Vocal heroes for the people

Two massive volumes on opera by Jewish enthusiasts offer a wealth of information and expertise, as well as rubbishing the misleading ‘elite’ tag


Opera for everybody: The Story of English national Opera
By Susie Gilbert
Faber and Faber, £25

The Gilded Stage: A Social History of Opera
By Daniel Snowman
Atlantic Books, £40

Daniel Snowman’s hugely informative, and equally enjoyable, “social history of opera” begins with a sentiment with which most genuine opera lovers will surely concur: “Sometimes, I am tempted to start a campaign to abolish the word opera altogether. After all, it simply means a work, But for many it has become heavily loaded with resonances of grandeur, wealth and ‘elitism’ (another word I would like to abolish).” Quite.

There is something deeply depressing about the notion, still prevalent in certain quarters, of opera as an exclusive art form, with a deliberate cachet designed to keep the charmed classes in and the oiks out.

The caricature of the philistine businessman doing his corporate entertaining by inviting a clone to join him in an evening’s snoring session in the stalls of the Royal Opera House is, like most caricatures, based on reality — although, of course, if it were not for the sponsorship of those businessmen who are certainly not philistines, there would be no opera performances in the first place.

But, as Snowman shows, it is a warped understanding of opera’s history to think of it in such exclusive and rarefied terms. Opera was often — albeit not always — for the masses, with many of the most popular tunes whistled far beyond the confines of the opera house.

(I have loved opera since childhood, but such a passion in Britain marked me out as rather odd. I remember seeing, on my first visit to Italy as a child, graffiti about Puccini and Verdi, and thinking how different a country it was.)

And far from opera providing a comfortable entertainment for the powerful and moneyed, it is a deeply subversive art form, often challenging the basic tenets of society and morality.

Take one of the most famous and loved of all operas, Mozart and da Ponte’s The Marriage of Figaro. The story of a manservant running rings around his master was deeply subversive; the original Beaumarchais play had been banned by Joseph II for the risks it posed to the social order. It was only the special pleading to the Emperor by da Ponte (who, although he became a Catholic priest, was born and raised a Jew) that changed the his mind.

Opera for Everybody is thus a particularly welcome title for Susie Gilbert’s history of English National Opera, which, as she writes, “began with an enterprise intended to make life better for the poor and destitute of Victorian London.”

But to be blunt: Gilbert’s history of Sadler’s Wells and ENO is riveting for readers who share her obvious enthusiasm for the company, but for those who have never been to ENO, it is difficult to imagine what interest there might be, beyond the overarching theme of the company’s struggle to survive and the big-picture lessons about how subsidy works, plus the political and managerial pressures involved in running a large arts company.

For those of us for whom ENO has, however, been a central part of opera-going life, Gilbert’s book is a treasure trove of memories and revelations.

I was lucky enough to have been a student in the 1980s, and to have been able to take advantage of almost everything the company had to offer in what was a golden age. The Power House team of Mark Elder, David Pountney and Peter Jonas did not simply create a house style that was a near-guarantee of a challenging and rewarding evening; they also created musical standards which put the ritzier Royal Opera House to shame. The sheer enthusiasm of ENO was a joy to encounter.

Gilbert also deals well with such legendary productions as Reginald Goodall’s Ring cycle and Mastersingers, and the earlier history on which today’s ENO is built, as the current team attempts --- with a degree of success --- to regain lost glories.

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