Possibly reviewing a book before I've finished reading it is not the best idea. But I'll have finished it by tomorrow, I should think, and once that happens I don't want it occupying any more of my time. The book in question is Who's Afraid of Opera? by Michael Walsh. It purports to be an introduction to opera for people with absolutely zero previous knowledge. I have to say, it does have a few things going for it. The author is (or was in 1994, when he wrote it) Time magazine's longstanding classical music critic (and, for better or worse, the author of The Life and Works of Andrew Lloyd Webber). He writes very well indeed, and obviously knows and loves his subject matter. He's not afraid to show how opinionated he is, or to state unequivocally that some things are qualitatively better than others, both of which I think are excellent qualities. And best of all, when he wrote the book which came before this- Who's Afraid of Classical Music?- he wanted to title it Who's Afraid of Hugo Wolf?
However, there are some serious problems. The most glaring is this: the introduction states quite clearly that this is intended as "a book that presuppose[s] absolutely no knowledge of music on the part of the reader". His italics, by the way, not mine. So why, then, is the book which follows packed with in-jokes and references to opera and other works of classical music? While still teaching the reader how to begin with opera, he's throwing in mentions of Wagnerian arias and Mozart characters. He illustrates a point by saying something like 'Just think of La Bohème', before- given the assumption that his readers no nothing- he's told them what La Bohème is or why it's a good example of whatever he's writing about. Even better, he starts throwing about terms like 'atonality' and 'the twelve-tone system' without ever even hinting at a definition.
It's not just that, either. Having supposedly embarked on an essentially instructive piece of writing, he seems unable to resist the urge to turn instead into a vehicle for the furthering of his own very personal opinions. He doesn't like opera from the bel canto era. Full stop. So he dismisses it in a paragraph or two, with little further explanation than his distaste for the 'rum-tum' orchestrations and doesn't allow a single example into his '(Not Quite) Totally Arbitrary Basic Repertoire'. This is the basic repertoire which is supposed to form the basis of a new opera lover- but apparently all he wishes to create are clones of his own tastes. The other thing he dismisses are Handel's operas: not recommended for beginners, apparently, and best experienced in small doses with score on hand. It's only at the end of the repertoire chapter that he says for the very first time 'of course you're free to form your own opinions', and even then in its in such a way as to leave no doubt in the mind of the novitiate this book is apparently written for as to what those opinions should be.
And there's a second, more eccentric way in which his proselytizing manifests itself. As far as I can tell, he believes in opera as a musical genre and an art form only. He refuses to acknowledge the cultural and social aspects. According to Michael Walsh, if you're a 'vocal nut', if you stay up late 'with other nerds' arguing the relative merits of Renata and Maria, if you rush down the aisle to throw a bouquet at your favourite singer, then you are (and if quote) "not a real opera fan". Because apparently, "it's not really about the singers". On one level he's right: the opera itself exists as it is, regardless of who performs it, and in a sense the singers are just the instrument necessary for expressing what the composer put down on paper. But I think that to believe this is to ignore an immense part of the world of opera. Opera isn't just about a to-the-letter, soulless communication of a score: it's about interpretation, about the different things brought to the music by different people. It isn't just the audio representation of a sheet of music- it's a cultural phenomenon. I believe it's just as valid to love a singer- or a conductor, or a bassoonist, for that matter- as much as a composer or a piece of music.
Obviously, this is all just a matter of opinion, mine versus his. He's absolutely entitled to his opinions: I rather like reading them. He knows what he's talking about and the decisions he's come to are very well informed. As a book presenting a particular and personal approach to opera, this would work beautifully. But the fact is that Who's Afraid of Opera? is packaged as advice and instruction, and while individual tastes shouldn't be excluded, they also shouldn't cause the total exclusion of opposing tastes. Walsh may find the operas of Bellini, Rossini and Donizetti unlistenable, but if this is to be a balanced guide to the genre, he should go some way towards explaining why others do love them. The aim of the book and the writing itself are essentially at crossed purposes- one or the other needs to be sorted out in order to make it a real success. Besides, can there really anybody (other than Germans) who understands the word 'weltanschauung' and yet has hitherto had no encounters with classical music?
In other news: today is a momentous day. I bought today the very first CD in my collection to contain not one single female voice. No sopranos, no mezzos, no contraltos. My very first recital disc by a male opera singer. It's part of my vague New Year's resolutions to widen my operatic horizons. It also only cost $12.95. And it's Jonathan Lemalu! Regardless of the price, it's probably a good idea to start listening properly to male singers with a CD by one I already very much like. In fact, when I saw him sing here with the NZSO, I did think that if I ever decided to buy the solo CD of a male singer, it ought to be his. Of course, I immediately counteracted this groundbreaking move: I also bought Sarah Connolly: Heroes and Heroines. Sarah Connolly, as you may or may not know, is an English mezzo with a flair for Handel (although she's also recorded, of all things, a CD of Schoenberg songs). And when we were in New York, we saw her sing the title role in Xerxes at the City Opera- so of course I had to buy this CD, didn't I? It's Handel arias- Sarah showing off her ability to be both a boy and a girl. I've only heard one track so far but I have a feeling I'm going to love her. Plus she deserves kudos for managing to release a Handel CD without 'Ombra mai fu' on it- even though, given that Xerxes is one of her major roles, she'd have better justification than many for including it. Right now, I'm listening to neither of the above, but rather Renée Fleming: Signatures (Great Opera Scenes). Oh Renée! You're fabulous! Tatiana, Desdemona, the Countess.. oh she's just irresistible. And the Peter Grimes aria. And Dafne. Especially Dafne. I'm going to move straight on to The Beautiful Voice because I need more of this.
By the way, American readers (or particularly assiduous CNN-viewers in NZ)- Susan Graham and Denyce Graves at the Inauguration? How were they?