A History of English Opera 
by Eric Walter White.
Faber, 472 pp., £30, July 1983, 0 571 10788 5
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Do not believe the title. This book is scarcely a history, in the meaningful sense of that word, because although it is a collection of facts arranged in chronological order, it makes little attempt to assess them. Nor does it really treat of English opera, although there is ample information about theatres, librettists and composers. It is an obvious example of Hamlet without the Prince: in this case, music. Mr White is clearly more at home with literary sources than with musical style, and on the few occasions when he does embark on comment about the music, he shows no great grasp (his comments about Handel’s operas on page 169 are crashingly beside the point).

No, his book is really a chronicle of the sad, sad story of opera in England. Sad, because, as the impresario de Lara said in 1924, ‘millions of people in England have never heard opera, so they cannot judge whether they like it or not ... When it has been made possible for them to attend performances they flock with enthusiasm.’ This has been proved in the last forty years, when for the first time opera has been decently organised in these islands, with the growth of provincial companies which are well enough funded to give properly rehearsed performances of a standard repertoire – and which are therefore well attended. Indeed, the paradox is that whereas it has been in London that most of the activities described by Mr White have taken place, nowadays the situation there is less satisfactory than elsewhere, with Covent Garden hardly in the same league as the principal opera houses abroad, and the second house, the Coliseum, too big to take the repertoire normally given at the Volksopern of the larger German cities.

So the old legend that the English were not opera-minded is certainly not true. Why has it therefore taken some three hundred and fifty years for opera to put down proper roots here? The merit of Mr White’s chronicle is that by exploring the different attempts of theatre managers and impresarios to found lasting companies, one can see that it was not for lack of talent, either of performers or composers; it was not the English language (how could it be with German so successful?); it was not even the feeling that opera was somehow absurd which caused the difficulties. It was quite simply lack of state subsidies – and when, since the Second World War, this was remedied, thereafter opera has taken its rightful place in British musical life.

By restricting himself to ‘opera in English’ rather than ‘opera in England’, Mr White offers little in the way of explanation. It was in the first place the lack of a serious humanist culture which meant that England did not take up the genre at the time of the earliest Italian attempts. Monteverdi’s Orfeo and the lesser efforts of the Florentine cameratas were obviously attempts at fulfilling the hopes of the Gonzaga and Medici princes to revive the glories of Greece and ‘muovere gli affetti’. If Elizabeth and James had the same potential experience of how to do it – for their court masques were no less elaborate than the intermedii of Northern Italy – they had not the intellectual grasp or desire. This was one decisive delaying factor.

Another was the strength of the tradition of spoken drama – which probably accounts for a similar delay (though not so long drawn out) in German-speaking lands. Again, this has little to do with the so-called absurdity of sung drama. After all, if you can suspend disbelief during some of the blood-and-guts plays of the minor Elizabethans, singing is hardly likely to be much of an obstacle. Another factor was the difficulty of adapting the organisation of theatres to an art form which was born in the lusciousness of courtly expenditure. Opera began expensive and has remained expensive. If the Florentine experiments were on a relatively small scale, Monteverdi’s Orfeo and Arianna, the latter almost certainly the cause of the genre’s survival, were not. They took on the resources of the court entertainments of the 16th century with a will. And when the Venetian houses were opened thirty years later, the novelty for an audience used to the Commedia dell’Arte was the grandeur of the sets and machines rather than the fact that the piece was sung throughout. Musicologists nowadays write about the characterisation, an ability to suggest situation, in the music of Monteverdi and Cavalli. Such things may have engaged the attentions of librettist and composer: the audiences no doubt were more concerned with the scenic marvels. Such expenses were the cause of theatres going in and out of commission in Venice, but the various syndicates were surely not entrepreneurs in the modern sense. Profit was not the motive for Grimanis and Mocenigos: it was to fare bella figura. In spite of all our talk about the gondoliers in the pit, it was the taste and prestige of the nobility in the boxes which determined the repertoire.

England never provided the equivalent social organisation. The playhouses were not the playthings of the upper classes to the same extent; and there was little profit, at least in the long run. It is among the ironies of history that Purcell’s one surviving piece which can be truly said to be ‘opera’ – in the sense of being sung throughout – was composed for a girls’ school, while the pieces which belong to the grander operatic tradition – The Fairy Queen and The Indian Queen – were only ‘semi-operas’ and have been dismissed as hybrids. They had similar difficulties in Hamburg, where dramatic and market conditions were much the same. It must have seemed attractive to the merchant class who probably knew quite well what was going on in another seaport, Venice, to try out such an attractive entertainment, yet the Hanseatic background was very different. How they kept opera going there for more than half a century, with a mixture of translations, dual-language performances (German for the recitatives, Italian for the arias) and native – though imitative – pieces, we scarcely know. In the end, this attempt also perished.

The story of 18th-century opera in England is the weakest part of this book. By playing down the establishment and fortunes of the Italian opera companies, Mr White makes it difficult to appreciate what was left; and he does not really see the significance of the huge amount of native activity, for which the evidence is assembled in Roger Fiske’s excellent English Theatre Music in the 18th Century (1973). One reason for the failure of Italian opera in London was doubtless that it came too late. In the 1720s the orderly, poetic Metastasian opera was becoming the rage throughout Italy, led by the Neapolitan composers who liked writing the series of arias of which it consisted, rather than the more lively mishmash of elements in the earlier, Venetian opera. Such dramatic realities as the Venetian operas had were lost in the singers’ operas of the new style. But an even greater reason was the lack of an Italian-style nobility, and of a commercial climate interested in profits. In spite of factions supported by kings or princes, the concept of a bella figura based on operatic attendance never came about; while the stiff competition of the 1730s between the rival Opera of the Nobility and the King’s Theatre was possible only in a city where entrepreneurial profit-seeking attitudes were strong. While Hasse was producing grand spectaculars at Dresden (complete with Baths-of-Caracalla menagery at times), paid for by the Court, the Hanoverians of London would not do the same for Handel – or anyone else.

So the failure of opera seria in England is not hard to explain. The lack of development of the serious singspiel, which one might think almost indigenous in England, is more puzzling. After all, The Beggar’s Opera was not only an excellent revival of a sort of semi-opera manner mixed into the musical attitudes of the contemporary Italian pasticcios: it was serious social comment also. Was it the censorship’s banning of Polly which disheartened followers (though, true, Polly is scarcely up to standard)? Why did incipient singspiel go so weak at the knees and decline into feeble pastoral?

Mr White is happier in the 19th century, though here, too, a solid account of non-English opera in England would not have come amiss, if only to give some hint of perspective to the Balfes and Wallaces who were always just about to be the first great English opera composers – and never quite lived up to expectations. The arrival of serious singspiel, Gilbert and Sullivan, took until nearly 1880 – a century after Die Entführung of Mozart. The fortunes of its authors underline the free-enterprise atmosphere of 19th-century England, in which culture was largely literary, literature involving less expense than the performing arts. Looking back on Victoria’s reign, it seems that Prince Albert was opera’s only possible saviour – and even he was more the kind of prince who kept Brahms at Meiningen rather than Wagner at Munich. So it never came about.

In fact, it must be difficult for anyone under the age of sixty to believe how recent is English opera or opera in England. Up to the Second World War, all the profits from Beecham’s pills could not suffice. Even Hitler’s persecutions resulted only in Glyndebourne’s taking up serious German attitudes – and Glyndebourne was no place for the lower middle classes, let alone working man, in the 1930s (middle management was to arrive later). The present writer had heard more Brahms symphonies than seen operas at the age of 20. I can remember no university lectures on any kind of opera and as a schoolboy could scarcely afford twenty Red Label records of the Glyndebourne Mozart.

Now all is changed. The various opera companies are full of bright young men from Oxford and Cambridge, repetiteurs and conductors, producers and managers. Intellectuals will discuss the merits of early Verdi operas as they might the works of Marlowe or Webster (the analogy is not far-fetched). One books months ahead, in the provinces, for the visits of Welsh or Scottish or Northern English opera companies. The secret of such success? The answer is simple: state subsidy. And it is true. Only since the last war has state money gone into opera, allowing it to build up solid institutions, to hand on experience from one generation to the next, to stand the results of a disastrous production or two without wild retrenchment.

No less true is the lack of adequate funding for the London companies. It is easy – and not too bad an idea at the moment, anyway – to castigate Covent Garden’s artistic management: but to try to live up to Vienna, Paris or Milan on subsidies so much smaller is bound to create confusion. Mr White describes the rise of English grand opera – by Tippett and Britten, Walton and Bliss – with enthusiasm and with some optimism. He calculates that, at the present rate of progress, there will be another hundred operas by the end of the century to add to one hundred and fifty composed by Englishmen since 1945. To which the more sceptical observer might ask how many of those two hundred and fifty will be in any kind of repertoire. A few by Britten, a couple by Tippett perhaps, and an isolated example by Maxwell Davies or Tavener?

The fact is that by underfunding Covent Garden and allowing its natural repertoire to be exploited by the English National Opera we have left ourselves without the smaller singspiel house which is necessary, not only to give Mozart (maltreated rather than neglected in present-day Britain) and Gilbert and Sullivan (whose singspiels are to be seen nowhere in adequate productions nowadays), but for the younger men to gain their experience without financial disaster. The regional companies also naturally wish to present the big pieces and certainly cannot afford to risk too many failures by unknown composers. But it must be remembered that not even Puccini had a real success the first time round. All that we can hope, if we share Mr White’s optimism in his delightfully illustrated book, is that, having discovered that the English ‘flock with enthusiasm’, in de Lara’s words, when they get the chance, their Lords and Masters (mainly of the Treasury) will adjust their views about opera’s necessities.

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