Opera criticism today, when it does not deal with works by a single composer, often links opera to something outside it. It is common for books and articles to have such titles as Literature as Opera, Opera and Ideas, or Romantic Opera and Literary Form1 and chapter headings like “Opera as Representation” or “Opera and Society.”2 The authors are frequently professors of literature or history and they may include anthropologists and psychologists. Lurking in the background is the specter of Wagner’s Oper und Drama, though only Joseph Kerman’s classic Opera as Drama3 boldly adopts Wagner’s terms. Kerman’s is also one of the few books to insist that “opera is a type of drama whose integral existence is determined from point to point and in the whole by musical articulation.” Though some of the books by historians and teachers of comparative literature can illuminate important aspects of operatic art, serious opera criticism cannot afford to keep music at bay.

Peter Conrad’s new book takes its title from Tristan und Isolde’s “Liebestod” (“A Song of Love and Death”) and it has a subtitle of Wagnerian pretension. He writes ambitiously, in a variety of tones, of which two stand out: that of the passionate opera fan, even groupie, and that of the sophisticated literary critic. In his first paragraph he describes opera fans as “converts” to a religion that “changes the lives of those it wins over, transforming them into acolytes and partisans who will queue all night in a blizzard to buy tickets or cross continents for a performance—who think, talk, read and dream about the art that is their avocation.” One might remind Conrad that the followers of Bruce Springsteen or the Grateful Dead seem to feel the same way about their heroes.

Nonetheless, the enthusiastic tone pervades Conrad’s book, even in its first two, more analytical, sections. In the section on “Rite,” Conrad seeks to identify “the gods of opera, the subjects of its rite” (Orpheus/Apollo, Dionysus, Eros, Mephistopheles, and Dagon—a pagan idol), drawing examples from across “the history of the form,” starting with Monteverdi’s Orfeo (1607). The section on “Repertory” proposes to follow, in a general way, “the course of that history to show how opera in one period after another makes drama out of music.” In the final section, “Performance,” Conrad has many interesting stories to tell about standing-room lines at the Metropolitan Opera, the social background of Rudolf Bing, the night Jessye Norman sang both Cassandra and Dido in Berlioz’s Les Troyens, and the night Birgit Nilsson devoured three successive tenors during the three acts of Tristan.

For the true fanatic, going to the opera becomes itself a rite, and the prima donna its goddess: as Bellini’s Norma leads the Druids in prayer to their “casta diva,” Conrad and his fellow believers worship at the shrine of the diva from whose charmed body and throat emerge the bel canto strains. Nowhere is this more evident than in Conrad’s comments on the art, vocal and dramatic, of Maria Callas, Birgit Nilsson, Leonie Rysanek, and Jon Vickers. His command of details from various performances is impressive, though his critical language may strive oppressively to be colorful: “[Elena Obraztsova] writhed and squirmed, hands planted on hips, but her sexuality was largely dental”; “Rubbing white goo on her cheeks before the play in Zeffirelli’s Pagliacci film, [Teresa] Stratas stared at herself in a tarnished hand mirror until the blanched skin became that of a cadaver, and she seemed to be looking through it to the skeleton beneath.” Too often, these descriptions are set pieces linked by tedious passages of “recitative,” the whole less than the sum of its parts.

Only to one singer does Conrad devote an entire chapter, since, he writes, “like everyone else, I was converted to opera by Callas.” Even fans of other divas will appreciate his insights into the relation between Callas’s life and art. Her characters “were versions of herself, sacrificial victims or (failing that) apostates.” In language that can be powerful, though at times repellent, Conrad describes his own impressions of her singing. When Callas as Violetta reads her letter in La Traviata her voice has “the thready, breathless sound of a consumptive, trapped inside a moldering organism”; when as Medea she addresses the gods “the vowels go dark, the voice turns to stone.” In his admiration, he tries to smooth over Callas’s technical flaws: “When a high note on the word for ‘altar’ oscillates out of control, it does so because it has taken off from the rational human register and is echoing through the vast vacancy within Lucia’s mind.” He concludes persuasively that Callas was so recklessly absorbed in her interpretations that she destroyed the voice that gave life to her art, and thereafter life itself lost its meaning for her.


Obsessed by the diva, the opera fanatic tends to be scornful of the conductors or stage directors who would try to impose their will on her. Conrad believes that Callas was exploited (with or without her “masochistic” consent) by directors such as Visconti, Zeffirelli, and Pasolini, though their principal sin appears to have been little more than seeking to persuade her to take part in the productions they conceived, presumably the function of a good director. Indeed, despite his spirited accounts of recent operatic stagings by such strong interpreters as Peter Brook, Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, Peter Hall, and Yuri Lyubimov, Conrad’s fundamental sympathies are with the artists he has worshiped on stage: when he writes about the ways “a grubby roughness always qualifies the magic” in Brook’s productions, he is analytic; but about Joan Sutherland he is ecstatic.

Some opera fanatics tend to denigrate everything except what they themselves have experienced in the theater.4 Conrad prefaces his remarks about modern stage directors such as Peter Brook by asserting: “Opera used to be the preserve of the musicians, exhibiting their art in defiance of dramatic truth. Its corseted sopranos and ponderous tenors disdained to act; the form was notorious for its theatrical nonsensicality.” This seems a Marx Brothers version of opera, and even a casual acquaintance with opera history should suggest a very different perspective. Verdi in his correspondence is particularly insistent on dramatic truth. Contemporary accounts of the acting of Giuditta Pasta and Maria Malibran in the 1820s make it clear how powerful their performances could be. Librettists, many of, whom also wrote plays, personally staged their own operas in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and evidently some of their productions had strong theatrical qualities. Conrad the critic is not uninformed about this history—in fact, he quotes tellingly from Verdi’s correspondence early in the book. But the fan and the critic are not always aware of each other.

The voice of the fan, however, sometimes merges with that of the critic. Each needs to believe that the object of adoration or analysis is unique: “Opera treats aspects of experience no other art has the boldness to address.” While Conrad consistently emphasizes this uniqueness, the myths he constructs when he writes of the gods that officiate at opera’s rites, the comments he makes on particular operatic works and characters in his survey of opera history, and the theories he constructs, all show him to be writing mainly as a literary critic. His book fails to account effectively for what is in fact unique about opera: its music.

A clue to this failing lies in his earlier book, Romantic Opera and Literary Form, where Conrad stresses the relationship of opera to the novel, arguing that both genres can explore “the interior life of motive and desire,” while the more obvious connection between opera and “drama” should be denied as specious. “Drama” is “external action in crampingly compact form,” allegedly characteristic of Ibsen or Shaw, who wrote plays of “ideas dialectically energized in discussion, not of characters in action.” With this dismissive definition, Conrad joins Hugo Hofmannsthal in removing Shakespeare from the category of dramatist and redefining him “as a novelist.” Conrad’s redefinition of drama might have been useful as a device for examining the conventions of romantic opera, as opposed to those of late nineteenth-century drama, but it has a disturbing effect on A Song of Love and Death, because in ignoring that the sources of opera are often to be found in the history of drama, Conrad imagines himself to be analyzing opera alone, when in fact he is largely addressing the common elements of both.

Conrad is at his best with operatic librettos, plots, and characters. No other book has approached opera with such linguistic ingenuity and the results can be perversely fascinating. In the pages on Orpheus, “opera’s founder,” by way of comparisons, allusions, parodies, and deconstructive reinterpretations, he speeds amusingly through works by Monteverdi, Gluck, Haydn, Wagner, Offenbach, Weill, Gershwin, and Stockhausen that explicitly, or arguably, make use of the Orpheus theme:

Tannhäuser is Wagner’s demonic Orpheus, made vocally eloquent by his season in the hell of the Venusberg. His chaster counterpart is Walther in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, who wins the song contest by retrieving the paradise which Gluck’s Orfeo has lost. Walther is an Adam who declares a suburban garden to be his Eden and sets there, in his prize song, an Eve who is his adored Ev’chen. The two heroes represent alternatives for opera: song as obsequious worship, or…as a vital, welling aphrodisia.

He has some serious misconceptions concerning the late Renaissance society in Italy in which opera first developed,5 and he mistakes the god with whom Tom Rakewell identifies himself at the end of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress (Adonis, not Orpheus). Nonetheless, he wittily plays off against one another Monteverdi’s Orpheus, consoled for the second loss of Euridice by being transformed into an immortal; Gluck’s more human hero, whose beloved is restored to him by Amore; and Offenbach’s fatuous music maker, whose Euridice much prefers the delights of hell to the boredom of bourgeois life, not to mention modern incarnations of the hero/god, fated “in shame and remorse,” to lose his voice.


Less successful is Conrad’s chapter on another of opera’s gods, Dionysus. He cites Nietzsche on the annihilation of the individual:

Apollo, Nietzsche says, is the god of individuality. His acolytes learn precisely who they are, and how small they are. But in opera the self is aggrandized, not whittled away. “Son io” insists Norma, ecstatically accusing herself of a crime which is of course sacrilegious. Nietzsche argues that this impersonal egomania is the bequest of Dionysus. In his “mystical triumphant cry…the spell of individuation is broken.” The way lies open to the one life in which all beings are enmeshed and married: that oceanic volume of sound from which Otello emerges or into which Senta, diving from the cliff after the Dutchman’s ship, hurls herself.

But he cannot go much beyond a display of allusions without soon reducing the Dionysian spirit to a series of operatic drinking songs and references to wine. “Drinking songs are synonymous with opera,” he writes. While Massenet’s Jongleur de Notre Dame, Don Giovanni, Carmen, Rossini’s Italian girl, Lulu, Madame Butterfly’s Pinkerton, and a host of others all eat and drink or cause others to do so, Conrad’s approach, while deriving from Nietzsche, trivializes the conception of the Dionysian spirit, which Nietzsche saw as the source of both Greek tragedy and its modern incarnation in Wagnerian opera—“the eternal and original artistic power,” Nietzsche wrote, “that first calls the whole world of phenomena into existence.”6

Of the characters included in Conrad’s account of the ways that gods figure in and preside over opera, we notice that only Orpheus reigns specifically over the operatic world: Dionysus, Eros, Mephistopheles, and Dagon are the common property of all drama, not to mention literature, while Orpheus is an under-study for Apollo. If, as Conrad says in his chapter on Eros, “opera does seem able to tolerate every erotic vagary and unhallowed relationship except connubial bliss,” the same is true of the works of literature from which its stories are derived; even in comedy, once boy gets girl, the curtain falls.

Throughout Conrad’s book, “Opera” becomes a participant in the text, with its own will, its own character, a noun followed by active verbs: “opera…contents itself”; “opera chose to be discreet”; “opera first tries to recover”; “opera encourages.” This is more than a narrative idiosyncracy: it seems an effort to impose by a linguistic device views that are often unsupported. And just as Conrad personifies opera as a participant in its own history, so he treats individual operas as commentaries on their own genre.

In many works in the operatic repertory, particularly comedies, the composer and the librettist make their own wry comments on the forms and language of opera. Rossini’s Viaggio a Reims is an opera about the conventions of opera. When Verdi’s last operatic work, Falstaff, concludes with a fugue on the text “Everything in the world is a jest” (“Tutto nel mondo è burla”), part of the jest is that Verdi is using a “learned form” not usually associated with comedy, or indeed with Italian opera, to conclude his career as a composer for the stage. But when work after work is proclaimed to be “about” its materials, and meta-opera becomes a label that can be applied to every opera, Conrad’s statements come to sound abstract and assertive and lose their interest. We can nod in agreement when he finds that Die Meistersinger “elaborates a German myth about [opera’s] origins” or that Tannhäuser “is about the apostasy of opera: the abdication of God, and his replacement by the artist.” As the game continues, however (Götterdämmerung “is about the material splendor of opera, as Parsifal is about the spiritual refinement of the form”), it grows obscure and wearisome. We are more impressed with the verbal fluency of the author than by the depth of his thought.

Still, when Conrad concentrates on a particular work or scene, he has insights we can admire. On Mozart:

The world of Figaro is held together by flimsy ribbons and bandages, like the one with which the Countess binds Cherubino’s arm, or by pins, like those the women—as the Count comments—are always sticking into things, and always mislaying. Its promissory notes and contracts have no power because they’re paper obligations, and can instantly be canceled, as they are in the third act when Marcellina drops her suit. The action’s symbol is an invalid document: the patent commissioning Cherubino, which lacks its seal.

On Die Meistersinger:

The second act, overseen by [Sachs], is an affectionate parody of the corresponding act in Tristan. The passionate tryst in the darkness is here a farcical imbroglio, set in a congested alley not a garden. Isolde is inflamed by the night, sensually stirred by nature; Sachs however is soothed by the elder tree under which he sits. Walther begs Eva to elope with him to freedom, but doesn’t, like Tristan, propose the easeful remedy of death. Sachs keeps a lookout more efficiently than Brangäne, and the Watchman’s booming cowhorn orders the nocturnal rioters indoors. Was not the fatal outcome in Tristan due merely to carelessness? Like Verdi in Falstaff, Wagner in his single comedy calls operatic tragedy’s bluff.

Throughout his book Conrad can make us think in new ways about familiar operas. And yet, for all the pleasure we may take in his perceptions, they beg the fundamental question. In practically every case the librettos Conrad so imaginatively analyzes are derived from previous literary works, usually from plays. Every sentence I have quoted about Le nozze de Figaro applies equally to Beaumarchais’ drama. With the exception of the references to the watchman’s “cowhorn,” the analysis of the second act of Die Meistersinger refers almost exclusively to the libretto. When music appears in A Song of Love and Death, it is relegated to a more primitive function. In describing Il Trovatore, Conrad comments that the orchestra “sets [the characters] on fire”; Azucena has “crackling narrative” and her voice “spits and lashes like tongues of flame”; “Luna broods as baritones must, skulking further down the scale”; Manrico “sings of his resolve to [rescue his mother], and proves vocally equal to the adventure.” Il Trovatore is “a work of musical pyromania.” For Conrad, music is sound. It provides onomatopoeic equivalents of dramatic action, but not much else.

Yet Verdi’s art is far more complex. In describing Ponnelle’s film of Verdi’s Rigoletto Conrad refers to the director’s “neat doubling,” in which the singer playing the title part, Ingvar Wixell,

also acts and sings the role of Monterone, Rigoletto’s accuser. Monterone here is a white elder, standing beneath an equestrian statue like the Commendatore’s in the graveyard. Rigoletto therefore aims Monterone’s curse at himself, and in the penultimate scene, answering Monterone’s imprecations, offers to be his own avenger.

What Conrad fails to understand is that Ponnelle, a stage director who was unusually conscientious about music, is responding directly to elements in Verdi’s score. Monterone appears only twice in Rigoletto, as in Victor Hugo’s Le Roi s’amuse, from which the opera is derived. But whereas the dramatic device of fusing the two characters could apply equally well to the opera and the play, Ponnelle’s interpretation works all the more strongly because it is embedded in Verdi’s musical setting. The musical language of Monterone’s imprecations, indeed his specific melodic lines, are echoed by Rigoletto. Verdi’s score is itself a critical statement about the drama. To this musical language, though, Conrad rarely gives heed.

When Conrad attempts to discuss the music more closely, he makes so many elementary mistakes that one wishes he would return to literary criticism. In Verdi’s Requiem, for example, which he describes as “an anthological opera, with limbo as its setting,” he understands the “Libera me” as a “recitative,” “cavatina,” and “cabaletta,” in which music is ultimately powerless to embolden the singer: “In the last bars she is grounded in speech once more, still asking to be freed from her mortal alarm.” It is true that the singer’s final prayer repeats the sounds of the prayer heard earlier; but this hardly represents a defeat. The peaceful sound at the end is very different from the urgency with which “Libera me” was declaimed earlier in the movement. That moment of urgency, moreover, follows the unaccompanied “Requiem aeternam,” which Conrad imagines is “a glowing cabaletta, where a new confidence enables her to reach the radiant pinnacle of a B-flat.”7 But I know of no such slow, unaccompanied “cabaletta,” or anything remotely like it, in the entire history of Italian vocal music. Furthermore, cabalettas conclude musical numbers: they do not come at their midpoint. Conrad’s failure to understand such musical forms leads him to a false metaphoric use of terms and thus distorts his understanding of Verdi’s music.

It would serve no purpose to list other errors of fact and interpretation.8 Conrad’s book is still worth taking seriously. He brings to opera a critical vocabulary new to it, derived from literary models but equally valuable in considerations of an art whose links to literature, and—notwithstanding his denial—to drama, cannot be ignored. For operatic criticism to be worthy of its objects, it must combine these elements with serious consideration of music. If critics with such abilities ever appear, we can hope the gods of Opera will grant them some of the breadth of reference, exuberance, and wit of Peter Conrad.

This Issue

October 13, 1988