty, or even more different operas performed in what seems like random order night after night over a nine- or ten-month season, depend almost entirely on a resident company of performers whose names and voices are likely to be unknown beyond the immediate region. (This applies to Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union as well as the West.)

But this need not mean that a serious and well-managed "regional rep" opera house achieves a lower level of overall quality than the house that tends to import its lead singers from the international pool. Summer festivals (there are perhaps twenty summer opera festivals worldwide deserving more than regional attention) such as Glyndebourne and Santa Fe have earned much of their high reputation from putting on distinguished, carefully rehearsed productions cast with good but lesser-known singing actors.

The opera companies that make most use of well-known, nonresident, international stagers (and frequently of visiting producers and conductors as well) are New York's Metropolitan, the Royal Opera at Covent Garden in London, and the Vienna Staatsoper—the Big Three; the San Francisco Opera, the Lyric Opera of


Chicago, La Scala in Milan, the Teatro dell'Opera in Rome, the Teatro Liceu in Barcelona, the Teatri Comunali in Genoa and Florence; and to a slightly lesser degree the companies in Bologna, Houston, Madrid, Paris, and Toronto. (The Los Angeles Music Center Opera, which had its first season in 1986, hasn't yet reached my arbitrary ten-opera/forty-performance minimum, despite a formidable annual budget. When it does, it will join this list, because it also makes use of star singers and producers drawn from the international/recording pool.)

Residents of or visitors to many other cities—(West) Berlin, Geneva, Hamburg, Lyons, Marseilles, Munich, Nice, Turin, Washington, Zurich—are likely to be able to see several international class singers each season, along with a company of local or lesser-known performers. Other important opera companies, some with very extensive seasons and repertories—Cologne, Dresden, Duisberg/Düsseldorf (the two cities share one company, which puts on more than three hundred opera performances each year), East Berlin, Hannover, Liège, Mannheim, Strasbourg (the companies based in Liège and Strasbourg also perform at neighboring cities), and Sydney, plus the four Scandinavian capitals (where most operas are performed in the local language) depend almost entirely, and in some cases entirely, on resident troupes. On occasion, these troupes have included performers who are also, or who go on to be, international stars: Theo Adam in (East) Berlin, Joan Sutherland in Sydney, Martti Talvela in Helsinki, Elisabeth Söderström in Stockholm. But the same is true of most of the world's serious resident companies, small as well as large.

There are opera houses in Cairo, Istanbul, and Tel Aviv that offer annual seasons from the traditional Western repertory. Elsewhere in the non-Western world—particularly in wealthy, West-oriented cities like Tokyo and Hong Kong—citizens can receive frequent doses of opera by means of visits from important American or European companies. Between 1988 and 1990, the Japanese subsidized extensive and expensive visits by the Teatro alia Scala of Milan, the Bavarian State Opera of Munich, the Bayreuth Festival Opera, and the Opera Theatre of St. Louis. A lavish new music center in Hong Kong opened in November 1989 with a two-week visit from the Cologne City Opera, performing Fidelio and The Barber of Seville .

Except for the pure voice fancier or star follower (a not insignificant category of opera fan), the presence of "name" singers does not of itself guarantee a memorable, even necessarily a tolerable, evening of opera. Singers like Caballé, Carreras, Domingo, Freni, Pavarotti, or Te Kanawa (the names at the top change every ten or twenty years) may sing from forty to eighty opera performances a year, in perhaps a dozen or twenty different cities, in productions that range from brilliant to deadly dull. Although it is the "starriest" company in the world, performance for performance, the Metropolitan in New York is not everyone's idea of opera heaven. Some of the most interesting opera producers and conductors—who


often have more to do with the overall quality of a performance than individual singers do—tend to concentrate their activities in their home cities, which helps to guarantee certain places a consistently high level of production. In the eighteenth century, the quality of the resident orchestras in Dresden, Prague, Mannheim, and Munich led composers like Mozart to prefer them for premières. The same may be true today of cities like Vienna, Berlin, Munich, Milan, and London, where the opera orchestras tend to be led by conductors of greater-than-usual distinction.

The range, depth, and adventurousness of a given company's repertory may also give some clue to its quality. If an overabundance of Mikados or Merry Widows may hint at a certain shallowness in the repertoire, the ability and willingness to mount Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen may be taken as a sign of serious resources and intentions. In the past twenty-five years, new and complete Ring cycles have been mounted by at least thirty different cities, including those at the Wagner festivals in Bayreuth and Seattle. One should expect to see more Italian operas in Italy, more German operas in Germany, more French operas in France; all three countries, moreover, retain a popular fondness for their own lighter operas (Le comte Ory, Zar und Zimmermann, Mireille ), many of them little known outside their borders. The Finns do more Finnish operas, the Russians more Russian, the Czechs more Czech; but all of them depend on the standard Western European repertory as well. The Metropolitan Opera and Covent Garden, like other U.S. and British companies, are more evenly international in their repertory, because so few English or American operas have made their way to the list of accepted standards.

Among them, the fifty-five most operatically active cities might produce six "world premières" of totally new operas—out of some three hundred or four hundred works altogether—in a typical year. At best, two or three of these will go on to be produced again somewhere else. The most recent operas to have had several sequential productions at major houses were Aribert Reimann's Lear (Munich, 1978), Philip Glass's Satyagraha (Amsterdam, 1980), and John Adams's Nixon in China (Houston, 1987). The more adventurous companies, those that take their "educational" or creative responsibilities most seriously, try to offer several recent or rarely performed works every season, in order to expand the acquaintance and taste of their audiences beyond the standard repertory.


Which leads to the next question: what is the standard repertory? Aida, Barber, Carmen , and so on down the alphabet, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end, Amen?

Yes and no. The standard repertory—the list of operas most often, most regularly, and most universally performed—changes more over time than many people think. In any decade, the Top 40—or 50 or 100—operas in the world


repertory may appear to be cemented in place with incredible fixity, which is one of the many things about opera its detractors pretend to dislike. Of course, the world's leading symphony orchestras and chamber music groups draw heavily from a common stock of old music as well. Repertory theatres the world over continue to perform the same "classic" plays. But the conservative tastes of the world of opera, it is presumed, far outrun either of these. The caricature of the complacent operagoer is that of someone who never grows beyond Aida-Barber-Carmen, who goes on tapping his toes and hurling his bravos at Fausts and Lohengrins and Lucias and Toscas long after he should have moved on to better things.

In the calendar years 1988 and 1989, professional companies in the fifty-five cities to which I referred offered eleven operas at least 200 times each: The Barber of Seville, Tosca, The Marriage of Figaro, La Bohème, Madame Butterfly, Don Giovanni, Rigoletto, Così fan tutte, The Magic Flute, Die Fledermaus , and La traviata . With the exception of Così and The Magic Flute , one would probably have found these same titles in the standard repertory fifty years ago. So the charge of dug-in conservatism in the opera world might appear to be justified.

But if you cast your net wider and deeper, to include all 252 professional opera companies and festivals whose schedules are reported in Opera magazine, a list of the 100 works they perform most often takes on considerable interest. The special tastes of all those German companies become more evident, including their taste for mixing operettas and American musicals in with "proper" operas. The worldwide penchant for lighter, more singable, and more salable works interspersed with the heavier classics gives to the present-day operatic Hit Parade considerable heterogeneity—one more thing that makes it difficult to discuss the phenomenon called "opera" in any logical, univocal way. Admired works that are difficult to cast, such as Tristan and Norma , end up far below the frothy light operas and tired Victorian war-horses (Faust, Adriana Lecouvreur ) that many critics would be happy to see retired from the lists for all time.

What follows is a list of the 100 works most often performed by professional opera companies and festivals around the world in the calendar years 1988 and 1989, compiled by means of an arbitrary (and inherently flawed) tallying process. The titles I give first—which are the titles I'll be using throughout this book—are those colloquially used in the United States and Britain. Sometimes we tend to translate (The Flying Dutchman, The Marriage of Figaro ); other times (Die Fledermaus, Così fan tutte ) we don't.[6]


1. The Marriage of Figaro (Le nozze di Figaro ) (Mozart, 1786)

2. Tosca (Puccini, 1900)

3. Don Giovanni (Mozart, 1787)

4. The Barber of Seville (Il barbiere di Siviglia ) (Rossini, 1816)

5. La Bohème (Puccini, 1896)

6. La traviata (Verdi, 1853)

7. The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflöte ) (Mozart, 1791)

8. Così fan tutte (Mozart, 1790)

9. Madame Butterfly (Puccini, 1904)

10. Rigoletto (Verdi, 1851)

11. Carmen (Bizet, 1875)

12.*Die Fledermaus (J. Strauss, Jr., 1874)

13. The Abduction from the Seraglio (Die Entführunq aus dem Serail ) (Mozart, 1782)

14. Fidelio (Beethoven, 1805/1814)

15. Aida (Verdi, 1871)

16. The Flying Dutchman (Der fliegende Holländer ) (Wagner, 1843)

17. Salome (R. Strauss, 1905)

18. Un ballo in maschera (Verdi, 1859)

19. The Tales of Hoffmann (Les Contes d'Hoffmann ) (Offenbach, 1881)

20. Turandot (Puccini, 1926)

21.*The Merry Widow (Die lustige Witwe ) (Lehár, 1905)

22. Falstaff (Verdi, 1893)

23. Der Rosenkavalier (R. Strauss, 1911)

24. Hansel and Gretel (Hänsel und Gretel ) (Humperdinck, 1893)

25. L'elisir d'amore (Donizetti, 1832)

26. Ariadne auf Naxos (R. Strauss, 1912)

27. Lucia di Lammermoor (Donizetti, 1833)

28. Eugene Onegin (Tchaikovsky, 1879)

29. Faust (Gounod, 1859)

30. Otello (Verdi, 1887)

31. Il trovatore (Verdi, 1853)

32. Die Walküre (Wagner, 1870)

33. Parsifal (Wagner, 1882)


34. Cavalleria rusticana (Mascagni, 1890)

35. I pagliacci (Leoncavallo, 1892)

36. Don Carlos (Verdi, 1867/1884)

37. Don Pasquale (Donizetti, 1843)

38. Marion (Massenet, 1884)

39. Lohengrin (Wagner, 1850)

40. Das Rheingold (Wagner, 1869)

41. Nabucco (Verdi, 1842)

42. Der Freischütz (Weber, 1821)

43. Cenerentola (Rossini, 1817)

44. Elektra (R. Strauss, 1909)

45. La clemenza di Tito (Mozart, 1791)

46. Orfeo ed Euridice (Gluck, 1762)

47. Andrea Chenier (Giordano, 1896)

48. Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (Wagner, 1868)

49.*Orpheus in the Underworld (Orphée aux enfers ) (Offenbach, 1858)

50. The Bartered Bride (Smetana, 1866)

51. Götterdämmerung (Wagner, 1876)

52. Boris Godunov (Mussorgsky, 1874, with later revisions and editions)

53. Adriana Lecouvreur (Cilea, 1904)

54. Tannhäuser (Wagner, 1845/1861)

55. Kátya Kabanová ( Janácek[*] , 1921)

56. Werther (Massenet, 1892)

57. La forza del destino (Verdi, 1862/1869)

58. Simon Boccanegra (Verdi, 1857/1881)

59. The Daughter of the Regiment (La Fille du regiment ) (Donizetti, 1840)

60. Wozzeck (Berg, 1925)

61. Macbeth (Verdi, 1847)

62. Siegfried (Wagner, 1876)

63.*La Vie parisienne (Offenbach, 1866)

64. The Queen of Spades (Tchaikovsky, 1890)

65. Zar und Zimmermann (Lortzing, 1837)

66. Jenufa[*] ( Janácek[*] , 1904)


67. Mefistofele (Boito, 1868/1875)

68.*The Mikado (Sullivan, 1885)

69.*The Gypsy Princess (Csárdásfürstin ) (Kálmán, 1915)

70. The Pearl Fishers (Les Pêcheurs des perles ) (Bizet, 1863)

71. L'incoronazione di Poppea (Monteverdi, 1642)

72. Manon Lescaut (Puccini, 1893)

73. Idomeneo (Mozart, 1781)

74. L'italiana in Algeria (Rossini, 1813)

75. Tristan und Isolde (Wagner, 1865)

76. Die Frau ohne Schatten (R. Strauss, 1919)

77. Giulio Cesare (Handel, 1724)

78.*West Side Story (Bernstein, 1957)

79. Arabella (R. Strauss, 1933)

80.*La belle Hélène (Offenbach, 1864)

81.*My Fair Lady (Lerner, 1956)

82. Gianni Schicchi (Puccini, 1918)

83. Norma (Bellini, 1831)

84. Peter Grimes (Britten, 1945)

85. Bluebeard's Castle (Bartók, 1911)

86. The Merry Wives of Windsor (Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor ) (Nicolai, 1849)

87. La finta giardiniera (Mozart, 1775)

88. The Turn of the Screw (Britten, 1954)

89.*La Grande Duchesse de Gérolstein (Offenbach, 1867)

90.*A Night in Venice (Eine Nacht in Venedig ) (J. Strauss, Jr., 1883)

91. Albert Herring (Britten, 1947)

92. Pelléas et Mélisande (Debussy, 1902)

93. Thaïs (Massenet, 1894)

94.*The Land of Smiles (Das Land des Lächelns ) (Lehár, 1929)

95. Les Dialogues des Carmélites (Poulenc, 1957)

96. La Gioconda (Ponchielli, 1876)

97. Il signor Bruschino (Rossini, 1813)

98. Samson et Dalila (Saint-Saëns, 1877)


99. Le comte Ory (Rossini, 1828)

100. La sonnambula (Bellini, 1831)

All sorts of games can be played with statistics, especially statistics you have contrived and collected yourself. But despite its obvious weaknesses and omissions, I believe this list reflects fairly accurately the state of contemporary taste. It also leads me to a few reflections.

1. The operas that head the list seem relatively secure in their positions. The bottom third or quarter, however, will vary considerably from year to year, depending on producers' search for varliety, how long a work has been off the schedule, and the changing preferences of singers and audiences. In trying to fix an image of the current "standard repertory," therefore, one should also take note of the next twenty or so, any one of which may appear on a Top 100 ranking in a different set of seasons.

As of 1990, the runners-up would include Verdi's Luisa Miller , Auber's Fra Diavolo , Prokofiev's The Love for Three Oranges and The Fiery Angel , Shostakovitch's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk , Jerry Bock's Fiddler on the Roof (called Anatevka in Germany, where it remains a repertory staple), Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream , Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress , Carl Millöcker's Der Bettelstudent (but only in Germany), Puccini's Il tabarro and La rondine ,  Janácek[*] 's The Makropolous Case and The Cunning Little Vixen , Richard Strauss's Die schweigsame Frau , Cimarosa's Il matrimonio segreto , Weber's Oberon , Borodin's Prince Igor , Mussorgsky's Khovanshchina , Donizetti's Viva la mamma (as his farce Le convenienze ed inconvenienze teatrali is popularly retitled), Cherubini's Médée (or Medea), Gershwin's Porgy and Bess , Purcell's Dido and Aeneas ,  Dvorák's[*] Rusalka , Lehár's Der Zarewitsch , Gounod's Romeo et Juliette , and two or three other Gilbert and Sullivan operettas.

2. An obvious conservatism is evidenced by the staying power of a great many old favorites, from Tosca to La sonnambula , which should be no more surprising than the durability of Ravel's Boléro and Tchaikovsky's Pathétique on orchestral rosters. The estimate, made by Meirion and Susie Harries in their useful book Opera Today , that two thirds of the "international standard repertory" is made up of nineteenth-century works, is borne out exactly: sixty-six out of these one hundred date from the nineteenth century, as against twenty-four from this century (not all of them "modern," of course), nine from the eighteenth (seven


Mozart, one Gluck, and one Handel), and one from the seventeenth, Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea .

3. More interesting to me than the "conservatism" of this list are its variety (opera today clearly means a great many things) and the vitality displayed by its changes over time. Despite the durability of many "war-horse" works, such a list of favorite operas would have been remarkably different fifty, thirty, even twenty years ago—as I think I can demonstrate.

My old copy of The Victor Book of the Opera (published sometime in the late 1930s) describes and illustrates 106 operas in greater or less detail, greater in the case of anything by Wagner (the Ring gets 47 pages; Die Meistersinger and Parsifal , 14 each) and other Golden Horseshoe hits—Aida, Barber, Bohème, Boris, Butterfly, Carmen, Cav and Pag, Faust, Figaro, Gioconda, Giovanni, Lucia, Martha, Mignon, Otello, Rigoletto, Tosca, Traviata; lesser for everything else. The selections are skewed somewhat by the Victor Company's desire to sell records (selections available are noted throughout the text) and by the author's tendency to take the Metropolitan Opera of New York as the international norm. But it's still, I think, a fair index of "the opera world" of just over half a century ago.

The 106 works described in the book include four American operas written between 1927 and 1937, all of which have effectively disappeared. Operetta is in general excluded, although the author, Charles O'Connell, describes eleven Victor-recorded Gilbert and Sullivan standards, perhaps at the request of his sponsor. The remaining ninety-one operas include nine once-popular French works by Meyerbeer, Massenet, and Halévy rarely revived even in France anymore (L'Africaine, Dinorah, Hérodiade, Les Huguenots, Le Prophète, Robert le diable, Le Cid, Le Jongleur de Notre Dame, La Juive ); and operas such as Balfe's The Bohemian Girl , Rimsky-Korsakov's Coq d'or and Sadko , Weber's Euryanthe , Thomas's Hamlet , Wolf-Ferrari's The Jewels of the Madonna , Delibes's Lakme , Montemezzi's The Love for Three Kings , and Glinka's Ruslan and Ludmila that most of us cannot expect to see produced. (I've caught four of them so far.) None of these is among the Top 100 of 1988–1989.

4. An even more telling proof of the vitality and mutability of the standard opera repertory is the fact that in the 106 operas described in the Victor Book , one will not find thirty operas—all first produced before 1935—that are among the Top 100 today. Operas returned or risen to favor since the 1930S include five by Mozart (Così was first performed professionally in the United States in 1922, Idomeneo in 1951, Tito in


1952), four by Strauss, two by  Janácek[*] (see "The  Janácek[*] Boom," in the essays that follow), and long-ignored early Verdi operas like Macheth and Nabucco .

A comparable measure of changing tastes is provided by a recently published list of the works most often broadcast or telecast by the Met in the years between 1940 (when its broadcasts began) and 1990. All but one of their Top 50 (the missing title is Gounod's Romeo et Juliette ) are among my current Top 100; but the difference in rankings is marked. Works such as Figaro, Così, The Magic Flute, Falstaff, Fidelio , and Turandot rank much higher today than they did over the Metropolitan's half-century of broadcasts. A great many others show up in the 1988–1989 list at far lower places worldwide than on the Met's list, which may indicate changing tastes over fifty years, the basic conservatism of the Metropolitan Opera, and the entry or reentry of many works into the worldwide lists in recent years. As "standards" such as Aida, Norma, Samson, Cav and Pag, Faust, Tristan, Manon Lescaut, La gioconda, Tannhäuser , and Lucia have fallen in the ranks, new favorites such as Ariadne, Cenerentola, Elektra, Der Freischütz, Manon, Nabucco, Eugene Onegin , Gluck's Orfeo , and Mozart's Seraglio (none of which figured in the Met's half-century favorites) have risen to take their places.

Most noteworthy among these changes is the rise to clear current dominion by Mozart, a phenomenon that has taken place largely in our own lifetime. Between the bicentennial celebrations of his birth and death (1956–1991), Mozart has moved to the number one rank among opera composers in terms of productions and performances; his works now hold four of the top eight positions. The astonishing climb to favor of Così only began at Glyndcbourne in the 1930s. But I would guess that the most fervent Mozartean at Glyndeboume fifty, even twenty years ago could never have predicted that La Clemenza di Tito would have ended up more internationally popular among producers and operagoers than Die Meistersinger or Forza, Idomeneo more popular than Tristan; or the eighteen-year-old Mozart's La finta giardiniera , of all things, ahead of La Gioconda and Samson et Dalila .

5. Other messages of interest one might draw from the current standard repertory listings include the general acceptance of Handel, Monteverdi, Gluck, and, of course, Richard Strauss; and the entry of Britten, Berg,  Janácek[*] , and Bartók into so many regular seasons, year after year. And yet chroniclers of opera as an institution, like Herbert Lindenberger, continue to insist that "the commercially viable operatic repertory today [1984] has not grown within living memory."


6. In some ways, almost as interesting to me as the rise and fall of the leaders are the two hundred or more other operas that are now professionally performed every year. As Andrew Porter points out in the fortieth anniversary issue of Opera magazine (February 1990), the repertoire at almost all serious opera companies, large and small, has expanded astonishingly since World War II. Whether you live in or visit one of the great opera cities, have near to hand a company that offers no more than a handful of works, or vacation in any one of a dozen or more festival venues, you can be fairly certain of hearing works, new and old, that your parents and grandparents could never have heard—and this does not take into account the immensely extended repertory available now on record and tape.

In the article just mentioned, Porter laments the lack of public interest in new operas (actually this seems to vary considerably from place to place). But he is positively rapturous about the rise to visibility, even to fame, of so many forgotten operas of the past: operas by Monteverdi, Handel, Rameau ("I have seen six Rameau operas staged," Porter announces with obvious pleasure), Gluck, Mozart, Verdi,  Janácek[*] —all operas "that my grandfather had no chance of seeing." But Porter is also pleased to have been able to see and hear little-known Mascagnis and Donizettis, long-retired bel canto showcases of Rossini and Bellini, even an occasional glimpse of the long-maligned, all-but-forgotten grand operas of Massenet and Meyerbeer.

Peter Conrad wrote in 1987 that "the operatic canon is closed, our attitude to the art necessarily retrospective." But in the summer of 1990, I was able to see the American premières of both Nicolò Jommelli's La schiava liberata of 1768 and Aribert Reimann's The Ghost Sonata of 1984, virtually without leaving home. In the two years before that, traveling no farther than my home state and a nearby summer festival, I saw for the first time Prokofiev's The Fiery Angel , Vivaldi's Orlando furioso , Cavalli's Ormindo , Massenet's Cherubin , Philip Glass's Satyagraha , Handel's Giustino , and Penderecki's The Black Mask —along with my now standard fare of operas such as Lulu, Idomeneo, L'Africaine, Tancredi, Mefistofele , and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk .

Summer opera festivals in cities like St. Louis, Santa Fe, and Wexford (Ireland) regularly offer new or little-known older works. In 1990–1991, the English National Opera offered, apart from three bicentennial Mozarts, nothing but twentieth-century works—a total of nineteen, including nine new productions, one a world première. (The list, admittedly, included three Puccinis.) For better and worse, the "standard repertoire" of opera has never been larger or more diverse.



For all its evident vitality, its widespread (and growing) popularity, this peculiarly hybrid form of drama is still often identified by its adversaries as a "cultural dinosaur"—a creature doomed to extinction because its body has grown too big for its brain. But if opera is doomed, it is not because it is intrinsically outdated as an art form, but because it has become so costly to produce. At the busiest and best-known houses and festivals, the production of opera has become so extraordinarily expensive, so archaically labor intensive that—unlike the most extravagant Broadway or West End musical—opera simply cannot pay its own way.

Even after setting top ticket prices at $100 to $250 (in 1990)—and tickets at or near these prices account for a large fraction of the seats in many houses—all of the world's major opera companies are obliged to search elsewhere for a substantial portion of their expenses. "Elsewhere" means either local, state, or national government grants, private philanthropy, commercial broadcasts and recreations, or a combination. of all three.

There is no guarantee that audiences of the future will continue to pay the ever-rising prices of opera tickets, or that future governments and philanthropists will share the priorities of their counterparts today. Should such individuals and institutions begin to balk at the cost of contemporary-scale productions, the end of "opera as we know it," the twilight of the gods and goddesses, could well be in view.

In 1968, and on several occasions afterward, the opera houses in Milan, Rome, and Paris became symbolic targets of antiestablishment protest demonstrations. A series of violent demonstrations in four Swiss cities was set off in 1980 when thousands of students took to the street in protest against the government's 61-million-franc ($36 million) subsidy of the Zurich Opera. A Paris Opera première I attended in 1986 was delayed for an hour by a cordon of demonstrators blocking the front steps.

Personally, I expect that "grand" (i.e., Covent Garden- or Vienna Staatsoper-style) productions of opera will continue for at least one more generation, unless fundamental changes beyond my imagining occur in the Western world at large. The prestige value of opera, and more particularly the symbolic value of opera houses and companies, have become such established articles of political faith that local, state, and national governments (or groups of wealthy individuals) insist on maintaining them at almost any cost. Grand opera throve during the Great Depression. New opera houses were built or destroyed old ones rebuilt throughout Europe—throughout the former Axis countries in particular—after World War II. The reopening of the bombed-out Vienna State Opera (with Beethoven's Fidelio , Karl Böhm conducting) in 1955 was regarded as the single most important symbol of Austrian recovery.

On the other side of the now-melted Iron Curtain, every communist government in Europe has subsidized at least one opera company, often lavishly. (One of


FOYER OF THE PARIS OPERA  (Palais Garnier), 1875. Drawing by A. Deroy.
Courtesy of the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris.


the collateral losses of a reunified Germany and of a decommunized Eastern Europe is likely to be the loss or reduction of many of these subsidies.) The Sydney Opera House, the Opéra-Bastille, the recent visits of opera companies to Japan and Hong Kong (which are very costly to the host country), and the more than 200 new opera companies started in the United States in recent decades are all evidence of the symbolic importance, the political prestige, and the public relations value of opera, and hence of its probable survival. Apart from anything else, the investment in operatic real estate around the world, and the predictable resistance of existing groups with a stake in the survival of opera as an institution (companies, orchestras, conservatories, trade unions, suppliers) would make the dismantling of the existing order very difficult indeed—as Parisian authorities learned at the old Palais Garnier.

On the other hand, it seems certain that established gestures toward economy will continue and increase: the sharing or underwriting of new productions by several companies (of the new Los Angeles Music Center Opera's first thirty-three productions, a majority were either rented or shared, or made use of designs originated elsewhere); the sharing of a single company between two or more cities, which is the case in the two Rhine River companies in Germany and France; the recording of productions for sale to television or on videocassette; and an increased fostering of and dependence on less expensive local talent. A few impressive productions in the big houses have made skillful use of inexpensive staging.

But to be properly done, many operas from the standard repertory—Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen , for example, or Verdi's Aida —demand extensive theatrical resources. In the 1870s, when these works were first performed, the low wages of Musicians and theatre staff (and generous subsidies from local kings and khedives) helped make their first performances possible. Today, lighting technicians, stagehands, and costume makers must be paid at the equivalent of union scale. Musicians skilled enough to play such works adequately must have had many years of special training, must devote hundreds of hours to rehearsal, and must possess one-in-a-thousand gifts. They, too, now demand adequate compensation. Singers, conductors, producers, and designers equal to the task of an adequate Aida or Die Walküre may be among a hundred or fewer people available in the world. (Sonic observers put the number of "great" sopranos or tenors performing at any time at no more than twenty, as if some sort of global gene pool limited the available talent.) In a market economy, such people, like star athletes and other popular entertainers, can ask for, and expect, very high wages indeed.

Opera can, of course, be done inexpensively. One can do a Rossini extravaganza without costumes or decors, a condensed-concert Ring , a little theatre Don Giovanni sung in English, with a single set and an amateur chamber orchestra. In several countries, touring versions of small-cast operas are sent by bus and truck


into the hinterland, with advanced student performers and a single pianist. All of these I have seen and enjoyed. Without good, economical productions of this sort, in fact, which may cultivate new audiences for the art form more effectively than televised or recorded "star" performances, future audiences for opera in any form may begin to dry up. But if such performances were to become the norm, we would still be talking about the end of opera "as we know it."

I once thought it unlikely that any city would ever again spend the $130 million (which was ten times the first estimates) that Sydney, Australia, devoted to its opera house between 1957 and 1973—until the city of Paris found itself, between 1982 and 1989, spending $400 million on the politically embattled new Opéra-Bastille. In the last few years, Cairo, Essen, Hong Kong, Houston, and Ludwigsburg have all opened impressive new houses; those in Frankfurt (after a fire), Genoa, and Munich closed down for costly rebuilding. Sometime after 1995—the date keeps moving forward—Covent Garden is to be shut down for at least three years, at a cost of who knows how many hundreds of millions, so that it can be refit to the technical standards of these newer houses. The Metropolitan Opera (which moved into its lavish new quarters in 1966) now has expenses in excess of $100 million a year, less than 40 percent of which is recouped at the box office. Covent Garden operates in about the same range. At the main houses in (West) Berlin, Hamburg, Milan, Munich, Paris, Rome, and Vienna, ticket sales account for less than one fifth of the bill, even when every performance is sold out.

If opera producers and audiences in the leading opera cities continue to insist on elaborate new stagings of each work in the repertory at least every ten years, and if the famous singers these audiences and producers expect to hear continue to command million-dollar-a-year incomes, then "grand" opera, "international level" opera, "world class" opera—call it what you will—may well be spending itself into extinction, except by means of electronic transmission.

If someone were to pull out the feeding tube of public funding that has prolonged the life of opera in all of the countries where it has apparently prospered, it would in fact die a "natural" death. All that public subsidies are doing, argues the antiopera faction, is to subsidize the exorbitant fees of singers who jet from one country to another, along with the archaic and irrelevant tastes and status aspirations of upper- and middle-class patrons.

Whatever the cost of opera, many people opposed to it dislike the very idea, the fundamental concept of the thing. Almost from its inception, they argue, this "exotic and irrational entertainment" was sustained by a decadent love for spectacle and a sensationalist love for unnatural voices. Consider only the 200-year-long vogue of the castrato, the male singer who was kept a soprano for life by having his testicles deformed, even surgically removed, while he was still a young boy.

This odd form of musical drama, invented by Italians around 1600, was patronized early in its history by aristocrats and princes. For many of them, it served


as an ostentatious, court-controlling demonstration of their wealth and good taste. As princes lost their thrones and aristocrats their power, the financial support of opera was maintained by upper-class burghers, first in Europe, then in its former colonies, as a ritual form of socializing, status assertion, and self-display. There were (and still are) large popular audiences for opera who occupied the less expensive upper balcony seats. But most theatres and companies were kept alive by box holders, subscribers, and other wealthy patrons. And in neither court theatres nor civic opera houses, it must be admitted, did many of these patrons know or care much about music.

Critical observers have been making fun of wealthy people who go to operas largely to socialize and be seen in elegant surroundings (and I concede there are such people) since the seventeenth century. But such sneering seems more impertinent today than it may have been 100 or 200 years ago. What matters to most of us is what happens on the stage and in the pit, not who sits in the boxes. Both the quality of the product, and the fact that many of us can be there at all, depend considerably on the largess of these fashionably dressed philistines in the more expensive seats.

What members of the radical opposition really dislike about opera, however, has less to do with politics, society, or economics than with opera itself: with what happens on the stage. (They tend to be more tolerant of what happens in the pit. In fact, they are often willing to hear excerpts from the orchestral scores of operas—Rossini's overtures, Wagner's preludes, Britten's interludes—inserted into symphony programs.)

The people I have encountered who are ill-disposed toward opera fall into several categories. First, there are a great many music lovers who find all of the stage business a distraction, and all but a very few operas second-rate or worse when analyzed on strictly musical terms. They wonder, frankly, how I can tolerate all of the melodramatic nonsense and turgid musical infill, when I could be listening to something so much more consummately wrought, so much less compromised and crude, at the symphony hall or on record. (Actually, I do both.)

Very few works in the standard operatic repertory are judged worthy of close attention by analysts, historians, or theorists of music in general.[7] It seems to be taken for granted that the extramusical compromises the composer of an opera has


to make virtually guarantee that his score will be less "interesting," as music, than that of a good symphony, concerto, or sonata. Among composers who primarily wrote operas, Herbert Lindenberger points out, only Wagner—and more recently, and to a lesser degree, Verdi—is ever granted a place in the "canon" of great composers. "Anyone who included Bellini, Bizet, or Puccini would risk intellectual embarrassment." As Geoffrey Wheatcroft more provocatively, even pugnaciously, puts it, "Surely any music -lover would give all of Puccini for a single Haydn quartet, or even a single Schubert song." (Joseph Kerman typifies such absolute-music purists as people who believe that "Otello is somehow vulgar as compared to a good fugue by César Franck.")

There is no way or reason to answer such people. "It seems the world is divided into two classes of people," writes Gary Schmidgall in Literature into Opera , "those 'poor, passionless, bluntminded creatures' (Stendhal's words) who dislike opera, and those to whom it comes naturally and who subject themselves as willingly to its absurdities as to its compelling expressive powers."

Second, there are the drama lovers who find the singing and the orchestra a distraction—or, worse, a virtual guarantee that the intellectual and dramatic values they love in the theatre will be diluted or lost. To cite Gary Schmidgall again: "In the sheer triumph of vocal beauty, unfortunately, we are often willing silently to sacrifice other more subtle artistic values, among them dramatic momentum, integrity of plot, intelligibility, and balance. For many who like opera, beauty is sufficient. This is partly because, as Shaw pointed out, many people 'have little or no sense of drama, but a very keen sense of beauty of sound and prettiness of pattern in music.' "

Like operagoers in other categories who pick and choose their works, pure-drama lovers may find a place for The Marriage of Figaro, Tristan und Isolde , and Otello (although they will inevitably prefer Shakespeare's original), and perhaps a few other operas that "work," in their opinion, the same way good plays do. But they would still rather have, hear, and be able to think about all of the words.

Third, there are sensible people—or, if you like, "poor, passionless, blunt-minded" people—who find the conventions of opera absurd, the acting unconvincing, the use of foreign languages alienating, the dramatized "history" perverse, the librettos inane. All theatre is built on performing conventions, some more distant than others from a direct simulacrum of life-as-we-live-it. People who are troubled by these distances, these conventions (soliloquies, verse drama, painted sets, the use of dancers or puppets, actors who burst into song), people who are affected, consciously or unconsciously, by what Jonas Barish calls "the antitheatrical prejudice" are likely to be especially annoyed by opera. Whatever ineffable truths about life an opera production may convey, in its onstage action it is considerably farther from life-as-we-live-it, considerably less "realistic" and more "theatrical" in its conventions than most other forms of drama.


Fourth, there are "up-to-date" people who cannot understand why anyone in 1990 (or 1950 or 1970) should still feel the need to see and support such out-of-date displays. To them, even the secondary trappings symbolize a dead and alien world: the swaggering solo bows, the bravos and thrown bouquets, the yards of velvet and satin, the private boxes and dress-up galas; bewigged pages, for heaven's sake, pulling back Great Golden Curtains! They complain, as did Tolstoy and Shaw, of the stand-and-deliver poses, of young and heroic roles performed by overaged and ungainly singers. They scorn the melodramatic contrivances, the "sexist" plots, the conventional formats (long-retired elsewhere) of kings and heroes pretending to be torn between love and duty.[8] They mock the Inauthentic presentation of the past, the ancien régime parades of dutiful peasants, all of the dramatic conceits that other forms of theatre abandoned more than a century ago. These formulaic, old-fashioned dramas, which devotees sit through dutifully season after season, are to them of the most tiresome predictability. In no other form of theatre, they insist, musical or otherwise, could producers get by with such antiquated stunts.

Fifth, there are those who tolerate, even admit to liking, some operas, but agree in denouncing all of the others. The seasons of most major companies nowadays are made up of an eclectic and carefully distributed mix: one Monteverdi or Cavalli every few years, lots of Mozart-Verdi-Puccini-Wagner-Strauss, perhaps a few operettas and musicals, at most one work (already performed elsewhere) by a living—or, better, recently dead—composer. This means that such people—should they be subscribers or regular patrons—are bound to be discontented a good part of the time.

The "I like some opera" people can be divided into four separate camps:

1. The Italian-traditionalist crowd prefers, above all else, middle and late Verdi (except Falstaff ) and Puccini—that is, opera as memorable tunes, as hummable pop music. A good deal of Donizetti will pass, as will Rossini's comic operas; Bellini's Norma; maybe Faust, Carmen, Manon; but nothing too French. Of the German repertoire, at most a jolly Rosenkavalier or Meistersinger , though even those are a bit tedious and, well, you know . . . German. My suspicion is that this group still includes the operagoing majority in North America, Britain, Australia, and Italy, most of whom would prefer a nice Rigoletto or Butterfly any day.


2. There are still many doctrinaire Wagnerites; there were once a great many more. One meets them whenever a major Ring cycle is offered. They fly in from all over the country and all over the world, and compare notes in the foyer on all of the Brünnhildes they have stood for and cheered. To them, no other composer's operas can compare; few of them are even worth listening to. (To the first Wagnerite—Richard Wagner—this was virtually an article of faith.) They will tolerate Strauss, Mahler, or Bruckner. But your perfect Wagnerite believes, in good late-nineteenth-century fashion, that all earlier music was secretly aspiring to the condition of Tristan (or Parsifal ) and will settle for nothing less than the antirational, hyper-romantic, quasi-religious experience that only the Master can provide.

This faction was very big indeed between 1880 and 1920, as much in "advanced" social London and New York as in Germany. But two world wars and a more levelheaded approach to music history have helped to thin it out.

3. Then there are what the British call "canary fanciers" and Americans "voice freaks": people who go to opera only for the singing. Depending on what kind of singing they prefer, such people may seek out Verdi and Puccini, Wagner, bel canto works in general, or any opera that features their own favorite tenor or soprano—as many operagoers did in previous centuries. (Voice freaks rarely get hooked on the lower vocal ranges.) This group, like the larger group of opera lovers in general, appears to include an unrepresentatively large number of gay men, for reasons I don't understand.

A subgroup of (3) is made up of the paid or unpaid claques, the devoted fans of individual singers—Zinka Milanov, Renata Tebaldi, Mario Del Monaco, Luciano Pavarotti—and, of course, Maria Callas. They have been with us for many years.

4. Another category of the more selective or specialized operagoers is made up of demanding and impatient intellectuals. A first group of these will ask, Is the music serious enough? This generally rules out Puccini, Bellini-Donizetti-Rossini, Gounod, and Meyerbeer (though scholarly revisionism is always at work); and favors composers like Mozart, Wagner, the harsher Strauss and the later Verdi, and twentieth-century opera except when it's too easy. In Opera and Ideas , Paul Robinson writes an eloquent appreciation and analysis of Berlioz's Les Troyens —a superchallenging grand opera he admits to be all but unper-formable. But still he questions the values of a world that "has appar-


ently unlimited time and money for the workmanlike stuff of Berlioz's fellow-countryman Massenet" (one of the composers all serious critics love to hate), while denying us adequate versions of Berlioz's five-hour doubleheader.

A second group of intellectually critical operagoers will ask, Is the drama serious enough? Or will we be made to suffer through foolish Verdian melodrama, Puccinian sentimentality, Straussian "decadence," or (what is "serious" depends on one's own susceptibilities) the symbolic-idealistic nonsense of Wagner's Ring or Parsifal? Such judgments tend to be based at least as much on the libretto, the plot, and the stage action as on music, voices, or production—as if one were choosing whether to attend a straight play with a bit of musical accompaniment. The three Mozart-Da Ponte operas may survive this kind of screening, along with the two Verdi-Boitos, and modern works with respectable literary pedigrees, like Wozzeck or Death in Venice .

A third group will ask, Is the work sufficiently new and different (or old and forgotten)? This subgroup appears to be populated mainly by music critics and German impresarios (who have already seen the standard repertory operas more often than they wish) and by insistent novomamacs. For such people, a tissue-thin new work by Philip Glass, a piece of Peter Sellars's cheeky revisionism, a L'Olimpiade or a Dinorah is preferable to anything they've seen more than twice before. The one thing opera must not be allowed to become, they insist, is a "museum," a haven for great works of the past—as if museums had suddenly become reprehensible institutions.

Then there are people like me. We (and I like to think we still represent a sizable fraction of opera audiences) remain willing to take a gamble on almost any halfway-promising opera production because we prefer good opera (when it works) to any other form of music or theatre; and because we've been happily surprised in the past by impressive productions of works we had dismissed, or had been advised to dismiss, as second rate. I am almost ready to concede that a good production team—which includes conductor, orchestra, and singers, as well as director and designer—can work magic on any text and score.

Most extended, nonjournalistic critical writing about opera has dealt entirely with texts and scores, just as most serious critical writing about Shakespeare has dealt with the words we read from the printed page. One can go a long way toward the evaluation of a work destined for the theatre by a careful, critical


GERD ALBRECHT  (producer, left) and  THOMAS STEWART  (who played the title role) discussing
Aribcrt Reimann's opera Lear  backstage during rehearsals at the San Francisco Opera, 1985.
Photograph by Ira Nowinski.
Courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.

reading of its text. Producers, performers, impresarios, and dramaturgs must do this all the time to decide which works they want to produce or perform.

But coming to opera from the perspective of the theatre (rather than that of the study or the music room), I still regard such texts as nothing more than scripts, to a degree revealing, perhaps delectable when examined in one's armchair (or at the piano): but incomplete until produced and performed, until realized on stage. Read privately, by oneself, they are not yet in my judgment operas.[9]

Three things, I believe, must come together for a satisfactory operatic experience to take place: the right opera, the right production, and the right spectator. And each of the three must be "right" in terms of the other two. I would like, as my contribution toward an "aesthetics of opera," to consider each of these three for the space of a few pages.



Independent of productions and spectators, is it possible to classify works of the lyric stage absolutely on a scale from best to worst?

In 1956, the London-born, Princeton-trained, Berkeley-based critic and musicologist Joseph Kerman (then thirty-two) published a short, original, extremely readable, and notoriously provocative book entitled Opera as Drama , in which he proposed to establish standards for distinguishing good operas from bad.

He began (as I have begun) by referring to the antiopera. critics. As far as he was concerned, the only respectable way for serious defenders of opera to counter their attacks was to become more selective, to separate the few grains of wheat in the repertory from the mountains of chaff. Writing in 1956—but retreating very little in a second edition prepared thirty years later[10] —Kerman has nothing good to say for the "hardening repertory," "the slag-heaps that have kept opera thriving."

Flabby relativism is certainly the danger, as anyone knows who buys an opera season ticket. Under the tacit assumption that everything is all right in its own terms, extremes of beauty and triviality are regularly placed together. In our opera houses, art and Kitsch alternate night after night, with the same performers and the same audience, to the same applause, and with the same critical sanction. Confusion about the worth of opera is bound to exist when no distinction is drawn publicly between works like Orfeo and The Magic Flute on the one hand, and like Salome and Turandot on the other.

If a case is to be made for opera as a viable form, he insists, it can be only in terms of the best operas, operas that work "dramatically," in the same way that good plays do. The radical difference is that in good operas (on the evidence of this book, Kerman appears to think there are about twenty; Hans Keller, writing in a wholly different context, puts the number at "about 25"), the basic elements of drama—characterization, action, psychology, and so on—are defined and conveyed by the music , not by the words. These few operas, he sometimes appears to be saying, are the only ones that really ought to be produced. He takes music critics to task for wasting their time judging new productions of standard repertory works, when they should be trying to reduce that repertory by judging operas—old operas as well as new ones—according to more rigorous standards.


Kerman begins his own sifting of the repertory with a quotation from the musicologist Edward Cone: "In any opera, we may find that the musical and the verbal messages seem to reinforce or to contradict each other; but whether the one or the other, we must always rely on the music as our grade toward an understanding of the composer's conception of the text. It is this conception, not the bare text itself, that is authoritative in defining the ultimate meaning of the work."

Whenever there is an apparent conflict between the drama implicit in the libretto and the drama implicit in the score, Kerman insists, it is the composer who wins.

We trust first what is most emphatic in the music. ( Orfeo )

In opera we trust whatever is musically forceful. ( The Marriage of Figaro )

In opera, we trust what is most convincing in the music. ( Così fan tutte )

In opera we trust what is done most firmly by the music. ( Don Giovanni )

As always, the dramatist is the composer, and the Rake's progress is articulated by a progress in the music.

Most of Opera as Drama is devoted to close, selective investigations of about a dozen operas Kerman frankly admires. ("The significant operatic canon is not large. Monteverdi, Purcell, Gluck, Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, Debussy, Berg, Stravinsky, and a few others have left a body of musical drama which is rich and various, but not large.") In these chapters, he describes and analyzes differing ways in which drama can be created and conveyed by the score. His explications of the "musical dramaturgy" of certain individual scenes—the Act II trio of Don Giovanni , the Act II finale of The Marriage of Figaro , Otello's murder of Desdemona, Tristan's long Act III "Delirium"—are about as good as purely verbal musical-dramatic analysis can get. In them, he demonstrates how music works simultaneously to create, compel, and contain action, to define and express subtle and evolving changes in and among characters. Especially impressive is his relation of the simple "progress forward" of music—the alterations of structure, rhythm, and tonality in time—to the parallel forward progress of the drama, the evolution of feeling in the characters.

The standard Kerman applies to opera, in his attempt to distinguish better from worse, is closely related to literary criticism of the post-World War II years (his early essays on music, which evolved into this book, were published alongside the work of leading literary New Critics in The Hudson Review ), and more specifically to theoretical works on drama by critics like Francis Fergusson, Eric Bentley, T. S. Eliot, and Una Ellis-Fermor, all of whom he cites. If he is to demonstrate the viability or ultimate worth of an opera, he must prove that it contains rich


characterizations, a coherent progress or plot, and a unified world, like those of the best spoken drama. "The spoken theatre serves as a court of appeal," he writes, "or at least of analogy, when the dramatic efficacy of opera or any other non-verbal medium is likely to be tested." Unfortunately, as Herbert Lindenberger once pointed out, "as long as opera is seen from the point of view of spoken drama, it is always likely to seem wanting. . . . As soon as opera is compared to drama, the former comes to look deficient in 'intellectual' content."

Beyond that, Kerman depends considerably on the ideals of formal coherence, integration, and unity, the kind of "organic economy" proposed and promoted by leading British and American literary critics of the 1940s and 1950s (whom today he labels "classics"). By the standards of many literary critics of the time, one could ask for nothing more than maximum complexity under maximum control; and it was presumed that one could demonstrate this kind of perfection by the close analysis of a text.

But when Kerman applies similar standards to opera, the works of Baroque and bel canto composers art inevitably seen as wanting. "The fault, almost alvvays," he writes, "was in the abysmal lack of integration of lyricism into a sensible dramatic plan." Purcell, by contrast—one of Kerman's two seventeenth-century exceptions—understood "how to organize arias into a total, coherent dramatic form." The action in the operas of Mozart—Kerman's model of ultimate success—is "infinitely more complex . . . included within a single musical continuity, and unified by it."[11]

This particular set of ideals leads to what appears to be an aesthetic of historical progress—at least up to Wagner and Debussy—whereby operas became better as they moved away from separable "numbers," away from the expressively limited alternation of arias and recitatives; and toward greater musical/dramatic continuity: which, of course, is what the Wagnerians have been telling us all along. "Conflict, passage, excitement, and flux could [with the development of the Classical sonata formal be handled within a single musical continuity," Kerman writes; and at the same time be "made to cohere, to present unified impressions," permitting a much richer presentation of the human psyche. While acknowledging that in certain circumstances traditional arias may still "work" dramatically, he appears to give his most wholehearted approval to operas that manage to do without arias, or to depend more on ensembles.

But it is neither his theory of what makes for good opera nor his short list of works that succeed that has made Opera as Drama the most often-quoted book on


the subject of the last thirty years. It is his near-absolute dismissal of the works of Giacomo Puccini and Richard Strauss, which still account (as we have seen) for a huge part of the standard repertory—eleven of the 100 leading works, including three of the Top 10. He is arguing, in effect, that critics and impresarios should stop granting these two composers serious attention.

I do not propose to analyze the musical texture of Tosca [he writes, after savagely disposing of its ultimate scene]; It is consistently, throughout, of café-music banality. If Joyce Kilmer or Alfred Noyes had taken it into his head to do a grand poetic drama on Tosca, that would have been something analogous in the medium of language. . . .

But if Turandot is more suave than Tosca musically, dramatically it is a good deal more depraved. . . . [The score] is consistently, throughout, of café-music banality. . . . Rarely has myth been so emptily employed as in this absurd extravaganza. Drama is entirely out of the question. . . . Puccini clings to his limited ideas and repeats them protectively. . . . There is almost a sense of despair in the meaninglessness of Turandot .

Strauss, Kerman concedes, was a more advanced and innovative composer than Puccini, masterly in power and technique. But as a musical dramatist of human situations, Kerman finds Strauss cynical, shallow, false, and sentimental. The conclusion of Salome he regards as "the most banal sound in the whole opera," the final coming together of the young lovers in Der Rosenkavalier "the poorest thing in the opera."

Was it for this minimal level of consciousness that we have had to stiffer the Marschallin's self-pity and to sacrifice Ochs? for this, the silver rose and the white suit, the Three Noble Orphans and four finicky hours of leitmotivs, modulations, and program-musical wit? . . .

No one who understood The Marriage of Figaro could ever have taken Der Rosenkavalier seriously. . . . Salome and Der Rosenkavalier  . . . are insincere in every gesture, meretricious and doubly meretricious on account of their show of outer formal integrity.

"From the start," he concludes, "Puccini and Strauss revealed a coarseness of sensitivity and a deep cynicism towards true dramatic values. . . . The operas of Strauss and Puccini are false through and through; the trouble runs much deeper than mere faults in conception or technique. . . . The response, the quality of the action, is insensitive or simply sham all the way. . . . In the deepest sense the operas of Strauss and Puccini are undramatic, for their imaginative realm is a realm of emotional cant. They are unable to match any action, however promising, with anything but the empty form of drama."


Kerman also dismisses all opera between Monteverdi and Gluck (except Purcell's short Dido and Aeneas ) as of "unparalleled dramatic fatuity." He makes no mention of Handel beyond a line of very faint praise in the epilogue of the second edition. He is generous to La traviata and Rigoletto; rejects Bellini (but for the end of Norma ), Rossini, and Donizetti; tosses out Aida; and appears (in Opera as Drama , although not in a later essay in The Hudson Review ) unfavorably disposed to Wagner's Ring .[12]

If I am to begin working toward a definition of "the right opera," Kerman's standards and strictures are as good a place as any to begin. I am obliged, in any case, to live with the existing repertory. Like other critics and opera lovers, I must therefore come to some sort of terms with his responses to Puccini and Strauss.

Although creditable and well argued, Kerman's aesthetic of opera seems too restrictive for me, too limited, too purist. It is only partially able to account for my (and I presume other people's) actual experience in the opera house. He has (in Opera as Drama ) almost nothing to say of the specific power of the singing voice alone, in ensemble or chorus, or with an orchestra—which I would have thought was the fundamental distinction of an operatic experience. Outside of his reviews, he makes no reference to production or performance, to the impact of live actors on stage, to the legitimate power of melodrama in opera, to the legitimate place of


spectacle. In fact, he often simply labels such concerns as "vulgar" and "coarse," compared to musical-dramatic integrity.

Musical effects in opera intended primarily to be exhibitionistic, shocking, or bathetic, to move an audience to tears or gasps or bravos, are no more (and no less) admirable than the high-wire turns of a circus acrobat, the scream scenes in a movie thriller, a tear-jerking soap. But I tend to think that certain extradramatic, even vulgar, aspects of opera production—melodrama, vocalise, the stage presence of real actors, spectacle and setting, a conductor's or a director's particular reading or concept—are at least as essential to potential success as whatever drama may be crafted into the score.

Kerman's focus on overall coherence and dramatic integrity leads him to ignore or belittle our ability, perhaps even our innate tendency, to separate out and enjoy individual scenes, voices, and moments in opera. The sum of such pleasures may or may not be less intellectually worthy than the pleasure we take in an overarching musical-dramatic unity. But by the very creative conditions of opera, such unity is likely to be rare. "Opera by its very nature is a gigantic series of compromises," writes Winton Dean in Handel and the Opera Seria . To this, Herbert Lindenberger adds, "The whole institutional setting within which opera has traditionally flourished requires so many compromises that only a few operas demonstrate the intensity and evenness of craftsmanship that nontheatrical music can more easily attain."

For some critics, historians, and theorists of opera, the list of fully realized musical-dramatic unities appears to come down to one: The Marriage of Figaro . Rather than apply such reductive standards, I prefer to make a case for a broader base of appreciation: for trying to enjoy opera other than generically—in bits and pieces, if necessary, rather than as a coherent musical-dramatic whole. This is what Kerman might call "hedonistic," rather than "aesthetic," appreciation—a distinction he made in an early analysis of Virgil Thomson's critical standards.

In drawing his ideals of music drama largely from mid-twentieth-century theorists of spoken drama canonically certified as "literature," Kerman slights the fundamental importance of melodrama to opera. He does have favorable things to say about scenes in Rigoletto, La traviata , and Norma that might strike one at first glance as melodramatic. But a commitment to high-dramatic standards may lead a critic to prefer works drawn from more "respectable" sources, or works that make use of more subtle and less hysterical plots. Despite its contemporary position of disfavor as a "low" and pop-obvious genre, melodrama—as I argue in chapter 8, on Victor Hugo's opera plots (borrowing my case in part from Eric Bentley)—is closely related to human needs, is sometimes ideally adapted to operatic rendering, and, as the word melodramme originally implied, can be unusually viable when sung.

There is also a place for, and considerable pleasure to be taken in, the cultivation of a historical or cross-cultural imagination at the opera house, by which we make


an effort to place ourselves into the situation of audiences not our contemporaries, and try to enjoy the conventions of other times and places. ("With a strong exercise of historical imagination," Kerman writes of Donizetti's Anna Bolena , "one can perhaps see why the piece made its mark in 1830." I recommend such exercise.) In the attempt to apply mid-twentieth-century standards of unity, continuity, controlled richness, and overall coherence to pre-twentieth-century works—admirable as such standards may appear to us today—we run the risk of condemning unheard, or hearing unsympathetically, a great deal of opera created at a time when such standards counted for less.

Beyond a single reference to "the emotional power of the human voice" (and a passing jibe at "the vulgar taste for vocal virtuosity"), there is virtually no mention in Opera as Drama of the affective force of singing, which is surely—even more than the orchestral score—what most clearly distinguishes opera from any other form of drama, both as an art form and as all experience. At times, in fact—sounding rather like Verdi or Wagner on a bad day—Kerman makes it seem as if live singers and physical productions are a hindrance, an obstacle to the composer of operas, when in fact they are the means by which his works are brought to lift.[13]

Kerman admits, in the preface to the second edition, that there is a "total absence of any discussion of performance values in Opera as Drama ." In this, he is simply behaving like most musicologists, who tend to see printed notes on a page (and, in the case of opera, the accompanying printed words) as composing something finished and complete, ready to be analyzed and judged and, perhaps, somewhere along the way, enjoyed. In trying to snatch Alban Berg's Wozzeck back from more microscopically analytic musicologists, Kerman reminds them that "the ultimate judge is the ear, not the eye, and that the work is destined for the opera house, not the analyst's study." But there is little reference to that destination elsewhere in the book.

It is here that Kerman's search for a code of values, an aesthetic for opera, most widely diverges from mine. By nature or training I am disposed to regard operatic scores, as I regard the texts of plays, primarily as scripts for production, incomplete until performed. Kerman (quite justifiably) regards both Così fan tutte and Don Giovanni as imperfect works, because the librettist provided texts that were either cynical and empty-hearted (Così ) or clumsy and improbable (Giovanni ), to a composer who was unable to take emotions other than seriously.

But what Kerman sees as flaws I see as opportunities; as, in fact, two of the greatest challenges the producer of an opera can face. (I use the term "producer" as


a kind of shorthand, rather as one speaks of a film's "director." I am fully aware that a whole team of creative individuals may be responsible for an opera production—often beginning with a conductor, rather than with what the French call a metteur en scène .)

Can Mozart's and Da Ponte's two magnificent, problematic works be produced in such a way as to realize simultaneously, even to reconcile, their warring worlds of discourse; in such a way as to make these operas "work," somehow, despite their troublesome décalage? Kerman complains that he has yet to see an explanation (or, I presume, a production) of Così that makes sense of both the action and the music—as George Bernard Shaw lamented that he would probably never in his lifetime see an adequate production of Don Giovanni . I put my faith in the ingenuity of producers, and wait in hope.

I regard works such as Carmen, Boris Godunov , and any so-called opera by Handel in a similar, tentative way: can they be made to work, made to matter, made to hurt? Can a producer fight the sentimental, lockstep stage directions Strauss and Hofmannsthal inscribed into Der Rosenkalvalier? Can he or she make Puccini's Butterfly really suffer? Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's jaunty, knife-edged, totally rethought production of I pagliacci (1976) resurrected for me an old war-horse I had given up for dead. Other producers, conductors, and singers have performed similar miracle cures on similar works.

Even so, I do have standards of my own by which I distinguish better operas from worse, apart from their productions. Other things in the theatre being equal (which they never are), I too prefer coherence, a felt sense of continuity and unity, the overall arch of a single musical-dramatic conception, to a sequence of ill-matched musical scenes (like that of Boito's Mefistofele ) that seems to defy one's dramatic expectations. (There are, of course, disunified works, like those of Alban Berg, that make good emotional sense.) I also agree that this drama should be achieved through an artful fusion of sung music, orchestral commentary, and onstage action, rather than simply through the libretto itself.

A good opera, I believe, is one written by a composer who is fresh, ingenious, and inventive; who can come up with interesting musical ideas that illuminate, illustrate, and help to tell his story.

Ergo, there should be a story. I find I am emotionally and intellectually compelled by stories that deal with characters whose situations represent or reflect those of human beings, rather than ideas or abstractions. I respond with greatest fervor and commitment to a dramatic action. I can be made to care about (in the way one "cares about" actions in a theatre), to works with a high potential for characterization (which need not mean "realism" or "naturalism"); to works in which I feel myself potentially implicated in the persons and plights of the characters on stage. They can be animals—as in  Janácek[*] 's The Cunning Little Vixen —or


the nonhuman creatures of Wagner's Ring , as long as they allow me some means of emotional entry into the characters they represent. In any good production of the Ring , I find myself caring quite a lot about Alberich and Fasolt. There is also something quite wonderful about music dramas that offer a rich and still unified combination of tragedy and comedy—if only because "lift is like that," as we say, and the challenge to the composer is greater. This may partly explain the enduring appeal of the Mozart-Da Ponte operas.

I realize that singing one's feelings aloud, along with or over an orchestra, to a theatre full of one or two or three thousand people invites a degree of exaggeration in both characterization and plot. That's all right with me. This in part explains why "melodrama" often seems more appropriate than realism, than so-called verismo. The onstage worlds of Operaland virtually demand people considerably larger and certainly more passionate than arc we, their poor wizened counterparts in real lift, who don't have to sing our emotions or pretend to sustain them for hours on end.

Dedicated producers, musicians, and singers, I have discovered, all of them working very hard, can maximize the faint, relatively uncomplicated human potential of opera seria. But most of the pleasure I take in it is musical, rather than dramatic, so I tend to regard it as a lesser form of opera.

I seem unable to respond with the same kind of fictive "belief" or intellectual approval that others can muster to operas like Pélleas at Mélisande, Parsifal, Dic Frau ohne Schatten , or Michael Tippett's symbolist works (the best I can do, dramatically, is to regard them as some kind of dream); to the ldeological elements of The Magic Flute or Wagner's Ring , or even to the "inspiring message" of Fidelio . However much I may enjoy their music (or the more "human" parts of their progress), I have a hard time warming to onstage abstractions, or crediting musical works for the supposed depth or righteousness of the ideas they express.

I prize operas that provide good occasions for singing (solo, ensemble, and choral), but preferably singing that makes dramatic sense. I grow impatient at mere circus-turn inserts, even when sting by large and famous canaries with priceless golden throats. I dislike irrelevant choruses and interpolated dance numbers, unless the producer has found a way to fit them into the plot. I have learned to live with, even enjoy, all manner of operatic conventions. But I most admire composers, like Mozart and Verdi, who call turn the conventions they are saddled with to genuine dramatic point.

The best opera composers are those who love, as I do, the human voice staging. They learn how to write for it, how to take advantage of it, and how to use it to captivate and compel, to win our attention and assent by exploiting either its sheer beauty or its potential for resonant dramatic expression.

The best operas are those in which the music—vocal and orchestral—is remarkable and captivating all by itself, but is also heart seizing and transcendentally


CLARAMAE TURNER  (center) AND CHORUS MEMBERS  backstage during a rehearsal of
Wagner's Die Meistersinger , San Francisco Opera, 1959.
Courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.

affecting when experienced as the vehicle for a human drama about which one can care. The orchestra should be intelligently and dramatically used; it should contribute to, and sometimes create, the action. It can (as many writers before me have pointed out) describe inner thoughts, comment on events, foreshadow and recall, and create fear or suspense far more potently than words alone can do. It can motivate characters, define precise social relationships, bring new worlds into being, and (as in Mozart) even undercut the apparent meaning of the text. I am happiest when an opera orchestra does these things in interesting and original ways, with something less than movie-music obviousness.

Potential for good theatre is nice to have as well. It is no accident that the three greatest opera composers—Mozart, Verdi, and Wagner—were all theatrical geniuses, regardless of whether (as Shaw pointed out) the people who undertake to


stage their works always realize that. I find many operas, in and out of the standard repertory, to be fundamentally uninteresting both dramatically and musically, to the point where I doubt that any new production, however ingenious, could shake me out of my lethargic inability to respond. I once attended such works, when reviewing a whole season of which they were a part, as a professional critical chore. I no longer do. "I have difficulty with stupid works where bombastic music exceeds dramatic necessity," producer/impresario Michael Hampe has said. (The example he cited was Andrea Chenier .) I couldn't agree more.

There are other popular, and in few cases critically acclaimed, works that 1 actively dislike, usually because of a combination of what strikes me as either insipid (Louise ) or aggressively "ugly" (Elektra ) music, together with an overwrought, artificial human story that simply cannot compel my attention, however pertinent or meaning-laden it once might have seemed; or because they embody (inescapably, in the music) attitudes and values that repel me. (See chapter 9, "Sex and Religion in French Opera.") But most of my nays are still tempered and tentative, decisions not altogether closed. I try to leave room in almost every case for the possibility that a great conductor working with good singing actors and an insightful director may yet open my cars and my mind.

A few operas—operas my list is probably no longer than Kerman's or Keller's—do seem to me beyond critical question. That is to say, I know they are great, and need no production to prove it. They may, of course (and often will), be abysmally produced and performed. But I can always try to imagine the angels staging them, the composer directing them, through all of the squawking, scraping, and stumbling on stage: then go home and read the score, or listen to a good recording, and imagine the perfect production staged in the Opera House Under My Hat.

The greater part of the standard repertory—and a good many operas not in it—I like potentially . I tend, far more than harsher critics, to accept the repertory as it has evolved, and to worry less about the perfect opera, or the twenty tolerable operas, or some Olympian standard of acceptability. The bent of mind that seeks to form "canons" seems to me, in the 1990s, archaic and uncomfortably authoritarian.[14] My job, both as critic and as simple hedonist, is not to narrow the possible inlets of


joy, but to remain as open as possible to what a good production team can make of a tolerable text and score. I am at least as fascinated by the challenge of making a problematic opera "work" as I am by the imputed dramatic perfection or imperfection of its score.

George Bernard Shaw once wrote, "Nobody has ever greeted a performance of Tristan und Isolde by such a remark as, 'We shall never be able to go back to L'elisir d'amore after this'; or declared that [Donizetti's] Lucrezia was impossible after Brünnhilde." Actually, I think people may very well have said something like that; I know I have thought things like that, after an especially moving evening of Wagner. But Shaw's intelligent point is that work of the first class does not displace work of the second class, any more (the analogies are his) than Ibsen displaces melodrama or Shakespeare displaces the circus. We need and enjoy good Shakespeare; we need and enjoy a good circus. We cannot breathe permanently the air of Olympus. After one good seventeen-hour Ring cycle, I find I don't require another for quite a while. After the Rhine has finally overflowed and Valhalla has gone up in flames, I find myself turning to diversions of a considerably lighter sort (which, of course, is simply a form of self-definition. There are good people who can happily sit—or even stand—through three Ring cycles in a row).

There is nothing arbitrary about the size of the standard operatic repertory. It takes about 150 operas, plus new additions and discoveries, to keep the existing houses and companies running, the audiences contented, the singers and orchestras paid. Although I have about had my fill of Toscas and Bohèmes (but only after a great many enjoyable evenings), there are new opera lovers starting out every season who should have their chance to see, and perhaps one day reject, these works. Revisionist productions in recent years of Butterfly and Turandot , cross-grained productions that stressed the cruelty against the lyricism, have affected me strongly. I never want to experience another Faust , which is one of the few top repertory standards I really would like to see dumped. But I will keep on going to Rigoletto and Carmen until I see and hear a production as powerful as the version in my head. Well-performed Offenbach (which is hard to find) I love, the five satiric operettas more than Hoffmann . Experience in the theatre has taught me that any of a dozen Verdi operas, the more durable bel canto tragedies, Monteverdi and Gluck, much of  Janácek[*] and Britten, Der Rosenkavalier, Ariadne , and Arabella , and almost any well-wrought opera buffa can be turned into silver (if not gold) by the right team of stagers, musicians, and producers.

But that is my point: almost any tolerable script and score, I believe, can be made to work, can be rendered into a memorable theatrical experience, given the right production. And within "tolerable" I include Rossini and Vivaldi serias, Massenet and Meyerbeer, Henze and Shostakovitch, Penderecki and Poulenc: a list, in the end, so long that to speak of canons is to make no sense at all.


THE WAGNERITES . Drawing by Aubrey Beardsley from  The Yellow  Book (1894).
Courtesy of the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.



The early years of opera, from Rinuccini through Metastasio, could reasonably be considered the Age of the Poet. For many years the written words were regarded as more permanent, and were treated more like art, than the scores. Next came the Age of the Singer (these "ages," of course, overlap), described and satirized in Benedetto Marcello's "Il teatro alla moda" and chronicled by many other observers. Lasting through much of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, this was the age of Baroque and bel canto opera, when the services of uniquely gifted singers (including castrati) were regarded as indispensable.

Around 1860, by sheer force of will and popularity, Verdi and Wagner were able to impose, or superimpose, what one might call the Age of the Composer. At long last, the person most responsible for what mattered in an opera was able to give orders regarding the libretto, the singers, the staging, and the conductors he wanted. Composers regularly conducted their own works as well, at least for important premières and gala events, which extended that authority even further.

As opera composers with this kind of power and popularity began to die out (the last two were Puccini and Strauss), dominion shifted again, and the Age of the Conductor was born. For a few decades in the first half of this century, important productions of opera—almost all of old operas now, because the repertory had begun to cease growing—were identified with, and in a major way created by, their conductors: Krauss's Salome , Furtwängler's Tristan , Toscanini's Traviata , Busch's Così .

Now a fifth age in the history of opera appears to be upon us: the Age of the Producer. During the past forty years, the nature and variety of opera productions around the world have altered to an astonishing degree. Traditional productions more or less like those our parents and grandparents saw still account for most of the thousands of performances given each year. But audiences in several major centers, some festivals, and a few smaller cities are now regularly confronted with assertively, even defiantly novel reinterpretations and reconceptions of standard repertory works. All of these are the creations of a type of opera/theatre professional virtually unknown less than a century ago.

Most older operagoers grew tip on visual and musical incarnations of popular operas little changed since the days of the later Wagner and Verdi, the days of Shaw and Ernest Newman—little changed, that is, since the days when electric lighting and three-dimensional sets first seriously altered staging techniques. If the libretto declared that an opera was set in seventeenth-century Spain, efforts were made to dress the performers and design the sets according to someone's idea, at least, of the costumes and buildings of seventeenth-century Spain. Depending on the resources available, village plazas, mountain crags, Egyptian temples, or Paris cafés identified in the text would be recreated either sketchily, with painted back-


OPERA LOVERS . Anonymous illustration from Scrici (John H. Swaby),  Physiology of the Opera  (1852).
Courtesy of the Institute for Studies in American Music, Brooklyn College.

drops and a few movable thrones, tables, altars, or rocks, or in painstakingly naturalistic detail. In the larger houses, where extravagance for its own sake was sometimes the rule, garrets and boudoirs grew to be sixty or eighty feet wide—a convention audiences rapidly learned to accept.

A few librettists and composers (notably Wagner and Verdi) left explicit instructions on how they wanted their stages to be set and their actors costumed, moved, and motivated. If a libretto called for, or the music indicated, a sword fight, a dragon, a ghost, a little table, or a chaste kiss, that's what audiences saw. Almost from the start, a few operas (The Magic Flute , Wagner's Ring, Pélleas et Mélisande ) seemed to invite stylizanon, even abstraction, in design, and occasionally they got it.

The beginnings of the current revolution in the worldwide staging of opera, in the years after World War II, arc usually traced to the work of Wieland and Wolfgang


Wagner (the composer's grandsons) at Bayreuth, to the work of Walter Felsenstein in East Berlin, and to parallel innovations on the nonmusical stage by people like Peter Hall in England. For many operagoers this "revolution" will be something they have read about rather than experienced. A few companies in the United States have dipped a toe into the New Wave, but the "majors" have experimented only diffidently or rarely: one could cite producer Goeran Järvefelt's Bluebeard's Castle/Erwartung double bill at the Met, Peter Sellars's Tannhäuser in Chicago, Nicholas Joel's Parsifal , Nikolaus Lehnhoff's Salome , and a number of productions by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle in San Francisco. Opera productions in Spain and Latin America are still for the most part solidly nineteenth century. There are innovators at work in Britain and France, but the most radical of them have tended to work outside the largest houses. La Scala in Milan and the Comunale in Florence have taken a few eccentric stabs at postmodern production, but most of Italy remains determinedly traditionalist. The home of avant-garde production ideas remains essentially where it began, in the German-speaking countries—although ideas travel far and fast in today's opera world, partly because German producers travel also.

I describe a number of the new-style, postmodern productions in the essays ahead, so I won't rehearse them here. Catalogues of revisionist outrages are included in books such as A. M. Nagler's Misdirection: Opera Production in the Twentieth Century (originally titled Malaise in der Oper ) of 1981 and Henry Pleasants's Opera in Crisis of 1989. Nagler (who seems to be dissatisfied with any alteration from opera as it was produced sixty years ago) briefly labels and denounces more than 200 "misdirections" of 10 selected operas since 1950 (and sometimes earlier), most of them in Germany. Pleasants instances 29 British productions from 1977 to 1988—17 of them from the more "innovative" English National Opera—and (by way of secondhand accounts) 18 from other countries, including the 1976 and 1988 Bayreuth Rings and Peter Sellars's versions of the Mozart-Da Ponte operas, on which I comment in the pages ahead. Although Nagler casts his net much more widely, many of the same "producer-kings" come under attack from both men: David Alden, Ruth Berghaus, Peter Brook, Patrice Chéreau, Walter Felsenstein, David Freeman, Götz Friedrich, Joachim Herz, Gocran Järvefelt, Harry Kupfer, Yuri Lyubimov, Jonathan Miller, Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, David Pountncy, Luca Ronconi, Ken Russell, Peter Sellars, Andrei Serban, Peter Stein, and Graham. Vick. Pleasants writes:

The root of all this presumptuous, arrogant, and often licentious mischief is the crisis of opera in this century, i.e., the stagnation of the repertoire and the scarcity of great singers. . . .[15]


Unable to update the music. . . . [opera managers] have looked to a new breed of producer, mostly from theater and film, to sustain the illusion of vitality and continuity by updating and altering the staging in cynical violation of tradition and oblivious of, or indifferent to, the consequent stylistic anachronisms, aberrations, abominations, and—not to mince words about it—vandalism.

Although all of the productions denounced in these books (as well as new postwar directions in opera production generally) have had their ardent defenders, many, perhaps most, local and international music critics, along with many apoplectic writers of letters to editors, have echoed the outrage of Nagler and Pleasants. Blame is sometimes spread to conductors and singers as co-conspirators; but more often they are regarded with sympathy as hapless puppets, imprisoned by tyrant-producers in their unspeakable new productions.

The new stagings most often criticized are of several sorts:

1. Those in which an opera originally set by its authors in one time and place is moved by the producer to another time and place (e.g., shifting Rigoletto to New York or Wagner's Ring to the nineteenth century), even if this forces the libretto into occasional anachronisms or nonsense.

2. Those in which specifically sited operas are moved "out of the world" altogether into a science-fiction or apocalyptic future, or a surrealistic fantasyland of the producer's and designer's own creating;

3. Those in which a producer flatly ignores or defies the original authors' own directions, the apparent and traditionally accepted meaning of the libretto, and the traditionally accepted "meaning" of the music;

4. Those in which an opera composed at an earlier time is used to argue or express contemporary, often controversial ideas, to make modern social or political "statements" the original work was obviously not intended to make. (This, in fact, often serves as a producer's justification for alterations that fall trader categories 1, 2, and 3.)


The French critic Guy Verriest traces the birth of the independent opera producer and set designer to postwar Germany, and in particular to Walter Felsenstein's influential concept of Musiktheater . Felsenstein (in Verriest's formulation), infusing Wagner's Gesamtkunstwerk with Brecht's antibourgeois "epic theatre," granted absolute priority to the overall dramatic effect of an opera by means of a minutely conceived and (usually) very original staging. What bothers this critic is that Felsenstein and his successors typically drew their "dramatic truth" exclusively from the libretto—even from its literary or historical source—and betrayed the original by creating a new work in conformity with their own taste and temperament.

They [the producers] often ignore the music—which they generally don't understand; and nothing is more destructive to the comprehension of an opera. In each opera, we can judge whether the musical and verbal messages reinforce or contradict one another. In every case, we must take the music as our guide and try to understand the composer 's conception of the text. It is this conception, and not the naked text, that defines the ultimate significance of the work.[16]


Although original scores (or some modern scholar's reconstruction of them) tend to be more respected than in centuries past, producers, conductors, and singers are still criticized as well for cuts, interpolations, and transpositions. In general, however—except for Baroque opera—the music and words in these novel productions tend to be presented as written, or as rewritten, or as carefully reconstructed, or as "traditionally" edited and cut. (Many popular operas exist in several versions, each defensible oil diffirent terms.) What is being ignored or defied in postmodern productions, its critics argue, is not so much the score as the tradition of onstage performance practice—which is to say, the traditions of the bigger opera houses between 1880 and 1940—and the traditional "readings" or interpretations of text and score.

The range of works attacked by Nagler, Pleasants, Verriest, and like-minded operatic conservatives includes everything from productions that deviate only slightly from topographical realism, or the legacy of a librettist's minutest stage directions, to the most radical deconstructions of the original text. Because of this range, I find it impossible to declare the new breed of producers "right" or "wrong"; one would have to argue the case production by production. In any event, I would feel ill at ease debating the merits of any production I hadn't seen and heard myself. In my own experiences of the lyric (as of the spoken) theatre, I have found some extremely novel readings and interpretations of classics to work very well, to enlarge considerably my sense of the original. Others have struck me as reductionist and perverse.

Whatever one may think about such deformations of traditional operas—Bellini's Norma in a tank, Monteverdi's Ulysses in Vietnam—in one important respect the conservative critics and polemicists are right. Since 1950, the director or producer of an opera has become a far more significant figure generally than he was in the years before World War II.[17] Despite the occasional and isolated emergence of a dominating, "heroic" opera producer, like Alfred Roller or Max Reinhardt in the early years of this century, the very idea of the nonmusical producer of


an opera becoming a creative force as important as, or even more important than, the singers or conductor of an opera is a phenomenon very much of our time.

A few conductors, like Herbert von Karajan, have served as their own producers. Some producers, like Franco Zeffirelli and Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, have taken on the role of designer as well. In extreme cases—which are themselves exemplary of the Age of the Producer—the producer assumes precedence over composer and librettist. Peter Brook's popular Paris entertainment of 1981 called The Tragedy of Carmen was a rewriting and condensation created by Brook out of Bizet's opera. In the case of John Adams's Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer , it was the producer, Peter Sellars, who first conceived the idea of the opera, then assembled a sympathetic team of composer, librettist, and designer.

Two centuries ago, such a czarlike role would have been assumed not by an independent stage producer or by the composer but by the librettist. "It is therefore the poet's duty," wrote Francesco Algarotti in 1755, "as chief engineer of the undertaking, to give directions to the dancers, the machinists, the painters; nay even to those who are entrusted with the care of the wardrobe and dressing the performers. The poet is to carry in his mind a comprehensive view of the whole of the drama; because those parts which are not the productions of his pen ought to flow from the dictates of his actuating judgment, which is to give being and movement to the whole." Daniel Heartz has demonstrated that distinguished eighteenth-century poet-librettists like Metastasio, Goldoni, and Da Ponte all gave specific instructions for stage positions and movement, oversaw rehearsals, and "instruct[ed] the actors in the truth of the action and of the expression."

Critics unhappy about the new Age of the Producer will insist that these non-musical interpreters, these mere painters of scenery and shifters-about of singers, have assumed supremacy over composers and librettists in hundreds of cases less notoriously imperial than those of Peter Sellars and Peter Brook. Like old-line Catholic theologians, such critics refer to what they regard as the joint and equal authority of Scripture and Tradition: Scripture being what composers and librettists have in fact written down (which includes not only explicit or implicit stage directions in the libretto but also letters, transcripts of rehearsal notes, and production books); Tradition being the way in which their operas have "always" been done. ("Always," as I say, tends to mean the way operas were done at the Teatro alla Scala, the Royal Opera at Covent Garden, the Vienna Staatsoper, the Paris Opera, the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, and the Metropolitan Opera, between the introduction of electric lights and three-dimensional sets and the beginning of World War II.)

In earlier days, the poet told singers where to stand and how to move. The composer prepared and usually conducted (from the keyboard) at least the première performances. The theatre's resident musical director assigned roles and supervised the singing. Later on, chorus-masters came in to deal with crowds and


stage movement in general, although (according to Wolfgang Hildesheimer), "there was no theory of stage direction in our sense of the term; action, gesture, mime were hardly synchronized; everyone did what he could; improvisation was substituted for rehearsal. . . . Actors were allowed to follow their interpretive inspiration of the moment."

Old singers' memoirs, from the days when most singers maintained a single home base all their lives, suggest that young members in a company learned expression from voice teachers and stage deportment from senior colleagues—out of which grew a tradition and a minimal need for stage directors as such. In many cities (particularly Paris and Milan) the design of opera sets developed into an elaborate and independent craft of its own, basically unrelated to concepts of acting or musical interpretation.

Today, the music critic typically addresses first the (new) production of an opera—which is presumed, for better or worse, to aspire to some sort of conceptual unity: Peter Hall's Così , not Bernard Haitink's; Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's Così , not John Pritchard's; Peter Sellars's Così , not Craig Smith's. What does the production look like, what do the actors do (and wear), what appears to be their character and motivation? How does this differ from other productions of the same opera? What, on the whole, does it (the production, not the opera) seem to "mean" or "say"? Does it roll along with or fight against, enlarge or reduce our previous conception of the work? All of this has become a fascinating, sometimes a maddening game for music critics (and for audiences) to play. It is one that they rarely had the opportunity or obligation to play in the past.

If the visible/theatrical production is in fact "traditional" (or tired, or very dull), or if the opera features a famous singer—especially one undertaking a new role—a critic may start at once with the voices. If Karl Böhm or Carlos Kleiber is making a rare and impressive appearance on the podium, the conductor's interpretation may still be addressed first. But the new 1976–1988 Ring productions at Bayreuth—conducted originally by Pierre Boulez, Georg Solti, and Daniel Barenboim respectively, each making use of some of the best-known Wagnerian singers in the world—are inevitably referred to today as Patrice Chéreau's Ring , Peter Hall's Ring , and Harry Kupfer's Ring .

Rarely, unless it is new to the audience, is an opera itself evaluated. For most critics today, the standard repertory is simply a "given." Joseph Kerman protests what he regards as this overturned set of priorities. Discourse in operatic criticism, he complains, is seldom about meaning but rather about peripheral topics, like "modern production methods."

In an ideal world, the order would perhaps be reversed. A critic would deal first with the value of the opera, then with the singing and conducting (focusing, of course, on dramatic values), and only finally, if at all, with the physical production. But when I once ventured to include my own opinion of Strauss's Die Frau ohne


Schatten —not one of my all-time favorite operas—in a London Times review, my editor asked me to keep my private judgments of repertory standards to myself. "Please confine your remarks to the new production," he instructed me. "We presume our readers have already formed their own opinions about the opera and aren't interested in knowing yours."

George Bernard Shaw was never backward in coming forward with his opinions of the operas he reviewed, however "established" in the repertory they may have seemed. Like Kerman, he obviously hoped he might help to disestablish one or two. But though he almost never referred to "producers" as such—except insofar as conductors like Thomas Beecham also took responsibility for productions—he did, as a conscientious man of the theatre himself, care a great deal about proper interpretation, realization, mise-en-scène. Before he mentioned singers at all (however famous) in his reviews, he tended to deal with the egregious weaknesses and errors that prevented most operas produced in London in the 1880s and 1890s from being fully realized on stage: the wretched acting (or nonacting), the total misreading of a composer's deeper meanings, the casual and foolish cuts and alterations made in the scores. Kerman, too, when working as a journalist-critic—though always ready to condemn any opera he dislikes—inevitably attends first to dramatic values, both in individual singers' performances and in productions as a whole.

I have said that "the right production" is the second essential ingredient for a successful operatic experience, that opera-as-written demands a proper production if it is to be completed and brought to life. What, by my lights, makes for a proper production? Given the repertory—and that is a very large given—what is it that I look for in a production?

I find myself applying many of the same standards to a production that Kerman applies to written scores. Where he looks for optimal dramatic coherence, I look for optimal theatrical coherence. This usually involves some sort of intellectual concept, ideally one drawn from the text, a concept that is tangible (or felt as evolving) throughout the opera, as we are experiencing it. This concept cannot be something arcane and imported, undiscernible except by way of a director's explanatory notes. In fact, many of the best directorial visions (in all forms of theatre) are impossible to express in words. Like a conductor's "interpretation" of a score—for scores do not play themselves—this involves a "reading," the discovery of an emotional and intellectual structure that permeates, vivifies, clarifies, and unifies everything we see and hear happening on stage. Ideally, the conductor's and producer's interpretations—of words and music, in both cases—would be worked out together. One would then sense in the opera house the excitement of a close and sympathetic collaboration.

Opera is, or at least can be, "total theatre" in the Artaudian sense: theatre to the


max. Anything less than a total recreation, therefore, a controlled and integrated production in which every clement contributes to a single coherent vision, seems to me inadequate. An indispensable subset of total theatre is dramatic conviction; it is far more indispensable, I believe, than "perfect" singing or "flawless" instrumental playing. I expect opera singers to be able to act, with their voices first, but ultimately with their whole bodies, no less than I do speaking actors.

With all respect for their extraordinary vocal abilities, I therefore find myself out of sympathy with singers like Joan Sutherland when she declares (Luciano Pavarotti has said essentially the same thing), "I think it is tile sound of staging that people want when they come to the opera. If they want a good dramatic performance, they should go to a straight play." There are those of us who think we have a right to expect both—even at an opera. If singers can't or don't want to learn to act, perhaps they should stick to the concert stage.

That much said, I prefer to back off from more specific prescriptions about the ingredients of "the right production." Although there are important clues for production written into the words and music of every opera, these clues are not orders, nor do they yield a single "right" production. The detailed instructions left by some composers (Wagner's for Parsifal and the Ring , Verdi's production books for seven of his operas, Berg's for Lulu , Bartók's for Bluebeard's Castle ) are certainly important for a producer to know; but they are not the last words, despite the "orders" of the original publishers.[18] Productions today that try to follow the originals precisely, such as the 1982 Parma Forza , are likely to be of primarily academic and historicist interest, like exact imitations of old buildings.

Within the score and its libretto is encoded a key for production—or rather several keys, since music is such an equivocal means of communication.[19] Studied carefully by a producer who either knows music well, or undertakes the task together with someone who does, the established text can provide not only the essential unifying concept; but also innumerable ideas for individual characterizations, movements, and gestures, as well as for settings, costumes, and lighting. The spectator should feel that the visual enactment blooms organically out of the text, even when (as in many contemporary productions of Shakespeare's The


Merchant of Venice and The Taming of the Shrew ) the production is actively commenting on or criticizing the text.

One can legitimately search for and make use of external clues for a production concept, beyond the more or less obvious ideas conveyed by the text, when dealing with any opera written before our time. The "modern" operas of Alban Berg, for example, no longer strike me as contemporary, any more than T. S. Eliot's The Wasteland , or a classic 1920s film. They seem to me to call out for a production concept that takes into account the distance we have traveled since they were written.

If this is true for operas of the 1920s, it is even more true for older works—which is to say, virtually all of the repertory standards. Unless one is aspiring toward a historicist revival, a study in the taste and ideas of another time (or nothing more creative than a harmless "concert in costume"), it seems appropriate, even desirable, to interpret and illuminate works of the past in the light of a number of external facts:

· what we know surely of the composer's own life and times (I find something both logical and revealing in performances of eighteenth-century opera seria—even when the operas are supposedly "set" in ancient Babylon or Greece—in eighteenth-century European court dress);

· what we know of the composer's own historical and literary sources (there are good clues for producing Bizet's Carmen , I believe, to be found in Prosper Merimée's short story);

· the traditional (1880–1940) image or performance style of the work, even if one elects to discard or work against it;

· the historical substance of the years that have passed between an opera's composition and today;

· the technical means at one's disposal, as well as the musical and vocal resources. Although I realize that this is not always possible at the international houses, where leading artists fly in and out, I greatly respect producers who build their conceptions around (while working with) the available performers, as composers themselves often did.


The very fact of the "archaism," the cultural distance from us of most repertory operas—and yet of their undeniably persisting musical/expressive power—invites the producer to acknowledge that archaism, to incarnate, not some image from 1787 or 1876 preserved, as it were, under a glass bell jar, but an onstage world that takes that distance (and the intervening history) into account. As Jonathan Miller has said:

The author or composer is not necessarily the best authority on his own meanings. This is not to say that he is slipshod, or does not understand his meaning, but simply that no writer, no author, no composer has total access to all his own meanings. . . . The producer can provide this insight. He is the bystander, the intelligent critic who is in a position, sometimes, to identify meanings that were not directly accessible to the composer, and to extract new meanings with the passing of time. . . . One constantly has to make allowances for modern sensibilities, for unforeseeable changes in the perceptions of the modern audience. . . .

Composers and writers working before about 1850 had little reason to suspect that the future would be any different from the past, or that their work would pass into a cultural environment very different from their own. History was relatively stable then. Now it is not so, and therefore the future of any particular work cannot be foreseen.

There are a number of ways in which a producer can discover "new meanings" in an opera, meanings of which the original authors may have been unaware. One can play melodrama so tightly that it hurts; one can make stock suffering heroines really suffer. One can openly dramatize what is problematic in a text—for example, the rigid and sometimes frustrating class distinctions in Figaro and Don Giovanni , the limited roles and images permitted to women in earlier times, Superman Siegfried's disgust for lower orders of beings, the Freudian undercurrents of Elektra and Salome . A producer who attempts to do such things—by dream or nightmare contexts, by modern dress and stage settings, by the dramatization of actualized neuroses and psychoses, by vivid symbolism and external reference, by taking a plunge into new emotional depths—will be inviting attack from critics like those cited previously. But all of these approaches strike me as legitimate and defensible, as long as the written work itself is not belied or betrayed in some essential way.[20]

This, I believe, is what happens (as I argue in chapter 6, on Peter Sellars's versions


of the Mozart-Da Ponte operas) when a producer imposes from without a directorial conceit alien to the score. The producer's goal in such cases may be to shock—to defy the expectations of audiences he regards as half-asleep; or to editorialize—to force the opera to serve as a vehicle for some urgent personal message of his own. Some of the new productions that have been most vigorously denounced appear as well to defy, to play against the apparent message or meaning of the text and score.

This troubles me primarily, I suppose, because of the sublime arrogance involved. The words and music of a long-established work are turned into a plastic, pliable vehicle for a producer-king's late-twentieth-century ideas; the ideas of a producer-king who appears to regard himself as a creator, a maker of symbolic statements equal or superior to those of the original creators.

A case can be made for such apparently arrogant and perverse directorial "statements." I know, because I have heard versions of this case made time and again. One may decide (1) that composers of operas are not necessarily more important artists than the producers of their works; (2) that because the composer and librettist are dead—no more than names attached to a text, their intentions indecipherable or irrelevant—their words and score are now ours to play with as we will; (3) that modern producers of other people's texts need no longer play the self-effacing, secondary role of mere réalisateurs; (4) that in any case there are a thousand ways to "read" whatever "directions" may be encoded into the music; or (5) that because all values today are disputable, there can be no canons or "right ways."

All of these ideas may be found in contemporary literary critical theory as well. But a new, "deconstructionist" reading of a classic literary text differs considerably in its audience, its cultural effect, and its reality status from a similar reading of an classic opera, made by a person in a position to produce it. Having to live with a producer's strange new interpretation of Wagner's Ring at Bayreuth for five or more years (and the many other productions it is likely to affect) is quite a different thing from being able to read (or ignore) a critic's strange new interpretation of a Baudelaire poem. The case is even more serious with willfully outré productions of little-known works, because this particular interpretation is likely to be the only one the audience has ever seen or will ever see.

The producer of a standard repertory opera who based his interpretation on premises like those just cited—for example, Peter Sellars, in his productions of The Magic Flute or Tannhäuser —could insist that the only legitimate way to object to such a production would be to do battle, not with the producer's "misconception" or "perversion" of what we regard as Mozart's or Wagner's ideas, but with his own apparent statement. All productions, even the most traditional, the most dutiful, are interpretations of a sort, and hence implicitly critiques. A postmodern producer opposed to what he sees as the values of a composer or his time may take this idea one step further and mount an anti -Puccini Madame Butterfly , let us say (I


have seen such productions), in which he attacks the composer and his values in the course of producing his work. (Of course, musical analysts, critics, and producers can debate endlessly over the nature of the original "meaning or message," in addition to the propriety or impropriety of defying it. There are almost as many musicologists' interpretations of the Mozart-Da Ponte operas as there are producers'.)

The chief weakness of such revisionist efforts is that the spectator cannot help but, in Kerman's words, "trust the music" first, because music carries so much more emotional impact than anything else: more impact than the words; more than buffoonish costuming, psychotic staging, cynical acting "against the text"; more than even the most vivid, the most hostile production. The producer, as I suggested, may even be presuming in the audience a shared dis trust, even disgust, for the score he has chosen to direct (Andrew Porter once suspected this of what he regarded as Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's trashing of Massenet's Manon ); in which case, we are all implicated in the cynical, destructive enterprise.

Many operagoers are far more easily satisfied than I am with predictable, routine productions—Carmen with the spit curl and the rose between her teeth, flashing her knees flamenco-style beneath ruffled fuchsia petticoats as she clacks her castanets and dances atop an inn table près des remparts d' an apparently authentic Seville . Beyond that, they ask only for good music, well played and (if possible) spectacularly sung.

My preferences for fresh, alert, conceptually unified, and dramatically credible total theatre are based as much on autobiography as on any reasoned aesthetic theory. A literary and architectural education in the 1950s, several years spent as a critic and teacher of drama, a heady exposure at a very susceptible stage to the work of such people as Wieland Wagner, Walter Felsenstein, Peter Hall, Giorgio Strehler, and Maria Callas all disposed me to think of opera as theatre first; as drama, only better. In a frequently quoted remark, Michael Billington of the Guardian has claimed that "the lyric theatre has absorbed much of the dramatic theatre's energy and talent. . . . To put it crudely, opera now possesses [he was writing in 1988] the controversial dynamism theatre had 15 or 20 years ago." David Pountney (one of the postmodern directors conservative critics love to hate) says, "On good nights in the opera house, the acting you see is as good [as], if not better than, the acting that you see at the National Theatre."

I can't quite buy that. I remain an ardent follower and a fan of non lyric drama at its best, as well as opera. I know that one continues to see better acting—taken all in all—at the National Theatre than at Covent Garden, and at the better American regional repertory theatres than at the Met, and that it is foolish to claim otherwise. But I early learned of the far greater expressive potential of sung over spoken drama, however rarely that potential is achieved. Much of my indoctrination came at the hands of Kurt Herbert Adler, the Viennese-born general director (1953–


1982) of the San Francisco Opera, an impresario considerably more adventurous in his choice of operas, singers, and producers than either Rudolf Bing in New York or Carol Fox in Chicago. If I had been educated to opera in New York or Chicago, my responsiveness to "total theatre" values might conceivably have been less, and the likelihood of my thinking of opera primarily in terms of fabulous voices all the greater. (Contemporaries I met from those two cities who cared about opera were inevitably violently partisan fans of this or that particular singer.) On the other hand, if I had grown up learning about opera in any one of several German cities, I might not care about fabulous voices at all.

An ideal, total production of a major opera, by my standards, is very nearly unattainable, although I have seen many that came close. Exceptional resources and rehearsal time, rarely available outside of a few prime summer festival situations (Glyndebourne, Salzburg, Bayreuth), are probably indispensable. A first-rate conductor sensitive to voices is required. Many of the world's best conductors are unwilling to invest the time and energy required for a top-quality opera production (outside their home ports) when they can earn the same fees and acclaim for less demanding orchestral concerts and recordings.

This ideal conductor should have the time and will to work out a line-by-line interpretation together with a congenial and musically sensitive director. Ideally, the director would be his own designer, or would be working with one in sympathy with his ideas. The two of them would want, of course, the best orchestra, soloists, chorus, and dancers available, which implies a resident ensemble accustomed to working together, all of its members pliant and theatrically skilled, able and willing to undergo a great many rehearsals.

One is rarely likely to get all that, which is why a "perfect opera" is so hard to pull off. Most of the time I'm more than willing to compromise—as composers, conductors, producers, and singers have always had to do. If nothing essential is seriously harmed, I will settle for an imperfect realization of a great opera—a Don Giovanni, let us say (the text and score offer so much that even a partial achievement can be a feast); but I hope for something closer to a fully realized, 100 percent incarnation of a Thaïs or an Arabella . The pleasure of a well-produced minor work can be considerable, since a near-complete realization of almost any work of theatre yields (to someone possessed of a "theatrical sensibility") a sense of fulfillment; an ultimate, if a lesser kind of satisfaction. (My presumption is that 100 percent realizations of theatrical works, like perfect grades of "20" on French examination papers, never occur. The nearest I've come to what felt like a perfect realization of a great work of the spoken theatre was a production of Chekhov's The Three Sisters given by the new National Theatre at Chichester in 1963; of an opera, a Der Rosenkavalier —which featured Elizabeth Schwarzkopf's American debut—at San Francisco in 1955, reprised with great style in subsequent seasons.)


by Sir Osbert Lancaster.Courtesy of Lady Ann Lancaster and the Glyndebourne Opera Festival.

Lesser achievements can still teach us many things, give us many pleasures. Good music well played call offer, at the very least, the joys of the concert hall; fine voices well deployed call yield a deep and intimate satisfaction, even if the vehicle is weak, the production inadequate. In such cases, however, the frustration of what has not been achieved may well undercut the satisfaction of what has.


The formula of right opera plus right production, the ideal work ideally realized, is still an incomplete recipe for success. It lacks an essential ingredient—the ideal spectator, the right person listening and watching. The ideal spectator would not, obviously, be a Tolstoy or a Nietzsche, or any of the fundamentalist anti-opera types conjured up some pages ago. The ideal spectator cannot, obviously, be a woodenheaded literalist, one of Stendhal's "poor, passionless, bluntminded creatures" who can tolerate art only at its most photorealistic, who accepts what happens on a stage only when it resembles very closely what happens in daily life.


Conversely, people who go to the opera primarily for the social cachet of being seen there—the operagoers Tolstoy and Nietzsche most despised—are probably doomed to boredom, frustration, and (insofar as they have one) an uneasy con-science. Let us permit these two types of non-opera lovers to cancel each other out.

What sort of person can spark a potentially fine operatic experience into life, within his or her own sensibility? What sort of person is likely to derive the greatest amount of pleasure (enlightenment, new understanding, moral and emotional enrichment) from a good opera well performed?

In the face of the heterogeneous list of 100 current standard repertory operas cited earlier in this chapter, it is clear that no two people—not even two people equally educated, open, alert, and responsive—are going to respond in the same way to the same works. Multiply the likelihood of variation in response by the different conductors and orchestras, the different actors and voices, and the different theatrical ideas and visual effects that may be involved in production, and it would seem impossible (except as a gesture of sheer solipsistic arrogance) to identify anyone's response as "ideal." Alan Rich defines this dilemma when he writes:

Suppose I am going to La Traviata —a not out-of-the-way supposition, since there are times when I seem to be going to La Traviata four nights out of five. I've lived with this opera a long time, studied it in school, followed it with the score on records or at the piano. I have had plenty of time, in other words, to form my own set of ideas about the opera, the kind of voices I would ideally like to hear in the roles, the tempos at which it ought to move, how it should look onstage. This is the equipment I take with me to the opera house that night, but it is my equipment, which has taken shape inside my mind, condtioned by my personality, which happens to be that of an incurable romantic. My colleague across the aisle arrives with a similar set of equipment—similar in scope, that is, but conditioned by his personality. We sit there, a few feet apart, listening to a Violetta with a perfectly awesome technique; she sticks an E-flat into the end of "Sempre libera" which goes offlike a rocket. She may not know beans about what the opera is about; her exchanges with Germont in the second scene may seem so many vocalises. But boy! she can get the tone out, and the crowd goes wild. In the next morning's papers my colleague erupts in ecstasy, I in fury. There's something I want from La Traviata that has to do with drama and sentiment and reaction to the text; my colleague is mad for vocal prowess. I am not immune to great singing, nor is he to dramatic values, but each has made his own decision as to which is the element more highly to be prized. Our reviews are opposed, and the strange and wonderful thing is that neither of us is "right" or "wrong."

On the whole, I expect that my response would be closer to that of Alan Rich than to that of his imaginary colleague. There are obviously people "mad for vocal


prowess." There are people who relish opera primarily at its most voluptuous and irrational. Anyone who has spent much time in an opera house has probably encountered both sorts.

The Puccini scholar Mosco Carner once wrote, "As for Tosca , there is certainly all aspect of it [an 'undeiable streak of vulgarity,' as he called it] that may offend the purist. But it was not written for him, or the aesthete or the man of perilously refined taste. It is a bold man who will assert that to relish fullbloodedness in art is incompatible with aesthetic enjoyment—on the contrary it may be a sign of a healthy, unwarped aesthetic instinct." The French essayist Guy Verricst, unhappy with the overly demanding standards of rationalist opera critics (who "accept no more than about twenty works"), proposed Mignon as his test of the true opera lover. This opera (still popular in France), he writes, "signifies nothing for the analytic critics who are only trying to set up a relative scale of values, a normative judgment; while the sensitive, instinctive spectator will immediately be carried away by the 'unique and indefensible' poetry that characterizes Ambroise Thomas's work." The playwright Albert Innaurato, a self-confessed "opera fanatic," sets up Ponchielli's La Gioconda as his standard. "The question finally may be not whether the opera is defensible but whether we are who love it. La Gioconda is an extreme example, one where the expressive potential of music is used rather crudely, and not harnessed to insights of an intellectual sort. But I think there is something fundamental about its dramaturgy that may make it a litmus test to differentiate those who more or less like opera from those who adore it."

I fear I would pass neither Carner's test as a person of healthy, unwarped aesthetic instincts; nor Verriest's test as a sensitive, instinctive spectator; nor Innaurato's test as a defensible adorer of opera.

No one, except certain employees of an opera company (ushers, stagehands, orchestra members), professional music critics, and a few people who buy season tickets for other-than-aesthetic reasons, is obliged to attend every opera of the ten-, or twenty-, or thirty-production season of his or her particular resident troupe. In fact, only the most dogged and devoted fans are likely to do so, given the cost, the likelihood of imperfect performances, and the unlikelihood that every work will be of equal appeal.

And yet I believe that the happiest and most highly rewarded operagoer may be one who can take pleasure in almost any good production of a respectable opera. I am not convinced that the doctrinaire Wagnerite, who scorns Italian and French opera as trivial and thin, gets as much out of Wagner as the listener more catholic in attitudes and less difficult to please. The operagoer who can enjoy nothing later or more jarring to the ear than Puccini is obviously cut off from a universe of musical-dramatic satisfaction. I do not believe that the voice fanatic, and more especially the unique-voice fanatic, the Tebaldi or Domingo cultist, the devoted collector of Golden Age records, the exclusive connoisseur of bel canto sopranos—whatever


ecstasies he or she may experience at particular moments with particular singers in particular operas—is ever going to get as much out of opera in general as someone whose cultivated inlets of pleasure are broader and more numerous.

From a consideration of the peculiar nature of the 100-plus operas in the standard repertory, and especially the fifty or so most commonly performed, one call begin to compile a list of "desirable characteristics" for our fictional (and probably unattainable) ideal spectator: the third element in my formula an aesthetics of opera.

1. He (by which, of course, I also mean she) should probably be, if not Eurocentric, at least Europe oriented and more than usually interested in the European past. It would help if he were at least an amateur student of the history, literature, and art of Western Europe. A great deal of the standard repertory depends on Western literary classics and myths (the Greek myths and tragedies, Homer, the Bible, the Norse sagas, Ariosto, Shakespeare, Goethe and Schiller, Victor Hugo, etc.).

In addition to such written works, the standard repertory depends on European history as it used to be written—the story of kings, popes, wars, royal marriages, conspiracies, revolutions. Typically, the settings and stage designs of standard repertory operas evoke, or were originally intended to evoke, European castles and cathedrals, European cities and towns, European mountain and valley landscapes. The places, the people and events, and the literary sources were usually falsified and distorted, legendized and inflated, chopped and changed to fit musical and theatrical expression. But most operas in the current repertory—including recent "common man" or antifascist works, works charged with post-World War II confusion and angst—grow out of and depend on the European past. Not to be aware of that particular past, not to know the soil out of which opera grew, is inevitably to miss a great deal of the cultural resonance of opera.

Not knowing the basic repertory languages (Italian, German, French, perhaps a bit of Russian and Czech) is a lesser loss; even native speakers often cannot comprehend a sung text. One can always read a translation of the libretto in advance. Many houses today offer vernacular translations by way of projected "supertitles" for those who want them (and, I concede, for those who don't). If you wish to dig deeper into the world of opera, however, knowing the three chief repertory languages is, I believe, almost as important as knowing how to read music.

2. Beyond a basic fascination and familiarity with Europe, its history, art, and literature (and sonic of its languages), I think one is likely to get more out of current productions of opera for knowing something of


the history of opera—at least the history of operatic conventions; better still, of the history of Western music. The operas we are most likely to see and hear performed during our lifetimes will probably continue to be made up of the same 100–150 works, composed between 1600 and the present. It is beyond hoping that anyone would naturally and instinctively comprehend and appreciate the conventions of every one.

And yet old music remains, thanks to its vibrating sweetness, its widely apprehended emotional effects, and the passive way in which we are able to receive it, far more accessible and potentially enjoyable to most people than old literature or even old art. More contemporary English-speaking people, I would venture, find themselves moved readily by the music of Monteverdi or Purcell than by the verse of Spenser or Milton, by the paintings of Lorenzetti, or by the buildings of Mansart.

So it is worth trying to comprehend the conventions: making an effort to understand why and how composers once created, and audiences once expected, particular forms of music in opera. Beyond that, some awareness of the history of opera may help one to understand, tolerate, and even come to enjoy the attendant nonsense written into many standard repertory works, which may strike the first-time spectator as simply alien or foolish: da capo repeats, the cavatina (or "cantabile")-cabaletta convention, "exit" arias, inset ballets, vocal ornamentation, recitative of various sorts, "magical" stage spectacles, and those ever-popular ensembles in which characters express a whole gamut of emotions while singing over one another.

I am not pushing for flabby pluralism. To understand the origins and conventions of Metastasian opera seria (see chapter 3, "When Opera Was Still Serious") is not to accept wholeheartedly all of the tone-dead, properly neglected works of Leo, Vinci, Hasse, Porpora, Caldara, & Co. But operas still worthy of performance emerged from almost every age and tradition, and the more we try to assume the eyes and ears of their first audiences, the likelier we are to discover whatever enduring qualities they possess.

3. On the whole, I do believe that a tendency toward aesthetic pluralism and away from the position of the doctrinaire specialist is an advantage to the would-be opera lover. This is partly because of the rooted fact of the established repertory. If you can take some pleasure in Samson et Dalila as well as in The Marriage of Figaro (the two extremes of our 100-item repertory, as well as, to my eyes and ears, the bounds tolerable


taste), you are likely to enjoy the experience of opera more often and more heartily.

Beyond as broad a tolerance for the repertory as one can reconcile with a healthy aesthetic conscience, the ideal operagoer should be endowed with a spirit of tolerance in general: a wide degree of patience, an acceptance of compromise, perhaps even a rooter's "team spirit," wishing for but not always expecting the best; an ability to wait for and then to treasure (when they come) the perfect moments and ideal realizations. Given the extraordinary demands of this multiplex art form, such moments and realizations are going to be few and far between. It helps to be able to fill in the deficiencies of a performance from one's memory and imagination, rather than to sit there squirming with discomfort at the inadequacy of it all.

4. I am taking for granted an alert musical sensibility, although not necessarily specialized musical training. One should be able to register internally significant musical patterns and motifs, changes in tonality or orchestration, even if one cannot always apply to each the appropriate technical term. The musically trained can take special pleasure in compositional ingenuity, tonal problem solving, and allusions to other music; one can certainly learn more about a score by singing or playing it oneself. (The greatest composers, like Mozart, seem to have been able to write in such a way as to please the learned and the unlearned at once.)

But there are times when expertise—to judge from the confessions of experts—seems to get in the way of enjoyment. It is possible that the world's number one authority on Verdi may get less out of a good production of Don Carlos than would you, or I, or George Bernard Shaw—if only because, from closely analyzing the score at home and in "unreal time," the Verdi expert has concluded how it must be performed, and may be dissatisfied with any interpretation but his own.

An ability to detect and respond actively to aesthetic unity would also be a help; an admiration for the artistic event in which numerous disparate elements are held together, enhanced by their juxtaposition, and converted into a single and superior thing—because that is precisely what good opera is.

5. No less important, to the person who hopes to enjoy opera on the stage as well as on record or in print, is a theatrical sensibility, an openness to the limitations, illusions, and potential of the living stage. In fact, the ideal operagoer should probably be endowed with a greater-than-usual theatrical sensibility, one that can relish not only fine drama well


presented but also mimed horror and madness, imagined religious rituals, elaborate spectacles and decors.

6. Along with a nostalgic traditionalism that can take delight in old Europe and its musical-dramatic conventions, the ideal operagoer would possess an openness to orchestral, vocal, and theatrical reinterpretations of old standard works that give them a new but still coherent meaning, and to altogether new operas that push the genre further, and make a new kind of sense. This qualification may be the most difficult of all to attain.

Successful new operas are likely to be rare. For a complex of cultural reasons, very few serious composers since 1920 have been able to write operas as emotionally compelling and as profoundly satisfying as the best of the preceding century and a half. However fragmented and incoherent our world grows, a good deal of our own physiological and psychological makeup still seems to crave in music the formal order of rhythm and tonality that passed for "beauty" in more apparently coherent times. Contemporary opera producers, as we have seen, often feel a serious cultural compulsion to fight against or undercut long-established traditions of performance practice.

Just as I would not want to feel so distant from and resistant to seventeenth- and eighteenth-century conventions that I could not enjoy Poppea or Idomeneo , so I would hate to be so locked into the way Wagnrr and Verdi wanted their works to be performed in the 1870s that I could not bear what a Patrice Chéreau or a Pier Luigi Pizzi might make of them today. Had I settled years ago for the relatively easy, sentimental-voluptuous pleasures of Der Rosenkavalier and Turandot as the limits of my tolerance for twentieth-century opera, my inner life and memories would have been impoverished, deprived of Lear, Death in Venice, The Fiery Angel , and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk .

7. It helps, I suspect, to be a sensualist. Opera is a very sensual art. At its core are live human bodies pouring out great vibrating streams of sound. Around them flows a surfeit of instrumental pulses and vibrations, dancers, fabrics, colors, sensual appeals of every sort. There is more to opera than this, of course. Except for the odd bacchanal, and some particularly sticky moments in Wagner or Strauss, the appeal of opera is more than merely sensual, more than sonic Des Esseintes dream of synaesthetic self-abandon. But there's no getting away from the basic sensuality of a great deal of opera.

8. I do not want to argue, as others have done, that opera is fundamentally absurd or antirational, that you have to have a taste for insane spectacle


if you're going to like opera. (For one thing, such definitions rule out a great number of good operas.) But I do believe that an unusual ability and willingness to yield, to give in to a work of art is important: somehow to dissolve yourself and let the work include you.

In opera, for all of the power of great instrumentalists, I think this ultimately means a susceptibility to the awesome emotional power of great voices brilliantly used. This power is, I believe, potentially far greater than that of any organ or violin, any orchestra or synthesizer, more compelling than colors on canvas or words on a page. There before you is a body, like yours, with a throat and larynx, like yours, drawing out of itself (as you may dream of doing, but cannot) sounds that vibrate and seize beyond the power of any nonsinging actor. It seems to me the most captivating and beautiful thing that a human being can do on a public stage in living time.


Ultimately, it is the sound of the singing human voice at its most powerful and expressive, its most carefully trained and precise that affects us in opera beyond everything else. Any aesthetic of opera, any serious attempt to explain its appeal or potential success that ignores the fact of the singer—even the often-derided star singer—will be fatally flawed. The human voice, it has been said, is "the instrument for which all others are metaphors." The vox humana stop on an organ, the most clever electronic synthesizer produces only the feeblest of imitations. The difference between opera and other forms of music, between opera and nonmusical drama, is that the chief performers sing.

I have read works by singers and voice teachers, by musicologists and aestheticians and opera historians; but none of them explained to my satisfaction the compelling power that great voices singing opera have over susceptible listeners like me.

Since many people remain unmoved by, even displeased by such voices, and since all human beings have at least similar bodies, I feel uncomfortable attributing this power to a physiological source. But reflecting on my experiences at good, loud, highly amplified rock concerts, where one feels that one's personal identity has been overcome by and dissolved in the sound, I wonder if the "seizing" power of great operatic singing may not have something to do with the resonant vibrations it creates in us: the very tangible, rapid pulses we feel in our own skulls, and sometimes deeper through our bodies, set off by the powerful vibrations of a fine singer's voice. From these inescapable vibrations inside our heads—which may lead us to feel as if we were making the great noise, as if it were coming from inside us—we may go on to experience the feeling of an intimate physical resonance


between the singer and ourselves, between her (and sometimes his) body and our own, which gives to the experience a quality that is at once liberating and erotic.[21]

Great operatic voices do appear to "flow," in an intense and liquid outpouring, sometimes in an outburst or a jet, which then arouses our vital juices: in the same way that the beat, pulse, and pumping of music generally appear to engage the natural inner rhythms of our breathing or pulse, lead us irresistibly to sway, beat time, "conduct," tap our feet. As Peter Conrad—a connoisseur of voluptuous operatic sensations—once wrote, air is resonating only from the diaphragm to the head, "but the whole body sounds."

For reasons I cannot understand or explain, I sometimes find myself staring with unnatural intensity at a performer in an opera who is singing exceptionally well, as if to sharpen and focus my attention, not to miss a single pulse of his or her music; as if we were related in some intimate emotional way. I catch myself either foolishly beaming or near to tears, not because of the joy or plight of the character, but because I have been moved beyond any reasonable, critical response by the simple, sensual fact of the quality and vibrations of a human voice. "The singing voice," writes Conrad, "inordinate in its power and somehow miraculous as the production of a single human body, infuses the world with the vibrancy of its emotion."

Insofar as such an intimate communion is created between our body and the singer's, we may enjoy the enhanced feeling of a "better self"; we have escaped, however temporarily, the pitiable self that we know cannot make such sounds, or create such thrilling vibrations. We can also both marvel at and (to a degree) share the singer's sensual and dangerous self-exposure. To every live actor's risk of forgetting lines or blowing a scene is added the singer's special burden of remembering hundreds of bars of music, and performing them all musically as well as dramatically—which often involves the most extraordinary, matadorlike physical challenges to a voice going at full throttle and fully exposed. ("It's exactly like a bullfight," Luciano Pavarotti has said. "You are not allowed one mistake.")

Many public performers taking great risks, or doing difficult and admirable things (which includes acrobats as well as actors) can compel our attention and admiration. In a few cases (athletes throwing, batting, kicking, diving) our admiration is enhanced by the "body English" through which our own anatomy feels itself sharing or duplicating the gestures of the performer. (My guess is this happens more rarely with dancers and actors, unless the observer is also a dancer or


an actor.) In the case of a great opera singer, I believe that, to a person susceptible to her powers (less frequently his: tenors strive; sopranos soar), all of these characteristics combine to achieve a unique and compelling effect. To sum up what I think are the sources of a great singer's hold on us:

1. The person on stage is doing something at once extraordinarily rare and difficult (reason itself for admiration), and extraordinarily beautiful.

2. The source of the beauty is not a page or a painting, but a person like us.

3. This person like us is making a sound more beautiful than any musical instrument can do, which enhances our sense of human greatness.

4. The sound is intimately affecting, both because it comes from an organ we ourselves possess, and because it creates resonant vibrations in us.

Anyway, that's one theory. Whatever the actual reason, or reasons, for the power that great operatic voices have over people susceptible to them, it is this power that in the end provides the ultimate justification for "grand" or "international class" or "superstar" opera; opera sung by great vocal actors with one-in-a-million voices. However well performed and produced, opera done with second-class voices can never wholly justify the medium or explain its survival. "From the performative standpoint, vocal brilliance or orchestral sumptuousness must take precedence over a composer's or a performer's fidelity to the text," comments Herbert Lindenberger. As F. M. Dana says, "The experience of opera without stars has always seemed incomplete."

Take that element [i.e., the star singer at center stage] out—the set designers will become architects, the clothes designers will become couturiers, the composer will compose beautiful music, the librettist will go off and write novels and poetry—but without the performer standing on stage, there is no reason to be in that theatre.

This is also why I believe the standard eighteenth- and nineteenth-century repertory operas (however dramatically inadequate many of them may be), operas written specifically and melodiously for the human voice at its most beautiful and expressive, will remain the standards as long as opera as we know it survives.

Although I am sure that some form of matadorlike or acrobatic—that is, exposed, difficult, dangerous—physical exhibitionism contributes to our delight in great singing, I reserve the right to say no to mere vocal display: to the notoriously "treacherous" high notes (most of them introduced as applause traps by late-


nineteenth-century singers; I have come to dread the endings of many famous Italian arias); to the tricky filigree of minutely chopped runs and trills; to singers who go on and on, like underwater swimmers, without taking a breath. All of these lead the listener to wonder primarily how on earth the performer does it—the same response we have to a circus sideshow contortionist, or to those Chinese acrobats who balance asymmetrical piles of furniture and plates on their heads. The explosion of applause that inevitably follows, and that has come to seem almost a part of the music, is in large part an expression of relief that the singer made it all of the way up or all of the way through.

Peter Conrad's remarks on Maria Callas in this regard seem to me just, and to define the difference between a clever mechanical nightingale and a true singing actress.

At every point [in Lucia di Lammermoor ] the acrobatics are glossed as mental reactions. during her 'Quanto rapita' monologue, Lucia ornaments the words 'eterna fe.' The gesture isn't showy; it's reflective and internal. . . . Her mad scene is an episode of recondite sonic research. . . . Singing of a 'dolce suono' in a voice which is girlishly pure, Callas lyrically retreats to a mad second childhood. When a high note on the word for alter oscillates out of control, it does so because it has taken off from the human register, and is echoing the vast vacancy within Lucia's mind. Lucia chases echoes until, in the glassy, unphysical sound Callas makes during her concert with the flute, she herself becomes one: an acoustic specter; Orpheus insane but in tune.

I admit to being susceptible both to sheer vocalise—beautiful voices, agile, able, controlled, singing beautiful music—and great, expressive vocal acting of the sort Conrad here describes. If, on the whole, I tend to give higher marks to the latter, it is because it engages more of me in a performance.

But I see no reason to decide permanently between two such extraordinary sources of pleasure. Nor do I see any point, as many opera fans (and fanatics) insist on doing, in trying to make minute distinctions of quality between singers who are often almost equally good, or to bewail the tact that they are not Ponselles or Carusos or Flagstads. Part of the reason for attending operas as often and in as many different places as possible is to hear and see a variety of good singers performing the same roles. The experience (like that of seeing a variety of productions of the same opera) inevitably enlarges one's conception of the original work.

What makes a great voice is something I won't even try to address. In twenty-three years of reviewing opera performances, I have tended to steer clear of what one might consider "voice coaches' terms"—head and chest voice, squillo and portamento, Fach and tessitura, the physiological details of breath control—in trying to describe and evaluate particular voices. I have made use instead either of


terms we can all clearly understand, such as "accuracy of pitch," "control of dynamics" (i.e., volume), "wobble" or "vibrato," along with metaphors by which I hope to communicate something of my own felt experience.[22] I find I use a lot of metallic metaphors (golden, silver, bronze) as well as words like "pearl" or "jewel" to convey both the "ringing" and the "precious" quality of individual sung notes. "Steely" is usually pejorative, though I have applied it to Callas, whom I admire. Words such as "dark," "mahogany," "grainy," or "nightingale" are meant to evoke other sounds and timbres. I find I use liquid references to describe a "flowing" continuity of beauty in control. Ideally, I seek out images that convey simultaneously the musical and dramatic qualities of a voice, which is, of course, the way we receive them.

Opera may have begun with politely declaiming gentleman-amateurs standing around a harpsichord or a consort of viols. But it quickly evolved into a singers-first medium, which is now the way most people perceive it. The attention paid to great singers by critics and fans, the scrupulous attention paid in reviews to vocal qualities (more attention than is given, as a rule, to dramatic, orchestral, or overall theatrical qualities) are not just star fodder for voice freaks. The staging of a great human voice, well trained and well used, can affect us, as I have tried to suggest, in an overpowering and yet intimate way, quite apart from any dramatic context. But when a combination of such voices is used as the basic vehicle for a potentially moving human drama, when each voice is given (and supported by) distinctive music that provides an opportunity for apt emotional expression, the result can create, open up, and invite us into a represented human world as no other form of narrative or expressive art can do.

Opera in general works (when it works) because (I) it tends, of theatrical necessity, to concentrate its best moments on episodes of extreme, unqualified, even essential human emotion; (2) it has a more direct, intense, and immediate means of communicating emotion (and of moving us to emotion) than nonmusical drama; (3) it has a more obvious and affecting relationship to the lives we lead (as lovers, loners, fools, romantics) than does "absolute" music, detached as the latter is from any carnal human story; and (4) it is the most complex, challenging, and demanding form of public performance. Opera has the ability to attack us with the combined power of three or four art forms (and popular spectacles) at once. A full-length play, a three-hour orchestral concert, frequently a ballet, a pageant or parade, a choral concert, and (depending on the designer) a certain amount of painting and sculpture may all be contained within one ordinary opera. It


is so difficult to pull all of this together, in fact, to pull it all off, that when the production of an opera works, or nearly works, what is "working" is something grander and more complex than any other form of public performance.

The deep and ultimately inexplicable pleasure of music—especially that of the vox humana —can lead to a sublime and satisfying transcendence after even the most devastating of stories. In The Magic Mountain , Thomas Mann describes the profound satisfaction, even ecstasy, that Hans Castorp receives from listening (on a recording) to the closing scene of Aida —and what operagoer can deny feeling it?—even though he was contemplating two lovers about to suffocate to death. Morally evil characters become tolerable through their music. Even though we know better, even though his own characters may belie it, an opera by Mozart can convince us (for a while) that the world is indeed a balanced, equable, humane place, where the worst of human feelings and the most extreme of human differences can find resolution and reconciliation. The subverbal, nonrational pleasure we are taking in the music itself, and the sound of singing voices, very frequently makes the world created by an opera during performance simply seem better than that same world depicted without music, let alone the messy, unstructured world to which we return when the curtain goes down. Peter Hall, who has very successfully directed both operas and plays, speculates that "music, because it has no literal meaning, is immediately emotional. Music immediately charges the proceedings with a sensuality and an atmosphere which is much stronger and more electric than the spoken word. . . . I think that's why people applaud for half an hour at opera, and almost never applaud for half an hour at plays. It's not that the experience of a play is any less exciting. . . . It's just that their adrenalin and emotions are high at opera."


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