The Hard Bargain

hardbargainThere are some unusual books coming my way these days.  The latest is an autobiography (more or less) of David Tucker; the middle son of the late Richard Tucker; a fixture at the Met for thirty years until his death in 1975.  I found it fascinating but I’m not entirely sure whether that’s because it’s a good book or because of the many places where it has a lot of personal resonance for me.  Both I suspect.  I also found myself having very ambivalent feelings about David (and perhaps even more so Richard) Tucker but I don’t think it’s the purpose of a reviewer of an autobiography to make moral judgements about his subject.  The reader can do that for him/herself.

 

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Inventing the Opera House

inventingtheoperahouseInventing the Opera House: Theatre Architecture in Renaissance and Baroque Italy by Eugene J. Johnson is a scholarly but readable account of the prehistory and early history of the form we know today as an “opera house”.  It’s fair to say that the road to the horseshoe shaped auditorium with ground floor seating and tiers of boxes looking over an orchestra pit to a deep stage was far from straightforward, perhaps even tortuous, and Professor Johnson lays out that journey in some detail.

Johnson begins around 1480 in the ducal courts of Northern Italy.  At this point no purpose built theatre had existed since classical antiquity.  Despite that, princes competed in the magnificence of the “spectacles” they put on for events such as dynastic marriages (partly driven by the fact that many of the houses; Medici for example, were trying to obscure their rather recent origins by leveraging their great wealth into marriages with more distinguished lineages).  It was also, of course, a period of revived interest in all things Greek and Roman, including the theatre, and there was prestige in putting on a Roman, or Roman derived, comedy for example.  But how to stage it?  The theatres of antiquity had been open air structures built on a semi circular plan but 15th century Italian architecture was rectilinear and the preferred time of year for festivities, winter, precluded an open air setting.

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The Canadian Nightingale

crawfordThe Canadian Nightingale: Bertha Crawford and the Dream of the Prima Donna is a biography by Jane Cooper of early 20th century Canadian coloratura soprano Bertha Crawford who became, rather improbably, an “A” list opera star in Poland before returning to Canada to die in relative obscurity.  It’s the story of an unusual life but it’s also the story of how opera and vocal music was impacted by war, revolution, depression, jazz and the cinema.  It offers interesting insights into the Toronto (and wider) Canadian musical scene in the first quarter of the 20th century which was curiously similar to today in some ways and very different in others.  There was neither opera nor a symphony orchestra in Toronto in that period so professional opportunities were few and far between but then, as now, most aspiring singers first professional gig was a section lead in a church choir and a main route to fame and fortune was to head for Europe.  At least steamers had bigger baggage allowances than Air Canada.

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Absolutely on Music

Ever wondered what would happen if one put two leading Japanese artist/intellectuals into a room and taped their conversations about music?  No, neither had I.  But that’s exactly what Absolutely on Music  is.  It’s a record of conversations between highly esteemed novelist Haruki Murakami and equally esteemed conductor Seiji Ozawa, translated from Japanese by Jay Rubin.  It’s weirdly fascinating in a very Japanese sort of way.

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Silence! Singers at Work

Silence! Singers at Work is a slim volume of humorous drawings about the life of the singer; choral, solo or opera.  It’s by graphic artist turned singer Emmanuelle Ayrton and contains about 50 colour drawings and an intro by Joyce DiDonato.  It’s published by Edition Peters Group but North American distribution seems a bit patchy.  Googling suggests that one could pick up a copy for $10-$15.  I got some chuckles out of it and it might make a good stocking stuffer for those of you unfortunate enough to have a singer in your lives.

Here’s a sample:

Silence

The Gilded Stage

gildedstageThere have been many histories of opera. Most of them focus on the development of the genre from primarily a musicological perspective. In The Gilded Age: A Social History of Opera Daniel Snowman does something different.  He looks at opera as a social and commercial phenomenon.  Taking a broad sweep from late 16th century Florence to the Met’s “Live in HD” broadcasts, he looks at who attended the opera, how much they paid and what they expected from the experience.  He looks at the always vexed question of who subsidised the opera; for ticket sales have very rarely covered costs.  He analyses the entrepreneurs and bureaucrats who ran the opera houses.  Of course, he looks at singers; where they came from, how much power they had and how much they were paid.  It’s an intriguing and comprehensive analysis well worth slogging through over 400 pages plus apparatus.

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How did we get here?

abbateparkerCarolyn Abbate and Roger Parker’s A History of Opera: The Last Four Hundred Years, published in 2010, is an interesting and, occasionally, perplexing read.  It looks at developments largely from a musicological perspective only rarely straying into political context and even morer rarely dealing with sociological factors surrounding opera although there is an interesting short section on French grand opéra that deals with the extent to which French opera of various kinds was subsidised and how the odd social habits of the audience shaped the works themselves.

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