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All but one of the essays that follow the Introduction were written for the San Francisco Opera Magazine , the program book of the San Francisco Opera, during the last sixteen years. They add up to no statement about or position on the phenomenon we call "opera," except insofar as the fact that one person wrote them may lead you to detect some sort of "unified sensibility" behind them. I have added a couple of updating footnotes or postscripts, and have tried to correct a few earlier errors; I'm sure others remain. I like to think (but am not convinced) that the more recent pieces are better. They are frequently longer, in any event.

The one exception is a piece written after, rather than before, a particular event—my description of and response to Peter Sellars's productions of Così fan tutte, The Marriage of Figaro , and Don Giovanni at Purchase, New York, in the summer of 1989, originally written for The Opera Quarterly . Although I have written critical reviews of many individual opera productions, none of the others seemed to me sufficiently reflective or substantial to warrant collecting and preserving. It is only the very exceptional critic who can turn rapidly written reviews of the passing scene into literature worth reading long after the event.

Partly because of their original occasion—as background essays intended for people who had already made the decision to attend a particular opera—and partly because of my own interest in opera as a cultural phenomenon, a product and inhabitant of other-than-musical worlds, many of these essays deal with things other than music.

But then so does opera. Considerations of the history of culture, of literary, historical, and topographical sources, of librettos in their own right, of the lives of artists, of theatre history, of set design, of great singers, and of changing public taste—all of which I write about here—are as pertinent to the understanding and the enjoyment of opera as are music history, analysis, and criticism.


The standard opera repertory is madly heterogeneous, drawn from a broad array of historical and cultural sources. Our experience of opera is enhanced, I believe, by knowing something more about the different worlds from which it sprang. Different pressures, different impulses throughout cultural and musical history have led to many different sorts of opera, all jumbled together today in a repertory that spins us from Vivaldi to Offenbach by way of Wagner. To know what led to the conventions of opera seria, why the Paris Opera demanded ballets, or how a librettist may have hobbled a composer (or challenged him to new inspiration) enlarges the nature of the operas we see.

There is relatively little here of what is usually called "musical analysis." The more of it I read, the less faith I have in its cogency or effectiveness: very few people perform it persuasively or well, and I am not likely to be one of them. As a musical amateur, in both senses of the word, I have no desire to betray any more of my inexpertness than I absolutely must. I make frequent use of the work of musicologists, but I don't pretend to compete. This collection is intended for people interested in opera who are neither professional musicians nor "opera fanatics"—i.e., obsessional voice-connoisseurs who dote on particular singers or particular styles of singing. It is intended for men and women who enjoy opera (I have no dream of converting the unconverted); who attend performances when they can; who listen to broadcasts and recordings; and who are curious to know more about the works they are seeing and hearing.

Since most of these people cannot readily read musical scores, or understand the specialized language (what Shaw called the "Mesopotamian words") of musical analysis, I have tried, like most music critics who address themselves to general audiences, to keep such things out of my writing.

In the essays that follow, I have turned to the scores in an attempt to explain my emotional reactions to certain moments in certain operas: Alceste, Don Giovanni, Norma, Die Meistersinger, Otello, Oedipus Rex . In the process, I have reduced complex verbal and musical effects to a series of adjectives and metaphors which I only hope will suggest to others both the music I heard and the feelings it aroused.

But the feelings are (or were) only in me . There is no way I can "demonstrate" any cause-and-effect relationship between a particular musical form, and a particular feeling-in-me; let alone demonstrate that the feeling I claim to have experienced is (or ought to be) shared by anyone else. All I (or for that matter, any more sophisticated musical analyst) can do is try to describe a personal experience honestly; point to the piece of music drama that preceded or accompanied it; and suggest that there is a connection between them.

For all the uncertainty and solipsism of this enterprise—the common practice of almost all music criticism—I see no reason to stop indulging in it. When I read other analysts and critics, making their own assertions of musical cause and emotional


effect, I feel no obligation to accept their assertions as the truth, and you should feel none to accept mine. I am free to test their assertions, as you are free to test mine, for their cogency, their persuasiveness, their coincidence with our own experience.

Much analysis of and commentary on operatic music depend on artificial parallels drawn between qualities of music and qualities of character, linked by no more than common adjectives ("unstable," "impulsive," "nervous"); or by assertions that an emotion felt by a particular listener (boredom, pain, sadness, erotic arousal) is in fact a quality inherent in the music, and therefore one that should be felt by all listeners.

But analysis that depends on adjectives and metaphors is no more than impressionism. It may be verbally deft, even poetic. But it comes no closer to demonstrating the power or meaning of music than did the once-popular "narrative readings" (birdsong and brooks, moral struggle and triumph) of nineteenth-century orchestral works.

There is no question that many of the devices of music—the decision to achieve or avoid resolution, certain tonal modulations or changes of rhythm, the use of instruments of a particularly affective timbre (solo violins, cellos, oboes, trombones, tympani), the rich possibilities of repetition and recall—may be turned to effective and efficient dramatic use. But the most a critic or commentator can do is to point them out; and suggest their possible appropriateness to the dramatic situation. Since there can be no assurance they will affect others as they affect you, the analysis of musical expressiveness can, in the end, be no more than autobiographical. To call a particular phrase "menacing," "ethereal," "grotesque," "mellow," "urgent," "bleak," "crying," "dull-rooted," "radiant," or "beautiful" (all these attributions come from twelve lines of Joseph Kerman's analysis of the murder scene in Otello ) is only to apply verbal tags to one's own emotional responses; it is not to define the music, or the necessary response of anyone else.

If a writer about music is sufficiently engaging, appears to know what he is writing about, and appears to share some of my basic tastes and values, then his assertions are likely to lead me, at the very least, to listen more carefully to the music, perhaps even to study the text and score; two not unworthy results. I may be led by his claims to keep a closer watch on my own responses the next time I hear the work. This, in turn, is likely to keep me more open-eyed a spectator, more open-cared an auditor; to lead me to pay closer attention; to stay wider awake: surely no bad thing in an opera house. My emotions will not be the same as those of the critic whose comments I have read, any more than yours will be the same as mine—I am I, he is he, you are who you are; our inner and outer worlds are too different. We may end up disagreeing absolutely about the musical source of our experiences in any case, let alone their value. (I actually enjoy being moved to tears by the plights of fictional characters, in opera and elsewhere; why, I don't know. I certainly expect no one else to.)


But in the process of reading one another's responses, we may have been seduced into getting more out of all opera. We may either enjoy ourselves more or understand better why we did not.

Our emotional (and intellectual) responses to music depend on many more things than the words and notes of the score; our responses to live opera productions depend on other things still. Much of what we experience has to be at least potentially present in us already: an ability to be penetrated by particular vocal timbres; a fascination with the European past; a familiarity with Shakespeare; an ability to yield to the pulses and swoops, the endlessly unresolved ideas of Wagnerian chromaticism; a taste for theatrical excess and unreason; a patience with da capo repeats; a tolerance for melodrama, or secco recitative, or the musical equivalents of madness.

I like to think of myself as perpetually educable, open to interesting, possibly valuable new experiences and ideas. But every so often I come near to concluding that there are certain singers and types of singers, certain forms of music or musical effects, even certain operas and composers that other intelligent and sensitive people can admire, and I cannot. And then I hear a countertenor who can act with his voice, see a resolved and ingenious production of Meyerbeer or Menotti, and my catalogue of prejudices alters.

The same thing, I believe, applies to the varying interpretations of conductors, producers, and performers. Because music is essentially nonreferential, because the meanings we assign to it are in the end so arbitrary and so personal, the most cogent, convincing, step-by-step written analysis of the "meaning" of a scene or a work, the most assured theoretical explication of the way a role should be played or a passage performed, can be shattered by the next performance we experience that makes it "work" a different way.

Each opera we see has its own context: when and where (and how) it was written and first performed; the other works of art, musical and nonmusical, that preceded and surrounded it; the events or ideas that fed into its creation; where it fit in, how it grew out of, the life of its creator.

All of this matters considerably, I believe, in our experience of opera. So I investigate and write about such things. I beg music lovers to be tolerant of my excursions into history and biography, art and architecture, stage design and production, the evolution of taste, and other fields that may seem only tangentially related to opera. For me, the Ultimate Art adjoins many other domains. In writing about them, I hope I may still be saying something useful about opera.

I wish to thank Phillip Brett, Daniel Heartz, Roger Parker, and Paul Robinson for their helpful comments on all or parts of this text; and Kori Lockhart, editor of the San Francisco Opera Magazine , a woman of great tact, charm, patience, and under-


standing, who commissioned and edited most of these essays in their original form. An earlier draft of this book, which grew to be unconscionably long, included four additional essays (on the devil as character in opera, the historic original of Verdi's Don Carlos, the Cairo première of Aida , and the actual Roman settings for Puccini's Tosca ), cutting which occasioned no great loss; and a far more extensive, chapter-by-chapter bibliography, whose absence some readers may regret. As I note at the end of my Suggestions for Further Reading, readers interested in the missing pieces are welcome to write to me for copies.


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