The one I’ve always wanted

Amanda Holden on compiling The Viking Opera Guide,
Opera, October 1993, pp1172-6

The Viking Opera Guide will be published on 28th October. Yes, another Opera Guide. But this is the one I’ve always wanted to read. Over the last five years, I’ve had my own sneak preview of over 800 fascinating articles on opera composers and their operas. Since I embarked on the idea, other operatic reference books have been begun and completed. If John Warrack’s Oxford Dictionary and Stanley Sadie’s Opera Grove are respectively the best of the concisest and the sprawliest, the Viking is somewhere in the middle, price-wise and size-wise. And it’s completely different from them both.

What was an idea in 1985 became reality in 1986. I was teaching piano at the Guildhall School, and had just translated an opera. My interest in the genre dated back three decades, from the time when my parents swept me off me to Covent Garden and Glyndebourne (feeling distinctly awkward in a posh frock). Then, as a music student my curiosity grew. But there wasn’t one book in which I could read about each of e.g. the operas of Handel and Janacek, let alone Mozart and Rossini. Of course there was the great Kobbé, but that even now contains only 308 opera entries (Viking has over 1,500) and I had always thought the entries were on the long side if one was about to go out to the opera (and it doesn’t contain concise synopses and some rather necessary information, e.g. orchestrations, editions) so, I thought it might be fun (yes, fun!) to put together a dictionary of all the operas that have ever been written. I had no doubt that such a book was needed.

I began to compile a composer list and to learn how to use a computer. To my surprise I found 800 composers who had written opera whose names began with the letter A! When I got to D and after many Sorceror’s Apprentice-like experiences with my printer, I realised I’d better approach the problem from the other side and see how many composers of interesting operas I could find. The result is, I think, a dictionary of all the best operas that have ever been written.

At this point I also realised that this wasn’t a task for one person, particularly one with as little knowledge as myself. I tried out the idea on the critic and musicologist Stephen Walsh, who agreed to help me, especially with the 20th century (his speciality), but he wasn’t so sure about the earlier stuff. It seemed to me that Nicholas Kenyon was the obvious man to ask. He was then the editor of Early Music and about to succeed Walsh (departing for Cardiff University) at the Observer. He’d worked in America and had specialist knowledge of that field too. I asked him if he’d be interested in joining the project.

With these two, and their considerable expertise, on board and our newly appointed consultant editor (the editor of Opera) in tow, or rather the source of instant wisdom at the touch of a phone button, a proposal began to take shape. It all seemed quite simple really. The book would be an alphabetical dictionary of composers of opera (and related genres from the masque to the musical), with full coverage of all their operatic works. That meant we could forget about singers, librettists, directors, conductors, designers, opera houses, etc. etc.

The composers divided quite naturally into three categories: the greats (category A, about 60), the not so great (category B, about 250) and the definitely deserving (category C, about 500). To take an example from the letter B, Alban Berg is obviously A, Berio is B and Lennox Berkeley is C (his son Michael must surely join him in the next edition…). I have a D (for discards) list of composers whose operas we thought unworthy of being revived.

Then we began to work on the operas. That was a more mammoth task. They were divided into categories 1 to 4. I made a master list of composers and their operas, to which the three of us added categories. This part was as much fun as any party game; of course, in the light of commissioning and discussion with experts it was much revised, but we had to start somewhere. Few composers have works in all categories, but Rimsky-Korsakov can provide examples – The Golden Cockerel is category 1, The Snow Maiden 2, Mozart and Salieri 3, Serviliya 4.

The proposal was taking shape. I am hopeless at maths, so Walsh undertook the terrible task of adding up words. I thought a million would be quite enough. The As, Bs and Cs would receive about 1,000, 500 and 250 words of introduction respectively. The operas 1, 2, 3 and 4 would receive roughly 1,300, 450, 250 and 100 words respectively. For example Alban Berg, with two category 1 operas, would require 3,600 words. Berio, with two category 2s, and two 3s, would get 2,000, Berkeley, with three category 3s was allotted 900 words. The grand total number of words came to c.750,000. How neat! That left 250,000 for the lists, the indexes and other bits and pieces. I have no idea how many words the finished book contains, more than a million I suspect.

We decided early on that every opera entry would consist of: title; title in translation; genre, number of acts and duration; librettist and source; premieres (world, UK and US); cast; orchestration (these latter two only in categories 1 and 2), followed by the prose: some background, a self-contained synopsis, and musical points of interest. Each entry would wind up with recommended recordings (compiled with the expert assistance of Alan Blyth) and finally printed editions (or location of manuscript); then on to the next opera (chronologically in order of composition). Any composer’s operas that didn’t merit an entry were to be relegated to a list (of other operatic works) before the final bibliography.

So far so good. Sample entries were written, the proposal was compiled, and sent off to publishers. Ten were interested. Eight dropped out in the face of competition, and finally Peter Mayer of Penguin expressed a personal interest. Over a quick drink he explained that was very keen to snap this one up and offered more than the requested advance. It was almost like a dream; the (then) Penguin Opera Guide had been conceived! At this stage I had no idea of what would be involved, and perhaps this was just as well. When the nitty-gritty (money) had been sorted out, I began work in earnest at the end of 1987.

The next major task was finding contributors. More lists, dividing the composers into groups according to time and place, and a great many letters to write. We thought 50 contributors should cover it, but we ended up with over 100 from all over the world. There were obvious choices. Others weren’t so obvious, and a lot of telephoning and asking advice took place. I was surprised by the favourable, enthusiastic reaction. Writing for a dictionary isn’t my idea of fun, but the dedication and enthusiasm of these 100 good people for their composers is something that I won’t ever forget.

Each contributor deserves a separate accolade but, to name a few: John Tyrrell cheerfully snapped up all the Czechs (and gave me a lot of useful advice over the years) except Martinu, which Jan Smaczny filled in, despite his disappointment that Dvorak was already bagged by John. Graham Sadler welcomed the chance to write about every Rameau opera and his French contemporaries too (including Marc-Antoine Charpentier, whose works seem to me to deserve more than an airing), and Philip Gossett, who obviously hadn’t the time, agreed nevertheless to cover the complete Rossini on the grounds that the project seemed so worthwhile. The contributors, though mainly writers (critics) and academics include some surprises: Mozart was commissioned late, inevitably some found they hadn’t time, in this case Kenyon who suddenly found himself controlling Radio 3, so we asked Erik Smith, who had just finished organising the Philips Complete Mozart Edition for the bi-centenary. It was the perfect moment, he said he couldn’t imagine life after Mozart, and with all the operas ringing in his ears, he produced 26,000 hand-written words which make me want to listen to them all again and again. Other hand-written articles came from Robin Holloway (Chabrier) and Robert Saxton (Lutyens) (composers don’t type?); those two also have entries in their own right. Other composers have written: Jonathan Dove (on the late Stephen Oliver), Julian Grant (on Judith Weir and several Russians) and Peter Dickinson (Americans are his speciality). Peter Jonas wouldn’t have wanted anyone else to write on Humperdinck (I still can’t quite envisage him piking off to the library, but he did). Stephen Roe runs Sotheby’s manuscript department but he’s also the expert on Bach (J.C.). Leslie Howard took time off from recording Liszt’s complete piano works to write on Liszt’s only opera and Rakhmaninoff’s three worthies (will I get a cut when all these obscure operas are performed?). Antony Beaumont and David Lloyd-Jones are two of our several contributor-conductors. We have an organist too – Martin Neary, who conducted Jonathan Harvey’s first (church) opera.

Though I aimed to finish by the end of 1989, it became apparent fairly soon that this journey was not one that would benefit from being taken at break-neck speed. And it was a mercy that plenty of the contributors didn’t stick to their deadlines (chosen by themselves, which I figured could usefully make them feel uncomfortable when they overshot), as keeping up with the work was quite tough at times, but the sight of an overflowed stack of in-trays usually kept me chained to the computer. There are some band wagons one can’t jump off.

Apart from the admin., the letters, contracts, budget, etc. etc., the crash of an A4 brown envelope on my doormat (music to my ears) was the start of an even longer journey for each article. I read the article(s) and marked queries and suggestions; it then went to Kenyon or to Walsh (another copy went to the long-suffering typist who put it all on to disc), back to me, back to the contributors (poor things) for cutting, adding, clarifying, honing, polishing, then on to be checked by one of a small valiant band of bright young things (who occupied space in the London music libraries for three years), back to me, perhaps back to the contributor again with anything the checkers had found, then finally off to the copy editor on a disc. At times it seemed like a widow’s cruse but eventually, Disc 33, the last, went off on 20 November 1992.

Penguin have been extraordinary. They left me alone to get on with it, and then gently nagged me to finish before mobilizing an incredibly efficient machine. On 15th December the proofs arrived and I sent 100+ non-Christmas parcels off. The contributors leaped back into action, corrected my mistakes, and returned the proofs to me. The whole was gone by mid-February (I won’t amuse you now with the glossary, indexes, picture captions etc. that followed…).

But there they all are from the oldest (G. Cavalli, born 1551) to the youngest (Mark-Anthony Turnage, born 1960). From Peri’s Dafne (1598) to Glass’s The Voyage (1992), with a PS preview of a Zemlinsky opera (resurrected by Antony Beaumont) which will be, very posthumously, premiered in 1996. The book’s sub-title could almost have been Four Hundred Years of Opera. The longest is David Kimbell’s Verdi, weighing in at 38,110 words, the shortest are less than 150 words. Some are too long, but John Deathridge’s erudition on Richard Wagner seemed appropriately overlength, (the orchestrations of the different versions of Tannhauser alone occupy hundreds of words!). We underestimated Schmidt, who winds up with over 1,500 words, and Schreker, who has over 3,000.

Does it all sound too good to be true? Like every major undertaking it was joy and sorrow, but there was an undertow of optimism and enthusiasm for the work that kept me, I hope, sane. There were a few dark-ish moments: the contributor who refused to finish his articles and hung up on me trans-atlantically, the world expert who promised his article was in the post (it didn’t exist), even the one who rang me about his VAT in the middle of Sunday lunch. But there were the funny, endearing ones too. Robert Layton, the writer of the immortal spoof article in Grove 6, added “I’m not making this up, honest!” against a few peculiarly hellerup-ish Scandinavian names in his articles. And of course there were occasional printing errors which sent Penguin’s hard-backs manager into paroxysms of laughter (“Amanda, who were Les Pocheurs de perles?”). Because no-one worked on the Opera Guide full-time, no-one was one-tracked or obsessed (except me, but that was as well). And if I felt panicky, there was always a sympathetic colleague to tell me how to shut up and get on with it.

Hopefully there will eventually be a chance to update what is inevitably already out of date and, perhaps sooner, a chance to correct the errors. The book will sometime appear as a fat Penguin paperback, basically the same book as the stout Viking (with some of the Cs left out).

Finally, I am left wondering how on earth anyone ever compiled a reference book without a computer. I’ve surely discovered the best way to learn about your favourite subject and I even know which opera is set entirely in a tomb and which Italian composer wrote Lohengrin. But what I look forward to is listening to a few of them properly as, at last, I will own the volume I’ve always wanted to look them up in.