Two Reviews of Opera Books
- Reviewed by Tom Glenn
- October 30, 2012
Two very different books on opera feature the career of a once-leading baritone and the life of Richard Wagner.
The Sorcerer of Bayreuth: Richard Wagner, His World and His Work Barry Millington Oxford University Press 320 pp
Reviewed by Tom Glenn
Two books on opera, as different from one another as Händel is from Debussy, are being published less than two months apart. The first, by now-retired baritone Charles Long, is chatty, colloquial and occasionally profane; it recounts the international career of a leading operatic baritone. The other, by British music critic Barry Millington, relates the life and work of one of music’s most controversial figures, Richard Wagner, in scholastic language never less than proper.
I heard Charles Long sing only once. The opera was “L’Amore dei Tre Re” by Italo Montemezzi, performed by the Washington Opera probably in the early 1980s. Long sang and acted the role of Manfredo with passion; his voice was the genuine article, full and clear with a range of more than two octaves. I remember him as a handsome man, slight and boyish with an odd elfin upturn at the outer corner of his eyes, and he was a performer I never forgot. You can hear him for yourself. He sings an aria from “Il Trovatore” complete with a ringing high G in this YouTube clip.
Long’s autobiographical account of his career begins with an Author’s Note stipulating that he “omitted unnecessary material to spare the reader extraneous detail, to protect the privacy of others, or to save for another day.” He then quotes (without attribution) Rodolfo from the first act of “La Bohème,” “La brevità, gran pregio” — the Italian equivalent of Polonius’ “Brevity is the soul of wit.” So we know from the get-go we’re in for a colorful ride.
Long’s book surprised me by its earthiness and honesty. Trained as an instrumentalist before he turned 20 — his favorite instrument was the oboe — he established himself as a leading baritone of the New York City Opera by the time he was 30. He sang virtually every baritone role in the standard repertory, specializing in Verdi, Puccini, Gounod and Bizet. He spares no one in his narrative, least of all himself, though he doesn’t give us the names of those he is most critical of. His career took him around the world, from Hong Kong to Europe, and to almost every important company in the United States. Then, at the peak of his career, before he was invited to sing at the Metropolitan, he inexplicably developed asthma, which forced him to stop singing.
Along the way, Long discusses some of the greatest singers of our time, performers he knew or worked with — Domingo, Ramey, Sills, McNeil, Carreras, Sutherland, Bergonzi and Treigle among them. And Shirley Verrett repeatedly chose him to be her Scarpia in “Tosca.” A singular honor.
Scream Trade’s tone is downright irreverent, but it’s beautifully written and easy to read; even the musical terminology is transparent. Long sprinkles vulgarisms generously, but he does it so well that I couldn’t take offense. The net effect is more like a soldier’s tale than a prima donna’s screed. The author gives us a lusty account of his life as a singer and a man, and to me, at least, he comes across as eminently likeable. Besides, he shares my taste in opera. He describes Puccini’s “La Bohème” as a perfect opera but says that Tchaikovsky’s operas “leave me Siberian-cold,” a chill I’ve felt too often.
I have only two reservations about the book. First, Long makes it sound too easy. A singer’s life is tough, filled with disappointments and dependent for success on unflinching discipline. I doubt Long really sailed through his career as easily as he makes it seem. And second, Long gives us almost no dates. We have to guess when various events occurred.
Barry Millington is an entirely different cup of tea. In contrast to the Long book, The Sorcerer of Bayreuth is a scholarly work, sober in tone and rich in references. The subject is Richard Wagner (1813-1883), arguably the least likeable man who ever wrote opera. Millington covers Wagner’s variegated life from his birth in Leipzig to his death in Venice and all his travels in between. En route, the book offers a scrupulous account of Wagner’s repeated failures to pay his debts, his seduction of other men’s wives and, most damning, his anti-Semitism. But Millington also gives us insightful analysis of the psychological and philosophical underpinnings of Wagner’s operas.
Sorcerer walks us through the creation of each of Wagner’s masterpieces, showing us where and how each came into existence. Millington spends considerable ink on the establishment of Bayreuth as a shrine to Wager’s genius and devotes a chapter to Wagner’s long-suffering wife, Cosima. The last 50 pages of the book explore the spread of the Wagner cult, the effect of Wagner on cinema, the Third Reich’s exploitation of Wagner, the effect of Wagner’s descendants on Bayreuth and the future of Wagner’s work. More than 150 pictures, the majority in color and with generous captions, illustrate the text. Millington appends 280 endnotes, a selected bibliography of 102 sources and a comprehensive discography.
The book catalogues the influence of a variety of sources on Wagner’s cosmogony. The thinking of Hegel, Schopenhauer and especially Feuerbach shaped Wagner’s personal philosophy and greatly influenced his work. His musical heritage is less obvious. Only Beethoven stands out as a significant force, although Wagner’s writing in “Die Meistersinger” shows his familiarity with Bach. Millington’s portrayal of Wagner led me to conclude that the most powerful drive in Wagner’s development was the man’s own genius. He largely invented his own musical vocabulary, and his world view appears to be mostly of his own creation. And the effect of his work on those who came after him is profound.
Millington deserves credit for his recognition that Wagner’s anti-Semitism and his glorification of the Aryan race are foundations of his work. Beckmesser in “Die Meistersinger” and Mime in “Der Ring” unquestionably incorporate “negative traits that are stereotypically anti-Semitic.” But allegories are all the more powerful if not spelled out. So Wagner leaves us to draw our own conclusions.
Finally, Millington relates without gloss the Nazi exploitation of Wager’s anti-Semitism leading to the horrors of the Holocaust. Millington is inclined to see that result as Nazi appropriation of Wagner’s failings. The alternative view, which Millington does not espouse, cites Wagner, along with others, as having provided the seeds of Nazism. In the end, Millington seems to suggest that we should accept the bad along with the good in Wagner rather than reject him whole cloth.
This listener cannot quite buy Millington’s apologia. I find anti-Semitism noxious, and the Holocaust differs from Wagner’s formulations only in degree, not in kind. Many even today, notably in Israel, refuse to listen to Wagner’s music (see Ronald Goldfarb’s article on the dismissal of Wagner in his “Art and Politics: The Wagner Question,” a decision I can only find honorable).
That said, Millington makes a point that deserves credit: Wagner is, as the book’s title suggests, a sorcerer. His music, divorced from what it serves to glorify, still intoxicates.
That observation leads to my hesitation to recommend Millington’s work without qualification: Millington describes Wagner’s music but provides almost no analysis. Absent his music, Wagner would have been forgotten long before his own demise. Granted, other writers, going back many years, have offered exhaustive studies of Wagner’s harmony, leitmotifs and techniques. And granted, too, that words cannot capture the effect music has on us; music is its own untranslatable language. And music is the only art in which the form and the content are the same thing. For all that, some insight would have been helpful.
So, two books on opera, totally different in approach, style and content. The opera nut in me thoroughly enjoyed both, reservations notwithstanding. I’m inclined to conclude that the width and breadth of opera as an art is great enough that all well done volumes fit comfortably in the opera tent.
Writer Tom Glenn, whose fiction deals primarily with Vietnam, is also a trained musician. He lectures regularly on both Vietnam and opera. His web sites are http://tom-tells-tales.org and http://vietnam-tragedy.org.