The Gilded Stage: A Social History of Opera
By Daniel Snowman (Atlantic Books 482pp £40)
Exclusive from the Literary Review print edition. Subscribe now!
This consistently entertaining and stimulating history of opera gets off to cracking start with a quotation from a doleful letter to The Times written in 1853 by a gentleman identifying himself only as 'C T'. Although in possession of a ticket for which he had paid the princely sum of seven shillings, he was denied entry to the Royal Opera House 'because the cut of my dress coat was not what it ought to be according to the ideas of the doorkeeper'. Neither prolonged protests nor subsequent attempts to obtain a refund got him anywhere. This episode neatly illustrates the dual themes of continuity and change that run through Daniel Snowman's book. On the one hand, the abrasive approach to customer relations has not changed; on the other hand, 'C T' would certainly not be denied entry on sartorial grounds today.
Drawing on a knowledge of musical history distinguished by both depth and breadth, Snowman manages to keep four kinds of analysis going in a mutually supportive way: political, social, cultural and financial. Here, too, everything has changed but everything has stayed the same. François Mitterand's motive in building the Opéra Bastille was essentially the same as the Duke of Mantua's motive in staging Monteverdi's operas, namely the representation of power. If the social composition of audiences has changed over the centuries, their desire to see and be seen has not. Styles of composition, production and performance may come and go but the core combination of music, text, drama and spectacle remains. Financial pressure has also been a constant, for opera is unusual if not unique among the arts in that its production costs invariably outrun income.
One thing that has certainly changed for the better has been behaviour in the auditorium. Until deep into the nineteenth century, the opera house was more a social centre than a temple of the arts. Its visitors chatted, flirted, smoked, drank, gambled and - behind the drawn curtains of the boxes - made love. Every now and again they even turned their attention to the stage, when a favourite performer was singing a favourite aria. Using one of the many original but apposite similes that enliven his narrative, Snowman compares a night at the opera to a night at a jazz club: 'somewhere sophisticated to go with friends, while away a long evening and, in passing, enjoy the highlights of whatever entertainment was on offer'.
Until the technological advances that brought cinema, gramophone recordings and radio, opera enjoyed something of a monopoly of entertainment in many towns, especially in Germany and Italy. This is revealed not only by the many travellers' tales cited here, but also by a number of statistics, none more arresting than the information that the 2,100 seats of the new National Theatre in Munich, opened in 1818, could accommodate 4 per cent of the city's population. An equivalent theatre in London or New York today would require a seating capacity of 400,000.
The ever-sensitive antennae of politicians were not slow to detect the opportunities offered by such a popular art form. Their most thorough-going exploiter was, characteristically, Napoleon. The Paris Opéra cost him nearly a million francs a year, he commented, but it was money well spent, because it 'flattered national vanity', something that has never been in short supply in France. It represented, he believed, everything he was trying to foster: hierarchy, power, continuity, stability and affluence. It was through his carefully stage-managed appearances at the Opéra that he celebrated military victories, presented his new Habsburg wife to Parisian high society and gloried in the birth of his son and heir.
It was another Napoleon - his nephew - who commissioned the great new opera house in Paris now known as the Palais Garnier, whose construction required the demolition of a whole city quarter. Alas, by the time it was ready for its opening night in 1875, Napoleon III was long gone. Having abdicated after defeat in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, he died in exile in England in 1873. So sumptuous was his creation and so much does it tell us about the relationship between power and culture that more detail would have been welcome than the rather perfunctory account offered here.
More space is found for an almost exactly simultaneous project - Richard Wagner's festival theatre at Bayreuth, which opened in 1876, having cost seventy times less than the Paris Opéra. Snowman writes with real insight and understanding about Wagner ('the most protean of artists'), even managing to resist the temptation to tell us yet again what a horrid person he was. Rather he observes that Wagner had created what by any standards was 'one of the greatest single artistic achievements of any single human being'.
If the first part of the book is of necessity concerned exclusively with Europe, due attention is paid to the rest of world in the second, as opera gradually went global in the nineteenth century. Indeed, perhaps the attention paid to the American or Australian scene is a little overdone. A page or two fewer on the admittedly highly entertaining excesses of the New York millionaires might have allowed a page or two more on, say, the achievements of English National Opera, which comes off rather lightly by comparison with its more prestigious, better subsidised but often less distinguished rival at Covent Garden.
Nor will everyone agree with the rather downbeat note on which the book ends. Although Snowman does manage the odd flicker of optimism, the main thrust of his conclusion is that he has been charting 'the rise, ascendancy, decline and fall of an old-fashioned, elite art form whose time has come and (nearly) gone'. In particular, he does not pay sufficient attention to the technological advances that have made it possible to enjoy superlative operatic performances on DVD any time and anywhere. Three-dimensional reproduction can only be just round the corner. These cavils aside, this book is a mighty achievement, by far and away the best history of opera available.
Tim Blanning is a Fellow of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. His most recent book is 'The Triumph of Music' (Penguin, 2008).