Popular Opera in Britain Past and Present

Saturday 28 November 2015, 3-5pm

Room 261, Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HU

Caruso with record

This study afternoon, open to members of the public, will consider opera’s status as a form of popular entertainment past and present. The aim of the event is to scrutinise and challenge stereotypes about opera being an ‘elitist’ activity.

In the first half of the afternoon Dr Alexandra Wilson (Oxford Brookes University) and Dr Paul Rodmell (University of Birmingham) will recreate the British operatic culture of a century ago, demonstrating that in the early twentieth century opera played to all social classes, enjoyed close connections with a range of different types of popular culture and resisted being pigeon-holed as ‘highbrow’ art. In the second half of the afternoon they will be joined by Dr Anastasia Belina-Johnson (Royal College of Music), Benjamin Hulett (tenor), Dr Cormac Newark (Guildhall School of Music and Drama) and Dr John Snelson (Royal Opera House) for a round-table discussion of opera and popular culture today, debating whether the term ‘highbrow’ has any valid currency in the operatic context.

This event has been organised in association with the OBERTO opera research unit at Oxford Brookes University (http://obertobrookes.com/) and the Institute of Musical Research and funded by the British Academy. Attendance is free but places are limited. Please email alexandra.wilson@brookes.ac.uk in order to reserve a place.

Schoolboy Opera: An Extraordinary Experiment

Michael Volpe, now General Manager of Opera Holland Park, writes in his recent memoir, Noisy at the Wrong Times, about a production of Weber’s Der Freischütz that his state boarding school, Woolverstone Hall, put on in the 1970s. This was a mark of the school’s highly unusual degree of cultural ambition for its boys, which clearly had a deep and lasting effect on Volpe, but we might assume that it was a quirky one off.

Not so. Fifty years earlier another school was experimenting with ‘schoolboy opera’. A music teacher called Charles T. Smith from the Glengall Road L. C. C. Elementary School in Poplar, a working-class area of East London, put on a series of full-scale operas in the late 1910s and early 1920s. The entire school threw itself into the venture, the art department enthusiastically creating the sets, and a music teacher playing the piano. Smith’s sense of determination and enthusiasm in bringing off this unusual endeavour is palpable: ‘The prevailing spirit was, though the heavens fell, Faust was going to be done. And Faust was done’.

Girls and boys were involved in this first operatic experiment, which was followed soon after by a production of The Magic Flute with an all-male cast: Smith smiled when recalling the Queen of the Night whispering to Pamina in the wings, ‘Come on Bill, our turn next’. The opera was performed almost in full, with some small adjustments to the score so that it was suitable for the voices of twelve and thirteen year olds, but with all of Mozart’s harmonies preserved. Bill and his friend singing the Queen of the Night were both quarantined at home throughout the rehearsal period, as relatives were unwell, but both learnt their parts thoroughly in time for the dress, despite neither having a piano at home. And other practical difficulties were also overcome: the children simply carried on with the performance on a day on which the school heating had broken down (in January).


The production received a great deal of press attention. Smith had enlisted Edward J. Dent, soon to be Professor of Music at Cambridge, to give a pre-performance talk, and critics were in attendance from The Observer, The Telegraph, The Express and specialist music education journals. The response was overwhelmingly positive. Critics were astonished by the fact that the boys had memorised so much music and performed it with such psychological insight. The music might not have the sophistication of a performance at Covent Garden, but many of the critics felt that it had a vivid, energetic quality that was often lost in professional performances of Mozart, and the sort of humour that must have been envisaged by Schikaneder.

Some would argue that children have no business to be singing opera: that it harms their voices, that the subject matter isn’t appropriate, that the parading of child ‘stars’ is loathsome. There is some truth in this, particularly the first point, but the point of the performances was certainly not to treat the children like performing monkeys. This is exemplified by the fact that Smith was insistent about modifying the Queen of the Night’s coloratura passages, which could perhaps be taught to a cathedral chorister but not to a boy who had to spend his free time selling newspapers.

Smith argued that the teaching of grand opera to children was ‘thrice educative. It educates those who teach, those who are taught, and those who listen. It enlightens and gives pleasure to everyone concerned’. He was pursuing a rigorous, practical programme of music and drama at his school, in which he hoped these subjects would have benefits for the rest of the curriculum. Above all, he took serious music seriously and believed that children were perfectly capable of appreciating it on its own terms. One of the problems with operatic accessibility, both in the 1920s and indeed today, is that it was/is often depicted as something ‘apart’ from everyday life. But Smith’s aim was a very democratic one: that ‘operatic performances can be regular and ordinary events in ordinary elementary schools, attended by ordinary boys and girls’.

IMG_20150707_122138259 There is a sense of a real team effort here. The children had decided among themselves who would be most suitable to play each part, and Smith saw no reason to override their decisions. And if it was subsequently found that another boy was better suited to a role, the first surrendered the part willingly, taught the music to his successor and took on the role of understudy. The children evidently threw themselves into the process with great gusto. Smith argued that ‘They enter into their parts so intensely simply because they are happy’, and his descriptions of the individual personalities of the boys and their transformation as a result of taking on their roles is an absolute joy to read. Blithesome mirth had blossomed from beneath what were sometimes ‘cheerless, saddened exteriors’.

The critic of The Times expressed particular delight that the children were being given the real deal. He wrote: ‘Think of the well-intentioned cantatas for children, musical plays and operettas which have been turned out by the dozen; they are well written, well suited to the compass of the child’s voice, neat, tuneful, possessing every virtue save one. They do not last’. By contrast, he argued, ‘the man who has got the whole of a Mozart opera or the best part of it well into his bones before he left school is a very different person. He has got something which he cannot outgrow. He at least has the real thing as a personal possession if he chooses to use it, and that is all that an elementary education can do for any of us. There is unlimited scope for development in such educational efforts as this’.

The potential was there, but the idea never took off. There were practical reasons: Smith admitted that the time involved in rearranging the work for children’s voices had been considerable, and depended upon the ability and initiative of a really committed music teacher. Today, of course, children encounter very little opera, if any, in the curriculum and the idea of them putting on an opera as the end of term play is inconceivable. But there is so much to be admired in and learnt from Smith’s philosophy and his positive attitude. He wrote ‘Mount an opera and give it a chance. No one need say of a school that an opera cannot be performed owing to a lack of good singers or actors; it would not be true’. And in these utilitarian times, it is worth considering the Times critic’s idea that culture is a ‘personal possession’ that we give to our children: a source of lifelong ‘enlightenment’ (I use the word without embarrassment), of consolation when times are hard, or of plain old good fun. Above all, culture is one ‘possession’ that nobody can take away.

An Italian Sojourn: Transnational Opera


Earlier this week I had the good fortune to travel to Italy to present a paper at the first Transnational Opera Studies Conference, held at the Department of Arts of the University of Bologna. There are, of course, many international music conferences that feature papers on opera but this is the first large-scale regular conference to be explicitly dedicated to the art form. The idea is that it will take place every other year, and that the host country will vary, along similar lines to the long established Medieval-Renaissance Music Conference.

One of the motivations for the conference’s organisers was clearly to get academics of different nationalities talking to one another. British musicologists work regularly with their North American colleagues but in many cases tend to interact less frequently with their European counterparts. The call for papers had attracted considerable international interest, with 211 proposals received from 27 countries.

Many speakers, however, had also picked up on the ‘transnational’ theme in their papers and none more so than Axel Körner in his opening keynote address. Professor Körner (University College London) is a historian rather than a musicologist, but counts nineteenth-century music theatre among his many interests. In his keynote, he spoke about the problems of studying the past in narrowly national terms, arguing that this is particularly acute in the case of cultural history: national identities do not necessarily remain fixed as artworks cross boundaries. Interestingly, Körner argued that musicologists sometimes write the best history, because they tend to be particularly open to the cross-disciplinary exchange that is so vital for transnational history. (I was delighted that he gave a nod to my Puccini book as a good example of this kind of writing.)

The papers presented during the conference demonstrated the eclecticism and interdisciplinarity of contemporary opera studies, varying widely in chronological range, geographical spread and methodological approach. Speakers discussed such diverse topics as the first performance of Peri’s Euridice in 1600 (Tim Carter, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), hygiene and health manuals produced for nineteenth-century French singers (Céline Frigau Manning, Université Paris 8) and Regietheater stagings of Rusalka (Micaela Baranello, Swarthmore College). There were three sessions running in parallel so clearly it was not possible to hear everything one might have wanted to hear, but I’ll just touch upon a couple of highlights here.

Kunio Hara’s (University of South Carolina) talk about the theme of nostalgia in the early reception of La fanciulla del West seemed to encapsulate the ‘transnational’ concept particularly well. Critical responses to this opera in New York in 1910 are something I have discussed in my own book on Puccini, and the topic has also been addressed in Annie J. Randall and Rosalind Gray-Davis’ Puccini and the Girl: History and Reception of the Girl of the Golden West. I was curious, therefore, to see what new things were left to be said. However, Hara took a very imaginative angle on the topic, examining the opera’s reception in Italian-language papers that were published in New York in 1910. The theme of nostalgia – encapsulated in the character Jake Wallace’s ballad ‘Che faranno i vecchi miei’ – turns out to have been received very differently by the English-language press (where critics found it unconvincing) and the Italian-language press (where it was lapped up and chimed with a wider rhetoric and iconography of nostalgia). Fascinating stuff.

Another very interesting paper for my particular purposes was given by Christy Thomas, a doctoral candidate at Yale, who discussed a different type of ‘boundary crossing’: the boundary between opera and cinema. This is, of course, something that is still being discussed a great deal in the present age. Thomas vividly reconstructed a board meeting of the Ricordi publishing house in 1906, where the company grappled for the first time with the challenges film posed to opera. She had fascinating insights to offer into how snippets of opera were being performed in early cinemas, and how the Ricordi legal team used copyright in order to combat the practice.

Although I hadn’t explicitly set out to incorporate the ‘transnational’ theme into my own paper, it was very much present. I discussed the way in which different national schools of opera were stereotyped by British ‘highbrow’ and ‘middlebrow’ commentators of the 1920s. In a nutshell, from the ‘highbrow’ perspective Italian opera was generally ‘bad’ (unless it was early opera) and German opera was generally ‘good’ (unless it was Strauss) but the ‘middlebrow’ perspective was rather more complex. And speaking in the same session, my colleague Joanne Cormac examined an earlier manifestation of the British love-hate relationship with Italian opera, considering how such works were sent up in the Victorian genre of theatrical burlesque.

Beyond the formal programme of papers, we were treated to two very different musical entertainments. A concert in the Basilica di San Petronio of organ and choral works by Bolognese Baroque composers Maurizio Cazzati, Giovanni Paolo Colonna and Giacomo Antonio Perti placed fitting emphasis upon the local traditions of a city many delegates were visiting for the first time. However, a dazzling and highly amusing lecture recital about Liszt’s Rigoletto Paraphrase by the academic and virtuoso pianist Emanuele Ferrari returned us very much to the idea of the transnational. It was, in fact, almost everywhere you looked, and it’s something I’ll be giving more thought to as I move into the final stages of writing my book.

Locating the ideal London opera house

In recent months we have heard a great deal in the news about the prospect of a new concert hall for London, an idea that has been strongly endorsed by Simon Rattle and appears to have tentative backing from the outgoing government. There has been much online chatter about the acoustic pros and cons of the existing London concert venues, the need or otherwise for a better hall, and about probable locations for it, which include the City or the site of the 2012 Olympics.

Throughout these discussions, I have been reminded of lively debates that took place throughout the 1920s about a much desired new opera house. There was at this time no permanent opera house in London, much to the chagrin and embarrassment of critics who were aware of the superior state of affairs in Germany, Italy and the United States. Opera was performed at a variety of venues in London but on a sporadic basis. Even Covent Garden was only used for opera some of the time: for much of the year it was used for film screenings, dances, jazz, and even boxing matches.

There were numerous calls for a ‘national opera house’, ideally one with a training school for singers attached. The performances would be in English, the performers would be British and the prices would be cheap. There had been previous attempts at setting up a large popular opera house (such as Oscar Hammerstein’s short-lived London Opera House, established on Kingsway in 1911) but all had thus far foundered.

Covent Garden itself was considered thoroughly unsuited to this purpose, on a number of grounds. The structure of its auditorium was incompatible with what many critics held up as a new democratic age of opera-going. It still had many tiers of boxes (for which the theatre was struggling to find aristocratic subscribers) and relatively few affordable seats. ‘The mob’ was crowded onto hard, backless wooden seats in the gallery.

Furthermore, the theatre was considered during the 1920s to be a shabby relic of an earlier, now unfashionable age. A very different beast from today’s smart, welcoming Royal Opera House, it was described as an ‘old, grey  building, surrounded by slums and vegetable stalls’, desperately in need of refurbishment, with an outdated Victorian foyer and winding corridors. It was widely assumed that the theatre would be knocked down within the next few years anyway, in order to make way for the expanding fruit and vegetable market.

Most intriguingly, commentators repeatedly complained that Covent Garden was ‘one of the worst-sited of opera houses’ and expressed their desire for a new national theatre that would be more ‘centrally located’. This has left me wondering where, exactly, the ‘centre’ of London was considered to be at this time. Would an opera house at Oxford Circus have been considered ideal, perhaps, or one near to Marble Arch?

There were numerous other venues where operas were staged during the 1920s: the Old Vic and suburban theatres in Lewisham and Golder’s Green, for instance, but clearly none of these ticked the ‘central’ box. The Coliseum was a varieties theatre and there were no plans to turn it into a theatre devoted to opera at this stage. Semi-staged operas were sometimes put on at the Albert Hall, but its seats were too uncomfortable and too distant, and the masses were no longer prepared to put up with being ‘herded like sheep’ in the upper galleries.

There was nothing for it: London needed a brand new opera house. There were pipe-dreams about opera houses that would hold 3,000, 4,000 or even 10,000 people: commentators speculated that if the seats were priced modestly, such a theatre would be full every night of the year. (There is an ironic resonance here with present-day journalistic discussions about relocating ENO on the grounds that the Coliseum is too large and not economically viable. Charlotte Higgins, for instance, recently wrote in the Guardian that ‘The ideal ENO house would be a theatre half the size, egalitarian, stylish and with a great bar’.)

And then in 1927, a writer for the Illustrated London News reported a new plan that was doing the rounds, which he believed to be the solution to the problem. A theatre could be built on the site of the Foundling Hospital in Bloomsbury. (The hospital itself had moved out to the countryside and various other plans had been mooted for the site, including – ironically – the relocation of Covent Garden market.) The main hospital building could be preserved as an imposing frontispiece for the theatre. The extensive grounds, meanwhile, would allow ample room to provide parking for 1,000 cars. Interestingly, parking was regarded as a high priority: the number of cars on the road in the West End was considered to be at breaking point, even at this early stage in the history of motoring.

During the 1930s Covent Garden was given a reprieve and a permanent opera company was established at Sadler’s Wells, paving the way for the later move to the Coliseum in the late 1960s and the foundation of ENO. The Bloomsbury project never got off the ground, of course, and the Foundling Hospital was demolished. In similar vein, I wonder whether we will we ever actually see that new London concert hall for the twenty-first century?




Some reflections on education and an educational memoir

In my research on operatic culture in the 1920s, I have read many interesting things about attitudes towards arts education. There were numerous calls for children to be given as good a grounding in music as they were in literature, maths or science. Imaginative strategies were devised to introduce children to opera in particular: touring opera companies put on special performances for schools and pupils were expected to write an essay about the opera afterwards and compete to win a prize. There was much discussion about the ways in which new technologies (gramophone records and radio broadcasts) could be used as teaching aids. It was also suggested that opera libretti could be discussed in English lessons, although there was an awareness that this might prove problematic, since the subject matter of so many operas was deemed to be ‘unsuitable’.

Although music education during the 1920s was often said to be in a poor state, there was a huge appetite for standards to be raised, encouraged by a broader enthusiasm for music appreciation and self improvement. It is also clear that, despite the weaknesses of formal music education, the level of cultural knowledge of many children was already considerably higher than we might expect to find today. A magazine of the era observed that children could surely be encouraged to attend the opera because ‘many children [already] attend recitals, some of which are free’.

Music would go on to play a larger part in the school curriculum in the following decades but it is depressing to observe that the question of music education should once again be so contested today. Many schools are dropping Music as an option at GCSE and A-level and matters are not being helped by the exclusion of music from the Russell Group’s list of ‘Facilitating Subjects’. For those who do take the exams, the curriculum is narrowly focused, even at A-level, with its focus on small musical case studies (a few years ago it was fragments from Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette, the Tristan prelude, a bit of jazz and the music for Titanic), which gives pupils little understanding of the broader history of music, let alone of the historical contexts that shaped the works.

Opportunities for children to receive instrumental tuition are also not what they were a few decades ago and in parts of the country county music services are under threat. In some schools, furthermore, a general philistine attitude seems to prevail. A couple of years ago I was shown around a local primary school by a head-teacher whose chest was puffed up with pride at his ‘outstanding’ Ofsted report. The school was evidently doing well but culture seemed to be a blind spot: when asked if there was a school choir, the headmaster retorted that there was absolutely no need for one – ‘rock band’ would suffice.

The question of exposing children to culture and encouraging a spirit of genuine intellectual curiosity lies at the heart of Michael Volpe’s new memoir, Noisy at the Wrong Times. Volpe, now General Manager of Opera Holland Park, was the fourth son of Italian immigrant parents. His ne’er-do well father abandoned the family and his mother (a larger than life character in the story) worked her socks off cooking in a nursery in order to support her four young sons. Life for the family was undoubtedly extremely hard, and Volpe’s account of life on a London council estate is both vivid and visceral. One of his elder brothers, Matteo, was in and out of borstal as child, an experience that set him on a particular course for life. Michael Volpe is open about the fact that his own life might have been similar had it not been for the fact that he received an exceptional educational opportunity.

In the mid 1970s, at the age of 11, Volpe was given a place at Woolverstone Hall school for boys, an unusual state boarding school that took bright working-class boys and gave them an education similar to that which they might have received at Eton. The book is in large part a traditional school days story of boyish high jinks, whether in the classroom, on the rugby pitch or in the dormitories. But Volpe also writes passionately about the education he received, and particularly about the fact that culture was presented to the boys without apology and without dumbing down: this was a school with the balls to put on a production of Der Freischütz.

This, then, is the story of the transformative nature of education, but there is a twist in the tale. Although Volpe revelled in taking the lead in school plays and was a star sportsman, he more or less deliberately abandoned his academic studies, arrogantly assuming that he didn’t need paper qualifications and not bothering to revise for his exams. It is clear that he can now hardly bear to write about such an opportunity wasted: the chapter that concludes his school days ends with a four-letter expletive and the subsequent chapter is simply entitled ‘idiot’. Predictably enough, Volpe’s opportunities upon leaving school under such a cloud were not great, but initiative and an entrepreneurial spirit would take him places in the end.

Even though Volpe would fully admit that he squandered many of the formal educational opportunities that were offered to him, an enthusiasm for learning had evidently got into the blood-stream. His book is a passionate plea for schools to take the arts seriously. He writes: ‘Children, including those from impoverished backgrounds, have the facility and the capability to understand the tenets of Roman society, or the wonders of ancient Greece and the glory of Renaissance painting, or any number of things that seem to have been given only cursory presence in the classroom’. Rock band most certainly will not suffice.

As well as being an impassioned manifesto, this book is an enjoyable read on many levels. It is by turns laugh-out-loud funny (anecdotes about swearing in Neapolitan dialect, recognising the sound of the policeman’s knock on the door, writing a rude letter to a girlfriend who had dumped him) and highly moving (Volpe’s response to his brother’s death at the age of 52; his aching regrets about screwing up at school). Volpe is as interesting and thought-provoking when writing about the immigrant experience as when writing about education, and the passages about family holidays to Italy are highly evocative. Volpe admits to not paying attention in English lessons, but when it comes to grabbing the reader by the throat and holding their attention, this man sure can write.


Noisy at the Wrong Times is available to buy here.

On being bored at the opera

Wooster at the opera

A few days ago, The Times published an article by a columnist called Philip Collins about being bored at the opera. Mr Collins told readers that his father had loved opera but his mother had loathed it and that a recent visit to the Royal Opera House had convinced him of his mother’s wisdom.

Collins announced that within minutes of the curtain rising ‘I didn’t have a clue what was going on. Hell’s bells but it was boring’. Declaring that he would rather listen to Gerald Kaufman reading extracts from the Labour party rule book than Jonas Kaufmann singing Andrea Chénier, Collins left at the interval.

It would seem churlish not to raise a smile, and I do have some sympathy because that is precisely how I would feel within minutes of starting to watch, say, a James Bond film. (It is also true that some operas have complex plots, although it surely doesn’t take long to read the plot summary in the programme beforehand.) But I doubt Collins’ departure at half time would have amused his generous host, who must have paid a decent sum even for a restricted view seat. And the article must have seemed positively galling to the many opera enthusiasts who would have given their eye teeth to hear Kaufmann sing live and to see an opera that last came to Covent Garden three decades ago.

The article prompted me to muse on the fact that opera always seems to be considered fair game for mockery, in the way that other pursuits are not, and brought to mind some interesting resonances with my 1920s project. Back then there was a particular group well known for being bored at the opera – dandy-like young aristocratic men who were merely there because it was the done thing. (This group – albeit a few years further down the line – are brilliantly brought to life in an episode of the Fry/Laurie Jeeves and Wooster in which Wooster and chums snore their way through a performance at the opera.) Such philistines were roundly mocked by the serious music critics of the day.

Yet at the same time there was also a trend during the 1920s for newspapers and even music journals to publish articles about the arts written by anonymous correspondents assuming pseudonyms such as ‘A Man in the Street’. Such commentators did not hold back in roundly ridiculing what they regarded as ‘pretentious high culture’, which was inevitably contrasted with the joys of sport – a Leitmotif closely connected to questions of British identity. It is as if the opinions of the ‘naïf’ were considered more interesting, refreshing or even valid than those of the publication’s own specialist arts correspondents.

None of this is to say that audience members should not have a voice when it comes to discussing culture and clearly this is a particularly pertinent and contested issue in the internet age. But when newspapers devote so little space to serious discussion of the arts, why give such exposure to the opinions of people who know nothing about a particular branch of culture and – more importantly – seem positively hostile towards it?

I wonder whether Collins’ article might be the first in a witty new series. Can we now look forward to the musings of a bored sports correspondent yawning his way through a party political conference? How about a bored film critic going to a football match, announcing ‘hell’s bells, it was boring!’ and leaving at half time? No, it’s probably just opera…

Read all about it: the decline of music criticism?

In certain respects the 1920s were, as they say, another country. Some of the racist and sexist remarks I have read (yes, even in music criticism) have taken my breath away. However, certain debates that took place back then seem uncannily close to discussions that are still rumbling on today. Take, for instance, the debate about arts criticism – how much (or rather how little) of it appears in the papers; the quality (or otherwise) of it; and who’s qualified (or not) to write it. Yes folks, it’s all been said before.

On social media I often see critics and performers lamenting the fact that word counts for reviews have been cut (and readers aren’t too happy about it either). At worst, stories abound about critics who have either been sacked or had their duties drastically reduced, and about arts criticism disappearing from certain papers altogether: more on this here.

A pet peeve of mine is the disparity between how the arts are covered in specialist arts supplements and in the main sections of newspapers. There is a particular paper I buy on Saturdays, partly out of long-standing habit and partly because I enjoy its reviews, its food writing and its puzzles (I no longer think much of its news coverage). I am often irritated, however, by how the arts are covered in the main paper: generally speaking, any story about opera has to feature 1) a sensationalist angle, 2) the old chestnut about opera being ‘elitist’, and 3) a glamorous female singer (two particular singers, one not technically an opera singer at all, are featured above all others).

I’ve never quite understood why the specialist critics don’t also write the arts ‘news stories’ (doubtless someone can enlighten me). However, the practice of separating the duties out is obviously a long-standing one. I was really struck by this sentence written in 1926 in the journal Musical Opinion: ‘It is the old, old question, often debated in Musical Opinion, of the “news” side of newspapers (left to technically ignorant sub-editors and reporters) divorced from the columns run by the specialists. The news editors, the virtual autocrats in most offices, regard the experts with tolerance that is not always good-natured’.

In the 1920s fingers were often pointed at daily papers for making the most basic of mistakes, such as getting an opera’s name wrong (the Evening Standard announced Puccini’s new opera as ‘Turindol’). Critics also complained about the press’s obsession with ‘what the newspaper editors call “human interest”’ and the fact that the visits of serious musicians were sometimes ignored, while huge splashes were made of concerts by child prodigies (a sort of ‘Britain’s got Talent’ mentality avant la lettre).

Opera critics in the 1920s evidently felt as though they were being squeezed out. The sad thing, compared to today, is that there was a huge amount of specialist arts criticism in the 1920s. The number of music journals and magazines that were published during the decade is staggering. Opera critics even published books of selected writings, a practice unimaginable now. ‘The good old days’ must have been absolutely stupendous if this was arts criticism on the decline.

On writing a first, second and third book

DSC_0458I have written two books and am in the process of preparing the manuscript for what I hope will become a third. Although the three books all concern some aspect of opera, the practical business of writing each of them has felt quite different. I thought therefore that it might be interesting to reflect upon the ‘mechanics’ of writing a first book and the books that follow.

My first monograph (The Puccini Problem: Opera, Nationalism, and Modernity, Cambridge), on the reception of Puccini’s operas in Italy during his own lifetime, developed out of my PhD dissertation. It was therefore, in essence, an adaptation. That is not to say, however, that it was particularly quick or easy to write, even if a lot of the primary research had already been done. I submitted my PhD in 2002 and the book was not published until 2007. The intervening years were spent extending and adapting the PhD material, waiting for a contract to be confirmed (a process that took about two years from first approaching the publisher), and going through the production process (which took, as I recall, about a year).

When I was doing my PhD, I consciously made a point of writing it in an accessible style, with a mind to turning it into a book later. Even so, when it came to adapting it, a lot of changes still had to be made. Every PhD has to include a rather ‘mechanical’ introduction, which explains the candidate’s methodology, reviews the existing literature and situates the thesis within it. Most of this has to be removed for the book, because it’s just too dry for the somewhat wider readership you’d be hoping to reach. (Even though my book was published by a university press I was always very keen that it should also be read by a general readership of opera enthusiasts and people interested in the cultural politics of late nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Italy.)

There were other things to be done as well as recasting the introduction, of course. My PhD focused on the period between 1896 (the première of La bohème) and 1912, when a critic called Fausto Torrefranca published a book about Puccini that must qualify as the most concerted character assassination in the history of music literature. For the book, however, I needed to tell the whole story, looking back before Bohème and adding chapters on the reception of the operas of the 1910s and on Turandot. In order to research these final chapters another trip to Milan was required, to look at sources in the Biblioteca Braidense and the archive of the Conservatorio, libraries I already knew well from my PhD research. Even the intervening chapters didn’t stay the same as in the PhD though: everything had to be somewhat recast in terms of tone and brought together as a homogeneous whole, and I added a new epilogue.

My second book (Opera: A Beginner’s Guide, Oneworld) was a completely different beast. This time I’d had a commission: a colleague had written another book in the same series and given the publisher my name. This book was shorter, far less specialised and aimed at a broader readership. This time it was more a case of drawing upon my broader knowledge of opera, its histories and its literature, rather than undertaking original research (although I did incorporate my own findings for the Puccini sections). Something I was very keen to do with this book, however, was to avoid writing a straightforward opera history and to differentiate it from other similar books on the market by taking a more thematic approach, focusing upon debates about opera. I therefore based it upon the sorts of topics I’d discussed with undergraduate students in a module I teach entitled ‘Opera and Politics’: issues to do with the staging of opera, how operas tackle questions of race and gender, and so on. I wrote the book by and large sequentially although my memories of the final stages of the process are, I admit, now somewhat hazy (coinciding, as they did, with having a baby).

The book I am currently writing, on debates about opera in 1920s Britain, is ostensibly similar to the first, in that it will be another research-based monograph with (I hope) a broad appeal. The process of writing this one, however, feels very different. I undertook some research on this topic about six years ago but it felt like a large project and I never had time to do it justice (partly because of the maternity leave hiatus and partly because there are no sabbaticals at my university). My BA Fellowship has finally given me the opportunity to turn it into a book. This means that I basically have a year to research and write a book, which is a tall order, but it feels invigorating to have to work in a very focused way at speed.

This isn’t an adaptation and its chapters are not chronological but thematic. My Puccini book dealt, for the most part, with individual operas: thus it was possible to research and write one discrete chapter at a time. This time I am investigating broader debates about opera and any given source may throw up material that is useful for a range of chapters. Thus, my current approach is to plough through a particular periodical for the years 1920-30 and then to spend a few days writing the material up, adding small sections into the relevant chapter files. It feels a bit ‘scatter-gun’ at the moment, and I will certainly have to come back and do a lot of tidying up later, but on the other hand it is satisfying to see the various chapters steadily ‘growing’ at roughly the same pace. The quantity of relevant material I am finding is so vast that I certainly couldn’t contemplate doing all the research and then writing each chapter in turn at the end.

The fact that this process is quite different from the one I used for my first book has made me realise that there isn’t one ‘set’ way in which to write an academic book and that the material in question will itself guide the process. I’d be interested to hear from readers who have themselves written books about their approach to writing.




On cancelling operas, and appreciating what we have

Two of this week’s news stories have made me reflect upon some of the cultural differences between the Britain of 90 years ago and the Britain of today. The first was the news about the cancellation of the co-production by ENO and the Bristol Old Vic of Monteverdi’s Orfeo. I found this story striking because it’s the sort of thing that is comparatively rare today in this country: singers may cancel and opera companies may change their long-term plans, but productions that have already been announced aren’t often pulled. However, cancelling productions was par for the course during the 1920s.

Operatic culture between the Wars was, frankly, a mess. With no operatic subsidy until after World War Two, money for opera was in extremely short supply and although there were endless fundraising schemes to prop up opera financially they never came to much. Seasons were routinely announced and then cancelled, and in the spring of a given year it was often unclear whether the operas promised for the same summer or autumn would actually be performed. Foreign opera companies sometimes considered coming to London but couldn’t be sure they’d sell enough tickets and usually thought better of it.

Performance standards were also by and large pretty poor, even at Covent Garden: scrappy old sets and costumes were recycled; singers of varying standards sang in different languages within the same opera, and so on. There was much talk of the wondrous things that could happen if only there were an opera subsidy. You can feel the world of opera straining to become its post-World-War-Two self.

People are sometimes inclined nowadays to lament that opera in the UK is not what it once was. But looking at what operatic culture was like here in the interwar period can only serve to focus the mind on the riches we are lucky enough to enjoy today. Make no mistake, opera companies face many challenges, financial and otherwise, something that Michael Volpe has written about frankly and perceptively on numerous occasions. Clearly these are serious and not to be underestimated. Yet from the audience perspective we need to rejoice in the number of opera companies we currently have in this country, the high standards of singing, acting and production that we take as the norm, the fact that a performance probably will actually take place, and the fact that if we go to hear an opera in Italian there will not be somebody singing one of the roles in Swedish. Maybe this is the golden age and we need to revel in it. Let’s just hope that the Orfeo cancellation isn’t a sign of times to come and that public funding cuts and the like don’t send us hurtling back to the operatic world of the 1920s.

I’ll save the other big news story from this week for another time, once I’ve calmed down about it. No prizes for guessing what it was.

Brown paper packages tied up with string

A decade agoDSC_0392 I was writing a book about the reception of Puccini in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Italy. It was a project that was heavily reliant upon press sources: music journals, general cultural magazines and daily papers. This involved finding a library that held the relevant publication and trawling through old issues, either on microfilm or on paper. It was painstaking, sometimes tedious work, but since the libraries in question were often in cities like Milan, Florence and Rome I wasn’t complaining too much.

Ten years on I am undertaking another project (British in focus this time) that involves a lot of press sources. Nowadays many historic newspapers have been digitised, as have various journals, although not as many for the early twentieth century as for the nineteenth century. The benefits of digitised periodicals are numerous: so long as you have institutional access, either via a university or public library, digitised publications can save you an awful lot of time and travel.

Nevertheless, there are still times when I find myself drawn back to hard copy and more often than not my desk at the library is piled high with old journals, often big fat bound tomes or fragile looking bundles of papers tied together with string. Sometimes when a publication is available both digitally and in hard copy I will still choose the latter, depending upon what I want to find.

Using online newspapers works brilliantly when you want to find information about a specific person or a specific event: then the search terms can be narrowed down sufficiently to retrieve the desired information. Had the Italian newspapers been digitised a decade ago, I could have found the reviews of my Puccini premières in a few swift clicks. However, if you’re trying to build up a picture of a broader debate at a particular time, the potential to miss a lot of interesting material is enormous.

To take a case in point, I’ve recently flicked through an entire ten years’ worth of The Musical Times in hard copy. The Musical Times is also available in digitised format so this might seem perverse. However, reading articles in their original context allows you to ascertain the prominence they were given within the journal (how long was the article compared to others? Was it placed near the front or relegated to the back?) and to establish their relationship to other articles (and carefully placed advertisements) around them.

I have also stumbled across many interesting and useful things that a keyword search would never have brought up. Many of these are relevant to my current project; others are just of passing interest or amusement, but you never know what might come in handy for a future article. I was intrigued, for instance, to read about an orchestra that stormed the offices of an Italian newspaper in 1920 in protest at its critic’s review of the orchestra’s recent performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. Such an incident might seem at first sight to be of only anecdotal interest but actually says something very interesting about the perceived power of the press at the time.

Other articles on non-operatic topics provide an insight into social change: an article in The Era, for instance, presented as startling news the fact that customers were beginning to demand fashions based on those they were seeing at the cinema. The small ads in this theatrical newspaper (“musicians wanted”; “musicians’ wants”) and the advertisements for intriguing sounding music hall and circus acts also help to build up a colourful picture of an era.

Reading old newspapers can undoubtedly be a slow and irritating business (literally so at times, provoking sneezes and itchy skin). But there is also something shiver-inducing about holding in your hands the very papers and magazines that an opera-goer from ninety years could have flicked through, in search of the latest listings and reviews.