The Performance of Opera Today: Disease and Possible Cure—a Review of Conrad L. Osborne’s Opera as Opera: The State of the Art

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The Performance of Opera Today: Disease and Possible Cure

Opera as Opera

Book Review

Opera as Opera: The State of the Art
by Conrad L. Osborne
Price: $45.00 ISBN: 978-0-999-43660-8 Cloth
Proposito Press (2018), 827 pages with index
Click to buy.


Opera can be grand or intimate, tragedy-obsessed or satirical, moralizing or wacky. As a result, this colorful and often rather “extreme” form of art (and/or entertainment) has spawned legions of devoted fans and merciless critics over the course of the past four centuries.

Among the many intensely readable book-length essays on this complex, sometimes problematic genre, Joseph Kerman’s Opera as Drama stands as perhaps the single most famous example (at least in English). Opera-goers can also consult wonderful, thought-provoking histories full of insight and imagination: for example, Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker’s A History of Opera or James Parakilas’s The Story of Opera. Numerous richly informative books treat a narrower swath of repertory: e.g., Tim Carter’s Understanding Italian Opera and Stephen Meyer’s Carl Maria von Weber and the Search for German Opera. And there are authoritative books on individual opera composers, such as Hugh Macdonald’s recent, subtly witty Bizet. The aforementioned books, and others similar in type, tend to focus on how certain significant or representative operas came to be, how they have been “received” by audiences, critics, and scholars, and how the words and music in a given work interact.

The latest major book on opera, Conrad L. Osborne’s hefty Opera as Opera: The State of the Art, focuses instead on opera as a performance art, paying close attention to vocal technique, acting/gesture, conducting, and staging, and how these various elements come across on a given afternoon or night in a major opera house such as the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. In this sense, it complements well the pathbreaking and widely hailed Divas and Scholars: Performing Italian Opera, by the late Philip Gossett, who founded and long guided the critical editions of the works of Rossini and Verdi.

Conrad L. Osborne

Osborne is best known as an opera critic, but he has also worked as a voice teacher and sometime singer and actor. He began writing Opera as Opera in 1998 and finished it in 2016, at the age of 82. His self-publishing seems to have taken an additional two years. (Proposito Press does not exist except as a conduit for this book.)

I am one of thousands of music lovers who have enjoyed and respected—and silently argued with—Osborne’s reviews through the years, notably those that he wrote in the widely read 1960s/70s-era record magazine High Fidelity (I always looked for his initials: C.L.O.) and its now equally defunct successor, Opus. I particularly value his contributions to a volume that I consult regularly throughout the year: The Metropolitan Opera Guide to Recorded Opera. Osborne authored the entries for such canonical works as Verdi’s Aida and Gounod’s Faust, as well as for Rimsky-Korsakov’s sardonic The Golden Cockerel (once known as Le coq d’or) and Marc Blitzstein’s blistering Regina. (The Metropolitan Opera Guide to Recorded Opera, first published in 1993, deserves by now to be reissued in a thoroughly updated edition.)

Osborne is perhaps the best-known and best-informed proponent in America of the disquieting thesis that the international opera industry is in a state of collapse. Indeed, the book jacket shows the title’s letters crumbling! Osborne argues, passionately, that (among other things) there are few worthy new operas being written and performed; that singers with clear, strong voices—a necessity for the masterworks of Verdi and Wagner—are rarely to be heard nowadays; and that stage directors have been given excessive leeway, thereby deforming some of the most precious masterpieces in the repertory.

Previous writers have registered similar objections. For example, in regard to “interventionist” (or conceptually “strong”) stage productions, I might mention A. M. Nagler’s 1981 brilliantly titled Misdirection: Opera Production in the Twentieth Century and the final chapter in a book focusing on works from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: Robert Ketterer’s Ancient Rome in Early Opera.

Osborne, however, has his own angles on this and many other aspects of operatic performance today. His book is therefore well worth reading by anyone interested in the genre. Or, because of the variety of topics that he addresses, I’d say that the book is equally well worth dipping into—whether at random or following one’s own interests via the table of contents and the index. Osborne is aware that his book is a baggy beast. On p. 1, he allows his readers to skip, if they prefer, Part 1: a series of “essayettes” that lay out his underlying principles. (I found all but one of these essayettes fascinating and, in some ways, essential to understanding his arguments elsewhere.)

I have now worked my way through most of the book but—I admit—have not read every paragraph, footnote, or endnote. I have swum around in an erratic fashion, sometimes following Osborne’s cross-references and often re-reading a section and getting more out of it the second time. I recommend this “freely wandering” approach, which suits the book’s richness and its tendency to touch upon a certain theme in many different spots rather than in a single chapter.

The somewhat odd and, at times, annoying structure of Opera as Opera has been noted by other critics—for example, by Joseph Horowitz, who nonetheless recommends the book heartily. The structural oddity derives from Osborne’s decision to write the chapters in the order in which one now reads them—that is, over a period of 18 years—and not to reorder the material significantly once the manuscript was complete. (The chapters bear subtitles stating the year or years in which they were written.) Furthermore, most of the chapters incorporate extensive comments on the particular performances that Osborne attended, and recordings that he listened to, during the weeks and months in which wrote that particular chapter. Of course, the result is not as random as this may sound, since Osborne chose which operas to see and hear. 

A short review cannot do justice to the number and variety of Osborne’s distinctive ways of viewing the genre of opera and its current state: its mixture of, as he presents it, glory and crisis. But I would like to focus here on three of his main points:

1. Opera as Opera concerns mainly serious (rather than comic) operas from what he calls the “Extended Nineteenth Century.” Osborne sees this era as stretching from Mozart to Puccini and Richard Strauss, and he somewhat weirdly abbreviates it as “E-19.” He recognizes that it resembles the concept of the Long Nineteenth Century, familiar in writings by historians such as E. J. Hobsbawm, but insists that opera, during E-19, sometimes lagged behind other cultural developments from around the same time—lagged behind them in fruitful ways—and needs to be understood on its own terms.

Plots in most serious E-19 operas, argues Osborne, derived from a single paradigmatic situation: the struggle of an outsider-hero (e.g., the son of a deposed ruler) to gain or regain his merited position in society and to unite with a worthy woman who is part of that society (e.g., the daughter or sister of a usurper, as in Donizetti’s Lucia). The outsider-hero is often a metaphor for the misunderstood creative artist, as Osborne proposes in a fascinating paragraph on p. 212. That paragraph, he explains in an endnote, is “indebted” to the book Art for Art’s Sake and Literary Life, by Gene Bell-Villada. Osborne, frank about being no scholar, happily names and summarizes many books that he has relied upon for his observations and generalizations about cultural history and aesthetic trends.

The production team, Osborne insists, must ensure that these crucial (paradigmatic, etc.) aspects of plot and character be made visible and, we might say, feel-able. Thus, his objection to many directorial updatings (or other heavy alterations of the visual elements) is founded neither in a simple literalism nor in a search for historical authenticity. Rather, Osborne believes that the ideological themes in a work need to be rendered in a way that allows them to communicate to the listener/viewer today. In this respect, he would find comrades among many scholars today working on opera, who often stress that an operatic production can never recapture the past but must find ways of negotiating between the work’s pastness and our present-day concerns. (See Claudio Vellutini’s thoughtful review of five recent Verdi DVDs; Vellutini helpfully refers to nuanced scholarly writings on the topic for further reading.) 

Osborne stresses that, in rejecting a given present-day restaging of an E-19 opera, he is not endorsing the cultural values that the work would convey if it were staged in a more traditional manner. For example, he points out, appreciatively, that certain feminist critics, though denouncing the ideological content of many standard-repertory works as utterly antiquated, indeed noxious, nonetheless argue for respecting the expression of that content rather than erasing or rewriting that content because of our own embarrassment or discomfort (pp. 214; 247, n. 5; and 408, n. 7). I might add that, though many operas from the past did echo and bolster contemporary social structures that we today (well, many of us) recognize as oppressive, others called such social structures into question. For example, Western colonialist domination of Japan is openly critiqued in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, as I discuss in Chapter 8 of my Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections.  And the African slave trade is portrayed as vicious and inhumane in The Magic Flute. This latter case is less well known because performances and recordings of Flute tend to suppress two crucial spoken-dialogue scenes in which, as I have explained in a letter to the New York Times (but published in New York Arts), the slaves air their grievances and display their capacity for human sympathy.

2. Singing has, in recent decades, become gentle and soft-focused (hence appropriate to small theaters and to various types of recording) instead of forceful and, when necessary, knife-edged (hence able to project in a large hall). Osborne is on very firm ground here: his knowledge of vocal technique allows him to support his argument with copious descriptions of performances that he has heard, primarily at the Metropolitan Opera (which has some 4000 seats), but also elsewhere and via carefully chosen recordings. I was particularly struck by Osborne’s discussion of his twin experiences of a Met production of Don Carlo in 2010. One Saturday, he happened to be out of town and therefore took the opportunity to attend a High-Definition transmission of Verdi’s Don Carlo, live from the Met, in a movie theater. Four days later, back in New York, he went to a performance at the Met itself, with most of the same singers. Osborne’s precise descriptions (pp. 646-50) reveal great sensitivity to what comes across effectively on a screen, with the singers well miked (and seen in close-up), and what comes across better—and less well—in a large hall, with no miking.

The discussions of singing technique, vocal expressiveness, and simple audibility are bound to be the most debated sections of the book. I at times found myself unsure about whether I had fully grasped Osborne’s terminology (e.g., the contrast between a given singer’s “core” and “format”—see some sample passages below). Still, I tend to trust him, having had the experience of attending a Rigoletto at the Met in the late 1970s in which Sherrill Milnes—a baritone I adored on recordings—could scarcely be heard in heavily orchestrated passages. (Admittedly, I made the mistake of sitting downwind from the brass.) The New York Times music critic Zachary Woolfe recently complained that, in a Met performance of Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle, two world-famous singers (Angela Denoke and Gerald Finley) acted perceptively, “but neither could summon the power to project over a seething orchestra.”

 

Osborne is certainly on target when noting that singers often take on roles that are too heavy for them, and thereby end up shouting or wobbling or both. And that there are almost no true basses active these days on the international opera circuit (of the José Mardones or Kurt Moll type) nor, indeed, true contraltos (of the Ernestine Schumann-Heink or Maureen Forrester type). Indeed, Osborne repeatedly argues that modern singers in general (including artists that he has otherwise admired, such as Joan Sutherland, Régine Crespin, and Leontyne Price), by leaving the lower register undeveloped, reduce the carrying power of their middle and upper registers as well and risk developing problems in vocal production that can end their careers too early. (Osborne discusses two infamous cases of early decline: Anna Moffo and Gwyneth Jones, pp. 430-32.) 

My one recurring objection to Osborne’s description of operatic singing in our time is that he tends to take the Met as the almost uniquely desirable norm. Or, during its heyday, the New York City Opera, to which he devotes many appreciative paragraphs and whose singers, he claims, could always be heard well, despite the challenging acoustics of the New York State Theater. In fact, though, many regional opera companies perform in sensibly sized auditoriums, as do certain renowned European opera festivals: for example, two festivals that are devoted primarily to Rossini (in Pesaro, Italy, and in Wildbad, Germany). When Osborne expresses admiration for the way that singers such as Johanna Gadski and Birgit Nilsson used to perform Mozart, I cannot help but think, in reply, “Sorry, I’ll take my Mozart done by some of those modern, exquisite, soft-focused singers [e.g., of the Dawn Upshaw type] . . . but, please, let me hear them in an appropriately sized hall!”

 

3. On-stage acting has become detailed and psychologically true, fit for televised closeups rather than for the broad gestures required by distance from the viewer/listener in (again) a largish hall. This observation is supported, again, by Osborne’s aforementioned discussion of the Met’s live-in-HD transmissions. I have attended dozens of these transmissions (and have seen others later, when they got broadcast on TV). I believe strongly that they constitute a valid operatic experience, indeed just as treasurable as good studio recordings (with their highly refined microphone placement). In the latter category, I think of some still-essential recordings made in the 1950s through the 90s, such as the de Sabata Tosca (with Callas, di Stefano, and Gobbi), the pathbreaking Solti/Culshaw Ring Cycle (not least, Régine Crespin’s immensely communicative Sieglinde), Colin Davis conducting Berlioz’s Les troyens (with the ever-vivid Jon Vickers), and Karl Böhm’s powerful reading of Berg’s Wozzeck (featuring one of Osborne’s exemplars of the modern, sensitive, “plush” sound: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau). (I should also add that recordings remain a vital way to encounter operas that rarely if ever get staged nowadays. I recently reviewed over three dozen opera CDs—new recordings or long-unavailable ones now re-released—for the Boston Musical Intelligencer, including such remarkable achievements as the 1971 opening-night performance of Gottfried von Einem’s Der Besuch der alten Dame, starring an astonishing Christa Ludwig, who was then at her absolute peak of vocal and histrionic incisiveness.)

In order to illustrate his points about these and other topics (such as his contention that orchestral performance has become perfectionist about detail and transparency but has lost sweep and drama), Osborne sometimes devotes pages and pages to a given opera—either describing a single performance or comparing and contrasting many performances (or recordings). Here I found myself becoming particularly attentive, because Osborne is so skillful at pointing out the defining features and differences in a given rendering. Even better: the operas are not always predictable choices.

A Scene from Robert Wilson's Production of Lohengrin at the Metropolitan Opera.

A Scene from Robert Wilson’s Production of Lohengrin at the Metropolitan Opera.

Of course we hear something about Il trovatore and Lohengrin (the latter in Robert Wilson’s infamously static, hieratic staging of 1998—pp. 36-51), but there are lengthy passages also on such varied works as Verdi’s relatively early Ernani, Tchaikovsky’s Mazeppa (in a 1998 performance, at the Met, by the visiting Mariinsky Opera, formerly known as the Kirov), George Benjamin’s Written on Skin (2012), and Borodin’s Prince Igor, whose idiosyncratic production at the Met in 2014—among other things, it rearranged the order of some scenes in ways quite different from the version compiled by Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov after Borodin’s death—Osborne spends thirty pages skewering. Best of all, perhaps, is the 63 pages (including 8 pages of endnotes) dealing with the Met’s 2003 production of Halévy’s La juive (1835), an opera that was, throughout the nineteenth century and for good reason, a standard repertory item. Osborne’s near-scholarly analysis in that particularly rich chapter offers remarkable insights into Halévy’s masterful work and the specific performers (e.g., tenor Neil Shicoff, in the central role of the Jewish goldsmith Éléazar) but also into such matters of broad general interest as stage acting, artful (and/or inept) “blocking,” and—as always—vocal technique.

(An aside about the immensely problematic Prince Igor. Most critics in 2014 hailed the Met’s production, often simply repeating the polemical claims that had been made by stage director Dmitri Tcherniakov and his production team, instead of doing some basic homework or using their own eyes and ears. Some sense of the problems with the work itself—a semi-masterpiece that Borodin never quite completed—but also with the Met’s production can be gleaned from Albrecht Gaub’s excellent review of the work’s first scholarly edition: Music Library Association Notes, June 2014, pp. 739-45.)

There is more, much more, in this bulky, endlessly gratifying book. Fortunately, Osborne’s prose makes for delightful reading, precisely as we are told in the back-cover blurbs by highly experienced critics and theater professionals (Will Crutchfield, Norman Lebrecht, Peter G. Davis, Richard Dyer, and actor/director /playwright Austin Pendleton). Here are a few samples of Osborne’s ability to convey a sense of operatic singing through words alone:

When [Crespin] and Nilsson, as Sieglinde and Brünnhilde respectively, alternated their vaulting lines in Act III of Die Walküre, the complementary contrast was of core, not format—Crespin’s warm, lush tone gushing into the house, Nilsson’s cold, compact one lancing through it, and Crespin’s if anything the larger of the two. (p. 361)

[Renata] Tebaldi’s piano singing was of incomparable warmth and, owing to the voice’s large format, unique immediacy—it could permeate the largest hall with tender, feminine intimacy. In her early years, she could float this soft sound almost to the top of her range, vide the B-flats in the Tomb Scene of her 1952 Aida recording. Even in her late seasons, she retained its essential quality in the midrange. (p. 365)

[Regarding Verdi’s marking of pianissimo at the end of “Celeste Aida,” Radames’s first aria in Verdi’s Aida:] In my in-house experience, the pp, morendo [dying away] has been best indicated by [Carlo] Bergonzi, who sang a perfectly controlled mp [i.e., even Bergonzi didn’t bring the voice down to Verdi’s marking of pp], and by [Franco] Corelli, who attacked at forte and then brought off a long, even diminuendo, giving us both the macho and the morendo. Otherwise, every tenor I’ve seen as Radames has sung it forte, including some fine ones I would hesitate to call inartistic. Then there’s the long line, from [Jussi] Björling back to [Enrico] Caruso and beyond, of recorded versions. Nothing wrong, I think, with a ringing high note that shines like the sun ([given that the words he is singing are] “un trono vicino al sol”). (pp. 672-3)

As these excerpts show, the writing in the book is lively and precise. But I should quickly add (as those back-cover blurbers don’t) that it can also be irrepressibly quirky. Osborne loves to coin phrases, or to Borrow and Capitalize them (and to capitalize on them, i.e., invest in them and watch them grow). We thus get repeated references (e.g., 202-7) to the aforementioned outsider-hero in opera plots as the “faydit” (the term comes from medieval French) or, even more playfully, the “reverse-faydit.” The King Arthur/Holy Grail legends (e.g., Percival/Parsifal) are encapsulated in a phrase that I had never encountered before: “the Matter of Britain.” (I looked it up and learned that it is standard among literary historians and derives from an eleventh-century French poem by Jean Bodel.) There are references to “Skipover repertory” (meaning opera houses that focus on the Baroque, Mozart, and then jump to Debussy and Britten) and to the “Displacement Rule” (regarding chest voice). Here’s a helpful hint to future readers: Osborne explains some of his singing terminology on pp. 312-18 and pp. 405-6, n.3. (In the book’s first printing, the footnote reference on p. 314 to this important n. 3 says, erroneously, “n. 29.” See the helpful errata list at Osborne’s lively blog. The errors, I am told, have all been corrected in the second printing.) 

If you dip into the book rather than read it sequentially, you will surely be puzzled by frequent mention of “right-column” singers. This idiosyncrsatic phrase denotes singers of the soft and cushy type. Osborne terms them “right-column” because their traits, and some of their names (as examples), appear on the right halves of two diagrams on pp. 322-23. Right-column sopranos, for example, can be as different as Anna Moffo and Joan Sutherland. Left-column singers of high repute existed mostly in the past: Luisa Tetrazzini (despite being a coloratura soprano), Lotte Lehmann, Lauritz Melchior, Franco Corelli, Heinrich Schlusnus, Fyodor Chaliapin, and so on.

Osborne admires Joan Sutherland particularly in her early recordings. I heartily second his suggestion that lovers of great singing listen to the live performance, in Italian, of Meyerbeer’s Les huguenots at La Scala in 1962. Sutherland’s co-stars Franco Corelli, Giulietta Simionato, and Fiorenza Cossotto are no less stupendous. The recording is usually listed under the Italian title Gli ugonotti.

Unfortunately, Osborne does not refer back to those two left-right diagrams when using the phrase “left-column” or “right-column,” so the reader needs to have been paying attention. Similarly, a phrase such as “the Second Interpreters-in-Chief” (p. 370) is meaningless by itself. But, if the browser has bothered to read the Part 1 essayettes, s/he will remember (from p. 10) that Second Interpreters are—in Osbornian terms—an opera’s singers and conductor. His First, Third, and Fourth Interpreters are, respectively, composers, critics, and “receptors,” i.e., audience members. In short, there is a price to be paid for not reading the book’s chapters in their published order—and for accepting the author’s invitation to skip Part 1. Osborne’s many invented or borrowed terms (including all Capitalized ones) should have been added to the index or put into a glossary.

Opera as Opera contains footnotes and also many pages of endnotes. Some endnotes cover a page or more and prove to be as fascinating as the main text. I often had trouble finding the original full citation for an “op. cit.” reference. This problem would have been eased if the book had included a bibliography. But, of course, a bibliography would have added dozens of additional pages to a book that is already over 800 pages long.

The problem of length no doubt also explains why Opera as Opera rarely tries to explain its many references to the characters and plots of famous operas. The interested reader who is not deeply familiar with the operatic repertory will want to consult the generally reliable entries in Wikipedia or the ones at OxfordMusicOnline.com, which are more consistently detailed and careful. The latter entries originally appeared in the New Grove Dictionary of Opera (1992). Over 250 of them are gathered in The Grove Book of Operas (2nd edn., 2006), which, at $39.95, remains one of the great bargains among music books.

As for the singers discussed in Osborne’s book, their artistry can be sampled (if never experienced fully) by way of recordings available on CD, and through streaming services and sites such as Spotify, Naxos Music Library, and YouTube. (Solti’s Die Walküre, with Nilsson and Crespin in the Act 2 duet, is currently uploaded to YouTube, along with the entire orchestral score, page by page.) Large music libraries—e.g., at universities and major public libraries—may still hold substantial numbers of important LPs that have never been re-released on CD.

Thus, through further reading and listening, the reader can grasp even more fully the issues that Osborne is here addressing—and, of course, can then begin to have a private “conversation” with him on this or that point.

In short, I consider Opera as Opera an essential new book, a “here I stand” by a man who has devoted his life to his operatic passions. I have learned much from it, have felt challenged to argue with it at various points, and will continue to be stimulated by its proliferating provocations.

At $45 it’s a steal! Who knows? I might even read it straight through someday, cover to cover, partly to make sure I have not missed out on some pearl of wisdom, a knowing joke, or even a long-overdue takedown.

About the author

Ralph P. Locke

Ralph P. Locke is a professor emeritus of musicology at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music (located in Rochester, New York, USA). He is the founding editor of Eastman Studies in Music, a book series published by the University of Rochester Press. His writings include Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections (2009) and Music and the Exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart (2015), his most recent (both Cambridge University Press). The first is now available in paperback, and the second soon will be (and is also available as an e-book). His essays and reviews can be read in American Record Guide and at OperaToday and MusicologyNow. His previous pieces for New York Arts were on slavery in Mozart’s operas and on a 3-CD set of surprisingly inventive works by Marie Jaëll, a major composer and pianist closely associated with both Saint-Saëns and Liszt. Six of his articles have won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in writing about music.

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