A History of Opera: The Last 400 Years by Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker





In a piece for Wales Arts Review, following the recent BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition, I quoted from (and recommended) a book on opera that was published just last autumn to instant – and virtually universal – acclaim; a book which has nonetheless prompted grumbles and disagreement from admirers and the odd detractor alike, thereby stimulating debate about opera itself well beyond the small but intense world of its authors’ usual academic milieu. That book is A History of Opera: the Last 400 Years by Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker; two of the most distinguished opera experts on the planet, who offer their substantial wit, knowledge and insight to a wider public in an engrossing discussion of opera’s history, present state and potential future.

On one level, the book is simply what the title suggests at face value; an historical reference book packed with information about opera composers and their works – and which the authors have carefully pitched at a general reader with a beautifully adroit, jargon-free style. But the book’s easy-going, authoritative brilliance and engaging prose do not, in themselves, explain why it has generated such eager critical attention, and why it leapt onto every half-decent ‘Book of the Year 2012’ list within a few weeks of publication; for how could this be, if opera is, as popularly perceived, a more rarefied art-form than most, appealing to just a tiny minority of people? And how, then, might we appraise the authors’ double-edged title reference to opera’s ‘last 400 years’, signalling their belief that the genre itself is actually in terminal decline?

There is a paradox at the centre of Abbate and Parker’s thesis, and one which is keenly felt; for the book is based upon their equally passionate belief that opera at its best continues to offer the most uniquely compelling of live, dramatic and musical experiences – because of rather than despite the inherent ‘unreality’, ‘strangeness’ and even ‘preposterous’ attributes of the art-form, and to a degree which overrides the ‘ridiculous’ expense and tremendous practical challenge of its production. Their book sets out to explore the transportative nature of operatic experience, showing how conceptions of opera have changed throughout the ages to the present day – and the book is undoubtedly a tour de force. But it comes from an ultimately troubled – and in many regards ironically conservative – viewpoint as we will see, notwithstanding the authors’ bewailing of the ‘cultural pessimism that now fuels the repertory’ and which has ‘turned operatic performance into an activity policed by a reverence for the work as a well nigh sacred object – a reverence in almost all cases not present at the time it was created.’

Abbate and Parker’s History is the first single-volume of its kind to be published for a generation (a New Grove History of Opera edited by Stanley Sadie appeared in 1989 and there have been others of various types before and since, including Parker’s own (as Editor) Oxford Illustrated History of Opera, 1994). The book’s publication in itself points to a renewed appetite for engagement with the genre. Broadly speaking, as with the New Grove History, the authors choose to adopt a traditional, chronological approach to music history, also dividing it along familiarly (some might say, tiredly clichéd) national lines. But theirs is a far more vivid approach, offering invaluable information from within a gripping historical narrative in a way which reflects their lifetime’s experience, collaborative strength and the cross-disciplinary leaps into critical and literary theory, film studies and so on, that opera study has made in the intervening years. Starting at the beginning as it were, with Monteverdi and his Florentine contemporaries, Abbate and Parker show how audiences were first captivated by this strange, new type of sung theatre in the early 1600s, going on to examine, through a ‘great procession’ of key composers and iconic pieces of repertoire, various aspects of opera which have come to be associated with – or even to define – different periods of operatic history. This might sound like potentially dry theoretical stuff, but in practice, every page is littered with compelling wider arguments, fresh angles and highly entertaining remarks.

Particularly good, for example, is the authors’ tracking of opera seria through Handel and Gluck, on to Mozart and the innovations of opera buffa and Singspiel. In a characteristic, creative move along the way, they grasp an opportunity to discuss the re-staging of Gluck’s Orfeo in early twentieth century Germany as a means of showing how the work has embodied classical restraint across the ages – as well as poking fun at the politics of operatic and musical fashion in that later age, when German composers unleashed an unbridled Expressionism onto a oft-bewildered public:

Staging Orfeo with high-minded intent … has always signalled a reaction against theatrical extravagance. In Germany …  Richard Strauss’s Elektra may have shrieked, raved and jumped up and down in dirty rags, struggling to make herself heard over an enormous, blaring orchestra; but never mind, Gluck’s Orfeo, brought back on stage to sing out his grief in sunny C major, restored much-needed restraint.

Fun too, is the way in which Abbate and Parker deal with the endless controversies over national pride that have occurred throughout operatic history; whether or not, say, French opera might be superior to Italian in the eighteenth century – and, of course, whether Italy (Verdi) or Germany (Wagner) shines brighter in the nineteenth. As a renowned expert on Verdi and nineteenth century Italian opera, Parker has, to put it mildly, an interest in giving his man his due. But the authors maintain a dignified, creditable balance, whilst at the same time making serious points in their re-calibration of a debate which not only still remains oft-weighted in Wagner’s favour,* but is ultimately pretty pointless, asking, ‘Do we need to continue such ancient polemics?’ Nonetheless, they enjoy small acts of subversion throughout, such as the titling of a sub-section on the young Wagner as ‘Wagner the Italian’ in implied riposte to those who insist on characterising elements of late Verdi as ‘Wagnerian’.

A History of Opera: The Last 400 Years Review
A History of Opera: The Last 400 Years
by Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker
604pp, Allen Lane, £30 hardback

By these means and many more, Abbate and Parker breathe new life into an arguably stale chronological format; not only showing how opera has changed and developed over time, but doing so from a consciously historical perspective of our own time, putting us – the audience – at the heart of the operatic experience in a way which Sadie would never have thought to in his earlier, much more formalist musicological day. They remind us that opera is an art that is performed, and they set out – at least in part – to explore how our contemporary expectations and experiences of operatic performance are shaped by what we know, or can glean, of the processes of history. For instance, in tackling the intellectual snobbery displayed by Berlioz and other high-minded French contemporaries towards opéra comique, they note how ‘for certain composers, for certain audiences, the gap between speech and song … threatened to turn into an unbridgeable gulf. We are heirs to this way of thinking’ and ‘may need new attitudes … before classic opéra comique once again becomes something to be savoured.’

Inevitably, much of the grumbling about the book has focused on questions of which composers have supposedly been short-changed – like that same Berlioz (‘a notorious fountain of aesthetic hauteur’); given too great a significance – like Rossini; or more or less entirely neglected – like Prokofiev. And several are the works about which various commentators have somewhat fussily voiced objection, either on grounds of inclusion, exclusion or difference of opinion (like Andrew Clark’s quibble, in a review for the Financial Times, with the authors’ view on Weber’s Der Freischütz). Although such complaints are entirely reasonable in themselves, especially when a book has been marketed as ‘definitive’, the temptation to concentrate on details can lead to missing a vital larger point, (albeit a hugely ironic one, given that this History is almost entirely canon-led), which is that the operatic establishment’s very reliance upon some quasi-sacred orthodox canon of ‘great’ works from the past, recycled ad nauseum, is a sign that opera today is an endangered species; a worry to which I will return shortly. Abbate and Parker allow their concern to permeate their book, however, in which a world-weary tone is detectable beneath the authentic passion and delight, and where a cynicism can sometimes peep through the wit. Manon, for example, is described as ‘Massenet at his most persuasive; and also – not coincidentally – his least Wagnerian’. As with the Gluck-Strauss quotation above, this is just one of a myriad tiny ways in which the discussion of one composer is used as a subtle means of remarking, often disparagingly, on someone else or some other topic.

This mordant style is both entertaining and enlightening for the most part, and helps to build a fascinating web of cultural cross-references. But in the truncated – and frankly cursory – final chapters on twentieth century and contemporary opera, the tone flattens and becomes morose, reflecting Abbate and Parker’s own ‘cultural pessimism’ as well as their evident dislike, for the most part, of the opera of their own time. Looking everywhere for signs of impending operatic demise, for instance, they slide from playfully expressed scepticism to far more serious – indeed far-fetched – speculation, in suggesting that an increased readiness to mourn death, found in opera written after 1920 (to wit Ravel’s L’Enfant et les sortilèges), gives rise to the ‘suspicion … that the mourning is also for a dying art form: for opera itself.’

Melodrama aside, the issues Abbate and Parker raise are far-reaching and, in many ways, urgent. In my view they are right to decry a mainstream, global operatic culture that demonstrably venerates the past over the present, peddling often spurious notions of ‘tradition’ in fear of real artistic change and innovation; a culture reliant on the same old war-horse operas from the narrowest of allowable repertoires, dished up in ever more dusty or incredulity-stretching guises – with new successions of singing celebrities ever-willing to re-glamourise the machine. However, whilst this might be a fair description of populist big-opera, big-money culture (hold up your hand, the New York Metropolitan), it is certainly not the case that all opera culture is now like this, with no pockets of excitement and innovation. In Wales alone, for instance, Welsh National Opera (not to mention the chamber scale Music Theatre Wales), is a company of international quality, producing programmes of real breadth, artistic vision and integrity on a relatively limited budget – and even that stalwart of tradition and high(er) finance, the Royal Opera House, has embarked on a hugely ambitious new programme in recent years, including the commissioning of important new works. So, whilst I agree with the authors to an extent, such blanket doom-mongering as the following is not only unhelpful (with no redemption offered and no solution) but unfair to those who are achieving great things in places where opera culture is still very much alive and kicking: ‘the later twentieth and twenty-first centuries, our time, are also the time during which opera began to reside in a mortuary, a wonderful mortuary full of spectacular performances, but a mortuary for all that.’

It seems to me a question of which operatic worlds you choose to inhabit – and Abbate and Parker not only appear solely to inhabit the world of the international mainstream canon as bequeathed by ‘history’, but they make the mistake of assuming that that world is opera today and, alas, their otherwise splendid and inspiring book seems caught at times between hand-wringing over the crisis and the determination to find something or someone to blame for it. There is a range of guilty parties in their view – ‘all important symptom[s] of our operatic condition’. Advocates of ‘historically informed performance’ are one such; according to Abbate and Parker, a movement ‘sustained by cultural pessimism, by recognition of the fact that, musically, we now enjoy novelty when it comes from the past rather than the present’. Again, I agree in principle – but is it down to the authenticists’ missionary zeal or passivity on the part of their detractors that there are more and more such productions of, say, ‘new-old’ operas by Handel?

Or is the fashion for ‘authenticity’ traceable to the ‘culture industry’ itself, to borrow Adorno and Horkheimer’s classic description (extremely loosely speaking) of a society in thrall to commercial rather than artistic values – an important factor in opera’s downward slide on more than one count according to Abbate and Parker – and with which I would partly agree. For, it could be argued that however artistically motivated its practitioners might be – or, indeed, artistically deluded if you agree with the authors’ point about the impossibility of (re)creating an authentic historical musical event** – the ‘historically informed performance’ movement has been promoted hard by a music industry eager to profit from the recycling of established repertoire, but otherwise running out of options to re-dress the familiar. Not only that, but the profit ethos of our ‘culture industry’ metaphorically cheapens music across the genres from the popular to the classical. Most recently in ‘opera’, this phenomenon is encapsulated by the ghastly commercial exploitation of child soprano Jackie Evancho, whose rendition of ‘Nessun dorma’ (a highly sexual aria in Puccini’s Turandot) signals, in the words of Abbate and Parker, ‘the burial rite for opera’s fundamental ground note of adult passion, the utter loss of meaning and context for the piece’ – as if the Three Tenors money-spinning circus of yore wasn’t bad enough.

The rise of the director as the main creative driving force in opera companies, rather than the conductor as hitherto (a current exception is the ROH with Antonio Pappano), presents another problem for Abbate and Parker, with the increasing trend for crowd-pulling – and sometimes deliberately controversial – stagings of the ‘classics’. They are also sarcastically dismissive of what they describe as ‘the amiable bricolage of contemporary opera production … the pleasurable sense of alienation postmodern directors so reliably provide’. In fairness, a theatre-led approach can end up being at odds with the score. Attempts to ‘up-date’ operas from the past for the ‘modern-day’ can be cringe-making – and operatic experimentalism is never helped by the kind of bad press accompanying such debacles as this year’s abandoned Nazi-themed Tannhäuser in Düsseldorf. But the problem seems to me more that some directors have ‘cloth ears’, as Stephen Walsh so succinctly put it, rather than contemporary productions per se are guilty of compromising the music-theatrical integrity of the repertoire; insensitive conductors are just as likely to be found as insensitive directors after all. It is certainly a conundrum for the authors, though, who also argue passionately against the kind of slavish adherence to the score which would never have occurred in a past wherein Mozart and Verdi, for example, often re-wrote arias and whole chunks of score to suit particular singers and differing performance environments.

In any case, the constant re-staging of the classics surely relies upon equally constant fresh interpretations. ‘Exactly,’ I hear Abbate and Parker cry. ‘And that is why opera is dying!’ Well, maybe that will turn out to be the case, and maybe not. But I, for one, am not half so pessimistic as they about the operas being written now – opera composers being an increasingly thriving breed, it seems to me, whether ‘dabblers’ or no (a way they describe opera composers who don’t specialise in the genre), but whose creative efforts to expand and refuel the repertoire are dismissed by the authors on several counts; most importantly, though, for reasons which bring us at last to the very heart of their shared passion for opera:

Central to the authors’ agenda is their beguiling appeal throughout the History of Opera on behalf of what they see as the fundamental kernel of operatic experience; one which lurks, tantalisingly resistant to analysis, beneath all historical and biographical facts, theories and narratives. And that is the transportative power of singing; the extraordinary, sensual marvel of the human voice. Time and again, Abbate and Parker bring us back to the voice and to other fundamental, performative ingredients of this irrational and perplexing art-form that scholars have, until recently, been apt to treat purely as a dry text for analysis – whether through the musical score, or through the literary drama of the libretto, or both.

The whole book is, in many ways, a hymn to the voice, based on the idea that ‘acoustic sensuality’ is ‘opera’s fundamental note’ and, moreover, that ‘the persuasive power of pure singing had a great deal to do with the evolution of opera.’ The authors show how, throughout history, operas have been written around the voice rather than voices being called upon to adapt to opera, as expected today – and how, often, operatic roles were devised or adapted for individual singers. Hence, the demise of the castrato in the late eighteenth century and the rise of the romantic tenor post-Rossini are both phenomena which have had a tremendous impact upon the development of opera – not to mention our seemingly unstoppable love affair with the (usually tragic) soprano heroine, and such vocal developments designed around her as bel canto. Abbate and Parker remind us that ‘“aria” means air, after all’ and the book is full of references at every turn to how ‘the experience of … operas will cause [these] questions to dissolve, for a few moments, while we are transported by little songs, carried on a blissful musical wind.’

Naturally enough, then – and completely unsurprisingly for two opera-lovers who have devoted their whole lives to pre-twentieth century opera – Abbate and Parker appear singularly unimpressed by musical turns to extreme dissonance after 1900 and by the fact that, as they somewhat obliquely put it, ‘by 1945, opera’s great undertow – the expressive power inherent in the melodic arc, as performed by a human voice – was demanding a faith that for many composers was beginning to look blind.’ For them, it seems, a relative lack of outright sensual, physically tactile and overtly melodic singing in operas of the twentieth century and present day signals the death knell of opera itself (though how you define those qualities is, again, open to question) – not to mention their concern about the small numbers of operas commissioned post-war which have so far found a place in the repertoire. But even largely tonal, melodic composers who are performed on a regular basis – like John Adams, for instance – fall short in their eyes; Adams’ musical style being unflatteringly described as a ‘warm bath of vast and slowly-changing sound’.

For a book which celebrates opera so exquisitely in so many ways – beautifully describing and narrating (at least, until they arrive at the twentieth century) the story of an art-form which has survived the perils of cost, practical challenge and cultural upheaval across the ages – Abbate and Parker are astonishingly bleak about opera’s prospects in the twenty-first century. Moreover, theirs is a miserable ending which creeps out with a whimper rather than jumping off the ramparts with a defiant shriek, as it were. Their final chapter, ‘We are alone in the forest’, offers no solution to any of the problems they bemoan; indeed, their tired dismissal of opera composing today hardly seems calculated to help a situation of supposed artistic torpor.

It does seem fitting, then, that one of many real, practical rebuttals to Abbate and Parker’s prophecy of doom should recently have emerged to such widespread excitement from the very university department which Parker heads as Professor of Music at King’s College, London; for it is here that George Benjamin also happens to be Professor of Composition. Joining the ranks of opera composers as diverse as Harrison Birtwistle, Michel van der Aa, Unsuk Chin, Thomas Adés, Mark Anthony Turnage, Kaija Saariaho and many many others***, I am certain that the composer of the acclaimed Written on Skin – Benjamin’s recent opera début and a piece which has, for once, been aptly described as a ‘modern masterpiece’ – will have much to say in the coming years about any supposed death of the art-form of which he has just proven to be so magnificent an exponent.


* Which is more than the BBC has managed to do in devising their Proms programme in this year of shared bicentenary for Wagner and Verdi. They have programmed a whole seven Wagner operas in concert – including the entire Ring cycle – to none by Verdi.

** With such compelling ‘authentic’ performances as that offered by the French period orchestra Les Siècle (conductor François-Xavier Roth) at last week’s BBC Proms (of Stravinsky’s centenary-celebrating Rite of Spring and other works), it’s hard to deny that the very best exponents at least offer fascinating musical insights and often play superbly.

***Not to mention such exciting, innovative festivals as Tête à Tête: the Opera Festival at London’s Riverside Studios 1-18 August, about to celebrate its seventh year with over thirty new works and 100-plus performances, and Grimeborn, an ‘un-Glyndebourne’ Festival held at the Arcola Theatre in Dalston, East London and running from 30 July to the end of August – also in its seventh year.