On Opera Guides

From Where I Sit

Like any reference book, the New Penguin Opera Guide is of its time. Here in my study I have three editions of Grove: my grandmother’s copy of the third, 1929, edition; the 1954 (which my father found in a second-hand shop for my 18th birthday) and the 1980 New Grove which I worked on myself – amazingly I made the card index for it in 1970 when I was an impoverished student at the Guildhall. If you look up Rachmaninov in the 1929 (when he was still alive), there is a quite a complimentary biographical entry and the titles of his three operas are listed, yet in 1954 he is spelt ‘Rakhmaninov’ and is dismissed in little more than a column – his operas don’t even get a mention. Tastes change, and so do perspectives. Someone may find my book in a second-hand shop in 50 years’ time and say ‘Who’s Philip Glass? He got a lot of space in 2001’. Things have moved on even in the eight years since this book’s predecessor, The Viking Opera Guide was published.

When I originally started on the Viking project (in 1987) I contacted the best experts in their fields and was astonished when so many distinguished writers agreed to come on board; when you have David Cairns writing about Berlioz, Philip Gossett’s thoughts on Rossini and John Tyrrell on Janácek you feel safe to claim that the articles are definitive. l’m so grateful to those 100 or so people who wrote the book for me and it was a great learning curve too, to assemble the whole thing – a bit like a huge jigsaw puzzle and I have to say, it was the pieces of the ‘sky’ – the less prominent composers – who were the hardest to deal with.

For the Penguin edition I have left out a few whose works are unlikely or don’t deserve to be revived but I have added 80 new composers – most of them living, a few of them, perhaps, new to some readers, all of them indicative of the wider repertoire interests of the new edition. They include such diverse figures as Heinz Holliger, Simon Holt, Tobias Picker and Kaija Saariaho, and a few dead ones (Pauline Viardot and Charles-Marie Widor of toccata fame spring to mind) as well as incorporating several recent and rediscovered works.

I was determined to have all the 850 featured composers’ complete operatic works included and, as well as all the main repertoire composers, there is individual coverage for each opera by a great many others, such as Henze, Rameau, Rihm, Schoenberg, Weill, Zemlinsky. I’d like to think that you won’t find that depth of coverage in any other single-volume reference book in English. Even so, it’s still impossible to examine every opera by a composer like Donizetti, but for those that have been recently recorded I have added new entries – now you can read in detail about 52 of his operas (he actually wrote 68; it would be fun to include them all one day). Operas by other composers like Antonio Caldara, Antonio Draghi or Florian Leopold Gassmann are listed – but those less well-known figures will have to wait for research, recordings and/or performances to prove their eligibility for closer scrutiny – if and when there is another edition.

The other work I first found myself doing when embarking on the Viking Guide was translating opera. I had worked on a couple with my ex-husband, Anthony, who is a writer, but had then regarded myself primarily as an accompanist and teacher – I had been on the Guildhall staff since 1973. But Graham Vick’s invitation to translate Falstaff for his City of Birmingham Touring Opera was irresistible. I took a deep breath and spent four months puzzling over the score at the kitchen table. With all its double and triple rhymes, the nonet in the second Part of Act 1 took me about a fortnight – it was so challenging. I realize that it’s very unlikely that the audience will hear the words in the nonet, but I’m sure Verdi didn’t expect they would when he wrote it. But that is not the only point of translation. I feel that singers have a right to perform and the audience to listen in their own language because the communication is so much more direct that way. It’s foolish of audiences to say they can’t hear the words in English, but at least if it’s in English they might expect to. They never complain that they can’t hear the words when they are not in English – famously, in his operas, Richard Strauss didn’t expect his listeners to hear every word – opera, after all, has other ways of expressing meaning.

Since Falstaff, I have hardly stopped translating. That work has been conveniently complementary to the editing of an opera guide. If I get stuck with or weary of one, I can move from the kitchen to the study or vice-versa. And I love having a foot in both camps: dealing with writers and their work at home and working with opera companies at the coal face of the rehearsal room. Working on the Opera Guide can be a bit lonely at times – it’s live music that really keeps me going.

I’ve learnt everything from those I’ve worked with – what a privilege it’s been to discuss great works in detail with artists of the calibre of Colin Davis, Mark Elder, Charles Mackerras and Simon Rattle. Equally, I admire the singers and what they do so much. Some of my best memories are of adjusting a translation in response to clever suggestions from the likes of Ann Murray and Gerald Finley and watching the skills of great directors such as Tim Albery, David Alden, David McVicar and Calixto Bieito. And the apotheosis of it all came with writing a libretto – The Silver Tassie – for Mark-Anthony Turnage. He has said he chose me as I know how words work (the technical term is ‘go over’) in the opera house, and I suppose I ought to by now, though starting a new project always seems like an enormously daunting challenge.

So I count myself very lucky in myriad ways. I’m so grateful to my grandmother – a pianist and the second woman Fellow of the Royal College of Organists – who seated me firmly on this Steinway’s stool at the age of four, and to my parents for marinading me in music from the start – they took me to Covent Garden when I was only seven (which was perhaps a bit early for me). But from then on opera was a part of my life whether I liked it or not – I’m not sure I did then, but I certainly know I do now.

Gramophone, February 2002