Anna Picard looks at opera in literature and letters, highlighting some forgotten gems.
Here’s a little question to tickle your appetite: which opera features in Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary? Here’s another: at which opera did Clarissa Dalloway swoon? Here’s a third: which opera is mentioned in On the Road and the second chapter of The Forsyte Saga? When lockdown began, I read people’s cultural resolutions with a sense of panic. Were we all going to read Proust in the original while baking sourdough, sightreading madrigals on Zoom and doing hot yoga? Could we emerge smarter from social distancing and cleverer from quarantine? Or was it possible to keep our brains ticking over in a less taxing fashion when everything is in stasis?
As with most aspects of this edition of Chorus, this is not the piece I intended to write. That was designed to enhance your listening to a work with an unusual fixation on physical pain. Opera: Desire, Disease, Death and Bodily Charm: Living Opera, both brilliant examples of interdisciplinary writing by Linda Hutcheon and Michael Hutcheon, professors of literature and medicine respectively, can wait until we’re feeling a little stronger. The object now is to be kind to ourselves, and to make friends online with an independent bookseller with an eye for out-of-print gems.
From my pre-Rigoletto reading, one volume I would recommend for those in need of cheer is The Surprise of Cremona (1954) by the novelist and travel writer Edith Templeton. There isn’t much about Verdi in the section on Mantua but I have never laughed so hard at a discussion of the preparation and eating of artichokes. Anita Brookner was a fan, and wrote the introduction to the last published edition in 2001. Cyril Connolly described it as “a striptease Baedeker” and has a point. Templeton, whose 1952 novel, The Island of Desire, was considered scandalous, does not have much to say about opera but her observations of the people, food and architecture of Northern Italy are a joy to read.
From Flaubert and Tolstoy (Lucia di Lammermoor) to Woolf (Parsifal) Galsworthy and Kerouac (Fidelio), opera pops up in fiction as a signifier of heightened sensibility, of social station or of unexpected jarring beauty. In the first chapter of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, Newland Archer watches May Welland’s pleasure at Madame Nilsson’s performance of Faust (in Italian) and congratulates himself that his future wife will not be “a simpleton”. In real life people aren’t always as enraptured by sung drama as May: Clive Brown’s waspish biography Ma’am Darling contains an anecdote from Peter Hall on Princess Margaret’s attendance at Harrison Birtwistle’s Bow Down at the National Theatre, 6 July 1975 (“a disastrous evening”). Quite.
Nancy Mitford’s letter to Evelyn Waugh of 29 May 1952, in Charlotte Mosley’s well annotated edition of their collected letters, indicates a more receptive attitude to contemporary opera, the opera in question being barely six months old at the time: “Have you seen Billy Budd? I have. It lasts from 9pm to 1am. The story is fascinating and the officers’ mess is simply luncheon at Chantilly, they all sit round singing, Don’t like the French, the damned Mounseers. But it’s rather long and I ‘dined’ first with an English chum who merely gave me mousetrap cheese sandwiches and honestly I thought I would expire with hunger. The English are wonderful the way they can manage on no food, aren’t they?“
Not all of the English, if you recall the room service bill from The Garter Inn in the first scene of Verdi’s Falstaff, in which the final item – one tiny anchovy – acts as a full stop to a long and highly calorific paragraph of foodstuffs. Shakespeare, thrice set by Verdi, Melville (Billy Budd) and Pushkin (Eugene Onegin) aside, the source literature for some of our most dearly loved operas can make for salty reading. Take David Belasco’s novel, The Girl of the Golden West, adapted from his play of the same name. No one speaks in it. Instead words rise to or slip or fall from lips, while eyes invariably blaze or flash fire. Oh dear.
Quibble at the morbid sensationalism of Dumas’s La dame aux camélias, the hiccupy vignettes in Henry Murger’s Scenes from the Latin Quarter, the blunt sexual politics of Merimée’s Carmen, the matter of fact violence of Verga’s Rustic Chivalry (translated by DH Lawrence), the monumental self-pity of Werther in Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther and Des Grieux (a stalker avant la lettre) in Abbé Prévost’s Manon Lescaut and you argue with the mores of previous ages. Quibble with Belasco and it’s like quibbling with EL James. What is interesting in each adaptation is how composers and librettists alter the emphasis of a narrative. It is arguable that Leoncavallo’s La bohème is more faithful to Murger, yet Puccini’s version is undoubtedly the better work, perhaps because of the liberties he takes.
The most peculiar reference to opera I have found comes in Ian Nairn’s 1966 architectural survey, Nairn’s London, in a paragraph on Beddington Lane: “It is always four o’clock in late November here; but in the same positive way as in Peter Grimes.” I scratched my head over this one. Did Nairn mean Britten’s opera or the poem on which it was based, George Crabbe’s The Borough? Neither can be said to be positive in the modern sense, unless what is meant is a deliberate November. It’s a wonderful book, all the same, and a stimulating companion to solitary walks.
In the field of novels about opera there are some fascinating oddities to explore. Ann Pratchett’s Bel Canto (2001) is the most well-known. Hugely successful in its day, Catherine Gore’s 1832 ‘silver fork’ novel, The Opera, set in the period when Giuditta Pasta and Henriette Sontag were the most celebrated visiting artists in London, is the subject of research by Cormac Newark, author of Opera in the Novel from Balzac to Proust, and comes recommended by the critic George Hall.
Another of Hall’s recommendations is Beverley Nichols’s Evensong (1935), inspired by the life of Dame Nellie Melba, whose autobiography, Melodies and Memories (1925), Nichols ghostwrote. If even that sounds too demanding, the film version, starring Evelyn Laye, is available on YouTube. Or pour yourself a shot of rough whisky, narrow your eyes, put your last peso on the bar and sink into James M Cain’s Serenade (1937).
Written by the author of Double Indemnity, Mildred Pierce and The Postman Always Rings Twice, it’s a hardboiled story of sexual compulsion and professional precarity in which a washed up baritone claws his way out of Mexico to Hollywood (where Cain was a screenwriter) and the Met. I won’t divulge the plot twist, but Serenade is the only noir novel I have read that includes Rigoletto, Carmen, Don Giovanni, a discussion of grace notes in Rossini, and the premiere of a work by Walter Damrosch. Far sweeter in temperament is the Czech-Canadian author Josef Skvorecky’s 1983 novel, Dvorák in Love, which centres on the composer’s first summer in Spillville, Iowa, and posits the Turkey River as the inspiration for Rusalka.
I will leave you for the moment with one essay, downloadable at the stroke of a search engine, and one very lovely book. Both are best sampled slowly, quietly, and in little mouthfuls. The first is the composer Hugh Wood’s A Photograph of Brahms, perhaps the most beautiful essay on music and ageing that I know. The second is Fiona Maddocks’s 2016 book, Music for Life: 100 Works to Carry You Through (Faber). Maddocks’s prose style is as light and precise as Hilary Mantel or Jenny Diski, and her musical taste is wide-ranging, imaginative, unusual. The works that are touched on run from Bach motets to Brahms quintets, Cornelius Cardew to George Crumb, Victoria to Vivaldi, and are organised to serve as suggested listening for moods including grief, melancholy and consolation. The only operatic music here is overtures and preludes. A second volume, including arias, ensembles and choruses from this bizarre art form that we cherish, must surely be needed now.