Cooking it up

Rupert Christiansen

  • 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?

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