Operatic odds and ends

Monday Book Review

November 12, 1990|By Saul Lilienstein

THE HARPER DICTIONARY OF OPERA AND OPERETTA. By James Anderson. Bloomsbury Publishing, Ltd. 691 pages. IMAGINE: an opera and operetta dictionary that gives more space to an entry titled "Operatic Deaths" (who jumped into Mt. Vesuvius, who was thrown into a vat of boiling oil, etc.) than it does to the life of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Twice the space, actually.

James Anderson is, it seems, one of Great Britain's "leading experts on contemporary Peruvian politics" and has also published a book on modern Peru. I can imagine him now: their man in Lima, under the slow moving fan, a dry martini on a white table. But there is a computer in the picture and he has discovered a way of unlocking all imaginable bits of information concerning his favorite sports, opera and operetta.

Any subject dictionary must assign its limited space as if it were the disputed territory of warring nations, with the editor functioning in the role of the United Nations Security Council. In the operatic genre, composers rack up columns of print to match their significance in the repertoire and the great opera houses will have their international reputations reflected in the same base coin of relative quantity.

Not in this book they don't. Michael Balfe, (an obscure Irish composer of the 19th century) gets more space than Giacomo Puccini. The opera house of Brno in Czechoslovakia has 15 lines, while the Berlin State Opera deserves only 12. Rossini's comic masterpiece, "The Barber of Seville," does beat out "The Barber of Baghdad" by Cornellius -- but it is a photo finish.

Regarding operatic characters, Anderson is a champion of the oft-neglected minor role, believing (as in the old adage) that there is no such thing as a small part. Thus the tiniest roles get as much attention as the largest ones, rendering all such information quite useless unless the reader happens to be familiar with the opera in advance. This may be a sportsman-like revenge upon the prima donna but it leaves the general reader with absolutely no idea of who gets the final curtain call -- and who gets none at all. Be assured, an opera house is the last place to look for democracy in action.

Anderson has a particular interest in the playwrights, novelists and librettists who inspired their musicianly counterparts. The 17th century French writer Pierre Corneille has 23 plays listed even though none is in the current operatic repertoire. A full page is devoted to Corneille -- more than is given to the life and career of any opera composer other than Giuseppe Verdi. One must question Anderson's sense of proportion.

In fact, all composers are given short shrift. Richard Wagner vTC must even give over one-tenth of his allotment to an adopted niece named Johanna whose utterly insignificant career has taken the author's fancy.

Anderson did not run out of room. His 691 pages are in large print. A print too large, set on pages that are frequently filled with inexplicably blank spaces -- as likely an appearance in a dictionary as a vacant lot in downtown Manhattan. One likes to pore over and peer into a dictionary; this one lets you sit back and relax, read some opera plots and find out who died "from inhaling the poisonous scent of the Manchineel tree."

The serious student of opera and the general reader alike must turn to other sources than this. Gustav Kobbe's "Complete Opera Book," "The Metropolitan Encyclopedia of Opera," "The Oxford Dictionary of Opera," Crowell's "Handbook of Opera," Lowenberg's "Annals" are all regarded highly.

In a perverse way I did enjoy this book. ("From aria to zarzuela, a complete guide to opera and operetta," it tells us.) After all, how many reference works can make you laugh? But I'm not going to recommend it to anyone else, revealing as that might a serious character flaw.

Saul Lilienstein teaches music in Baltimore.


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