Cooking it up
- Maria: Callas Remembered by Nadia Stancioff
Sidgwick, 264 pp, £13.95, April 1988, ISBN 0 283 99645 5
- Callas at Juilliard: The Master Classes by John Ardoin
Robson, 300 pp, £16.95, April 1988, ISBN 0 86051 504 4
- Callas as they saw her edited by David Lowe
Robson, 264 pp, £6.95, April 1988, ISBN 0 86051 496 X
- The Great Caruso by Michael Scott
Hamish Hamilton, 322 pp, £16.95, June 1988, ISBN 0 241 11954 5
- Chaliapin by Victor Borovsky
Hamish Hamilton, 630 pp, £25.00, April 1988, ISBN 0 241 12254 6
Brecht thought opera kulinarisch, a cooked-up business – a view that has been widely quoted without exerting much influence. Opera still dominates the kitchen of the performing arts in the Western world, imperiously consuming resources and insisting that it be kept properly dusted and aired. Its pretensions have not been reduced by the exigencies of Modernism, by media technology, or by the brutalities of recent history. It has never deigned to truck with materialist or naturalist riff-raff, and sees little reason to start doing so. It manages to live comfortably off the capital of its glorious past, but finds new investment unremunerative: last season Covent Garden presented only one opera written since the outbreak of the First World War, and the number of new works since 1945 which have survived in the international repertory can be counted on the fingers of one hand. What is it in our social psychology that feels obliged, or inclined, to maintain this chronically demanding, persistent invalid on its immensely cumbersome life-support system? Why should we believe that a red velvet and gold-leaf arena of musical entertainment is an essential symbol of our cultural respectability?
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 11 No. 5 · 2 March 1989
Rupert Christiansen’s article on great singers (LRB, 19 January) seems to me to do the cause of opera a disservice by cheerfully endorsing some common misconceptions about the history and nature of the form. He suggests that opera ‘manages to live comfortably off the capital of its glorious past’ – witness the presence of only one post-1914 opera in Covent Garden’s last season, and the fact that since 1945 at most five new operas ‘have survived in the international repertory’. Opera, in other words, is an expensive museum culture, devoid of contemporary creative vitality. Certainly it used to be said that no new opera had entered the core repertory since Turandot in 1926. But while this may just possibly be true of a few of the more conservative of the big ‘international’ opera houses, it is not true of opera as a whole. It is not even true of Covent Garden. Virtually everywhere the repertory now includes works by Janacek, Prokofiev, Berg, Stravinsky, Ravel, Gershwin and Weill. Nor is it true that only five or fewer post-1945 operas have ‘survived in the international repertory’. Britten alone contributed that number of works, to say nothing of Poulenc, Tippett, Henze and, most recently, Philip Glass. In Britain in the Eighties we have been able to see operas by the following living composers: John Adams, Berio, Birtwistle, David Blake, Maxwell Davies, Glass, Ligeti, Aribert Reimann, Aulis Sallinen, Stockhausen, Tippett and Judith Weir – and that is not an exhaustive list. Whether all these works survive in the repertory remains of course to be seen. But their appearance, and the undoubted success of some of them, belie Mr Christiansen’s caricature of opera as a collection of ageing masterpieces.
Mr Christiansen goes on to suggest that opera offers ‘little genuine aesthetic or moral challenge’. It is ‘affective, physically overwhelming, and beyond the claims of rationality’. Allegedly, no one wants to hear the words, and ‘secretly … every opera-lover prefers Puccini to just about everyone else.’ This is good knockabout stuff, and perhaps we ought to treat it simply as Mr Christiansen’s little in-joke. But not only is it not true: it also concedes far too much to the popular idea of opera as offering a crude emotional wallow, and little else. In effect, he takes late romantic Italian opera as the quintessence of opera, hoping, perhaps, that we will not notice his failure to mention Mozart, Beethoven, Berlioz, Mussorgsky, Berg and the many other composers whose work could not possibly be squeezed into this wretchedly constricting straitjacket.
It may follow from this view of what opera is that all, or nearly all, you will want from a performance is great singing, and that you will routinely deplore, as Mr Christiansen does, the intrusion of the active producer, with their habit of turning operas ‘into ideological tableaux vivants with musical accompaniment’. If, on the other hand, you treat Mozart, Wagner, Verdi et al with the seriousness they surely deserve, and recognise, pace Christiansen, that they do offer a ‘genuine aesthetic or moral challenge’ – then, I think, you will go to an opera hoping for a rich and complex theatrical as well as musical experience, and you will be thankful to those creative producers who provide it. No one knowing how deeply composers like Beethoven, Verdi, Wagner and Mussorgsky responded to the great political issues of their day would expect serious interpretations of their work to be washed clean of any taint of ‘ideology’. Opera ought not to be insulated from the life of society outside. That was never the intention of its greatest creators.