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The best books on Opera

recommended by Robert Lloyd

The opera singer says most people of his age feel that the quality of singing has given way to the providing of a dramatic spectacle. His book selection spans Italian opera and revelations of an opera manager

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So let’s start with David Kimbell’s Italian Opera.

I thought this was a magnificent book, which really got to grips with the whole subject of Italian opera. The span of David Kimbell’s intellect and his grasp of his subject are absolutely astonishing, and it’s a hell of a good story.

Why Italian opera?

Opera comes from Italy, it was born there, and for two centuries virtually every opera singer in the world was Italian. Italian opera singers were exported and became very rich, going all around the world. There was a tremendous appetite for Italian opera and the Italian style of singing. And the story of how it started at the beginning of the 17th century is fascinating. It’s a bit clouded in uncertainty; they’re not quite sure what happened when to create this extraordinary art form. But they have managed to establish the room, in the building, in which the first opera took place. It developed from people reciting the Italian language in a way that enhanced its melodic quality. And then gradually this enhanced speech turned into tunes, and the tunes turned into arias over a span of about 150 years. And you have this amazing phenomenon whereby, at the beginning of the 19th century, opera had completely taken over Italy, much as happened in America during the explosion of cinema at the beginning of the 20th century.

Where is the room?

In Florence. The story of Italian opera is a fascinating story. If you’re even the tiniest bit interested in opera, this is a great book that really, really captures it.

What about your next choice, Wagner and Philosophy?

This book is very dense, there’s a lot of stuff in it, a lot of philosophical thought. But it’s completely riveting. I found I read it like a novel. Wagner is very good to write about because he wrote a lot himself. He had a lot to say about current intellectual trends and was caught up in all sorts of philosophical movements, particularly Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. And he was tremendously verbose. He wrote letters and essays and also, of course, the long and complicated texts of all his operas. He had a very complicated mind, and he dealt with very dense subjects in his operas: the heavy Nordic myths, and all sorts of stories that are loaded with myth and message. So in Wagner you have an immensely complicated person, who produced an immensely complicated oeuvre.

And as you get to know Wagner, you come to understand that this is a very dense experience, but it’s extremely difficult to unpick in your own head. You can’t handle it all. And what Bryan Magee has done in this book is unpick it, very, very brilliantly. In the cover of my copy I have written two quotations that must have come from either Wagner himself or from Magee’s commentary somewhere in the book. One is: “It is for art to salvage the essence of religion.” And the other is: “In Wagner, drama is music made visible.” That’s the sort of level this book is projected on: very, very thought-provoking.

But what’s the significance of Wagner to you as an opera singer?

The two giants of the opera world are Verdi in Italian opera, and for German opera it’s Wagner. And you can put Mozart in there too, though his oeuvre wasn’t as big as the other two. Wagner and Verdi together are the absolute summit of singing. They’re tremendously demanding of singers, and if you manage to actually do it, you get a fantastic sense of achievement.

Tell me about Crotchets and Quavers: Or, Revelations about an Opera Manager in America.

This is really fun. It’s kind of autobiographical, the revelations of Max Maretzek who claims to have brought Italian opera to America in 1848. It’s a series of letters to various people about his experiences – the first one is to the composer Hector Berlioz – and they’re all written in a quite witty way. But they give the casual reader a fantastic insight into the chaotic, brilliant and fascinating world of opera at that time, because it was tremendously popular. Opera took off very rapidly in America. There are masses of tiny little opera houses all over the country. Nowadays they are often used as dance halls or warehouses, but as you go through some of the older towns in America, you suddenly see on this wooden building on the side of the road, “Opera House”, and Maretzek was part of all that.

Also, I’ve always thought that the real heroes of opera are not really the singers or the conductors or the musicians, it’s the people who organize it. Because it’s so potentially full of chaos: you’ve got these giant egos, excessive financial demands, and people not turning up, and falling sick at the last minute. So this a great book because it really captures the chaos of opera.

What about Preparing an Operatic Role?

I chose this book because the man it’s about, Ubaldo Gardini, was a tremendously important influence on my life. I actually feature a little bit in the book, along with lots of other singers. This funny little man, Gardini, was the dominant influence in British opera between 1970 and 1985. Conductors fell at his feet and listened to what he had to say. He had an extraordinarily vibrant personality, and an absolute passion for Italian opera. I think he thought that Italian opera was waning, and he was on a mission to revive its spirit and vigour and its violence. And he was a very vigorous and violent little man. What he did was he taught the singers their roles, he taught them how to sing them in a traditional Italian fashion. He did it in London, he did it at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and then he went on a trip to the Far East, to Korea and Japan, and he fell in love with, well, a Japanese woman. In fact, he fell in love with all Japanese women. He was completely blown away by them, and he stayed there and became a very, very important figure in Japanese opera. And Japanese opera is now itself very important. As is Korean. Korea is really the new Italy, producing wonderful voices, and wherever you go in the opera world you run into Koreans and Japanese. Their music is largely similar to our own (it’s not like Indian music, really weirdly different) and so it’s not a big step for them to go from their music to our music, and they’ve adopted, especially, Italian opera. Ubaldo made a big difference to their understanding of the whole thing.

The book is a series of interviews with people that he has worked with – many of them well-known singers – and then you get a big interview with him, about the work that he does and his attitudes to Italian opera. You get a very interesting glimpse into the real entrails of an opera, of the opera world, of opera preparation. It’s something outsiders usually don’t have any access to, and that makes this a completely unique book.

So what exactly would he teach you to do?

The singer would assemble with him and a pianist in a studio, and usually by that time the singer would have some idea about the notes of the music, he’d be able to sing it through with the book in front of him. But he wouldn’t have digested the role, he wouldn’t have made it his own. What Ubaldo used to do was to reveal to the singer the essence of the role, how to do the phrasing, how to do the pronunciation of the Italian, where to make a beautiful phrase, where to make an aggressive phrase. Of course, saying it and getting it to happen are two entirely different things. It was prodigiously hard work and a tremendous amount of energy goes into something like that, and it can take a very long time. Singers can take six months, or even a year, to master a big role.

Do you need to know a lot about opera to read these books?

All these books I’ve chosen are for people who don’t have any particular background knowledge of opera, but are interested enough to want to know a bit. I’ve chosen them because they give some interesting insights into what is a very arcane sort of world, and one which is, in no sense, essential to anyone – but nevertheless fascinating.

So, on to your last choice, Interpretation in Song by Harry Plunket Greene.

This last one is a really a classic of the singing world, and it’s not about opera in particular. It was written in 1912 and for the next 70 odd years it was absolutely required reading for any singer. And there’s never been a book like it – no other book that has ever got anywhere near to being as good as this one. He says some very interesting things, such as: “Interpretation is essentially individual, individuality is a singer’s greatest asset. Every song in the world is his property to do as he likes with, and that’s his great responsibility.” People have forgotten that particular point of view. Since the record player and the CD have become available, singers have tended to listen too much to other singers, and, in the process, lose their individuality. In my view, this book really ought to be revived, and every singer read it very, very thoroughly. He can seem a bit pompous and pretentious from time to time, but what he says is absolute gold dust.

He also uses quite a number of examples; he takes some well-known Schubert and Brahms songs to pieces, with incredible detail, and it’s that attention to detail that is so fascinating and so important. It’s very easy to think that singing is just about singing; but it’s not. The essence of singing is paying a great deal of attention to the tiny detail; and that’s what this book has to offer.

What kind of details?

Like finding a moment to take a little bit of an extra long breath, which has the effect of emphasizing what comes next, or drawing attention to what has just passed, or anticipating a conclusion, where to put little bits of emphasis, how to pick out the odd word in a particular way.

October 24, 2009

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Robert Lloyd

Robert Lloyd

Robert Lloyd is an opera singer who became the principal bass at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 1972. He was the first British bass to sing the title role in Boris Godunov at Covent Garden and made history when he sang the role with the Kirov Opera in St Petersburg. He has performed frequently at the Metropolitan Opera, New York. He has over 70 audio and video recordings to his name, and in 1991 was created a Commander of the British Empire.

Robert Lloyd

Robert Lloyd

Robert Lloyd is an opera singer who became the principal bass at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 1972. He was the first British bass to sing the title role in Boris Godunov at Covent Garden and made history when he sang the role with the Kirov Opera in St Petersburg. He has performed frequently at the Metropolitan Opera, New York. He has over 70 audio and video recordings to his name, and in 1991 was created a Commander of the British Empire.