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The Gilded Stage: A Social History of Opera

 Michael Tanner on an enjoyable book on one of history’s great cultural productions

Published: December 13, 2009 at 4:48 pm
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Reviewed by: Michael Tanner
Author: Daniel Snowman
Publisher: Atlantic
Price (RRP): £40


This is a chatty, fluently and sometimes loosely written book not only, or even primarily, on the social history of opera, but also on the history of music in general, from the beginning of the 17th century to the present day. 

It includes potted biographies, in the narrative, of the chief composers of opera, and of many performers, even of some spectators, especially ones whose well-lined pockets made some operas possible. It also includes, as is inevitable, a fair amount of general political history, and there is plenty of information about economic conditions, attitudes towards sexual morality, and many other things. 

The Gilded Stage: A Social History of Opera makes an easy, enjoyable, quite lengthy read, and has an extensive bibliography. The book also has 30 pages of notes, which unfortunately don’t usually include precise references for the many quotations in the text. 

It concludes, as this kind of book inevitably does, with speculations about where opera will go next – what with relays of live performances from opera houses to cinemas and even computers, the multiplicity of means of sound and visual reproduction, and brief reflections on the future of an art form whose glory days seem to most lovers of it to be over. 

It must be hard to know at what level to pitch a book like this, and Daniel Snowman hasn’t really decided. Much information in The Gilded Stage: A Social History of Opera will be familiar to any opera lover. Many of the most famous anecdotes all make their obligatory appearance: temperamental prima donnas; catastrophic first nights of works which became staples of the repertoire; and the gruelling conditions under which many masterpieces were created. Snowman also includes the diverse purposes for which people have attended operas – especially in curtained boxes. 

One welcomes a book in this area which doesn’t indulge in speculations about gender identity – though there is a curiously placed few pages of meditation on the relationship between being an opera lover and being gay – or about the political subtext of works which one had thought were innocently sentimental.

It would have been valuable to do something other, and more, than slide smoothly over the admittedly fascinating surface of what has been a towering episode in the history of great artistic production. 

Daniel Snowman rightly emphasises how many things have to coalesce and to go according to plan for great opera, and great operatic performance, to come into being. But his attention often understandably wanders and he moves onto the nearest bit of tittle-tattle and doesn’t move back. When, for example, he is discussing 20th-century totalitarian regimes and their relationships to culture in general and opera in particular, he moves so briskly that anyone previously ignorant of this large, painful area will not be able to draw any conclusions: a single case-study would have been more helpful and thought-provoking. 


Michael Tanner is fellow of Corpus Christi College and a regular contributor to Opera magazine and Spectator


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