The Ridiculous & Sublime

The New Grove Dictionary of Opera

edited by Stanley Sadie
MacMillan/Grove's Dictionaries of Music, Vol. 4, 1,342 pp., $850.00 the set
Maria Callas
Maria Callas; drawing by David Levine


The most prestigious of musical forms, opera is also traditionally the most absurd, the most irrational. No musical dictionary could ever deal adequately with the nonsense of opera. It is true that other forms of musical activity—or of life in general—are equally shot through with absurdity: ridiculous jokes about violists and equally ridiculous but true stories about deranged conductors are a sufficient testimony. Nevertheless, in orchestral life competent violists are the rule rather than the exception, and rational conductors may be discovered, while a certain extravagant absurdity is inseparable from opera, and even helps to define it.

Opera ought not to be reasonable, and this expectation of essential lunacy governs the genre and regulates the behavior of everybody concerned with it. A soprano who does not give herself the comic airs of a prima donna betrays her public; an operatic director who does not add some irrelevant and distracting piece of stage business will be viewed with suspicion and probably set his career in jeopardy. I remember a performance of Verdi’s Il Trovatore in Naples, in which the tenor, unprepossessing musically as well as physically, finished a performance of “Di quella pira” by stepping forward to the front of the stage, facing his audience with a bold stare, and, after a deep breath, bellowing the unauthorized but frequently sung high C for no less than half a minute, to his own evident satisfaction and the delight of the public. This is a central aspect of operatic life with which The New Grove Dictionary of Opera does not attempt to deal, but it was an incredible moment that almost everybody had come to hear, and this wonderfully unmusical feat rejoiced their hearts. It was what opera was all about.

Certainly the most useful of all reference books on its subject to date, Grove’s Opera will give us the plots of all the operas about which one could be reasonably curious, but it will not tell us which Tosca, when throwing herself to her death off the Castel Sant’Angelo, bounced back above the battlements from the trampoline hidden beneath; or who was the first tenor to ask “When does the next swan leave?”; or which famous two-hundred-pound soprano has prudently written into her contract that no director can make her move or gesture if she doesn’t want to—and she generally doesn’t (one director solved the problem that he felt this seemed to present by having an entire production of Ernani take place in a dim penumbra in which one could only vaguely perceive the principal singers). Grove’s Opera will list the cast for the premiere of Salome, but will not divulge which great soprano made it clear that she wore no under-clothes during the Dance of the Seven Veils. Yet these are important issues in the economy of opera, and they help us to see why comparisons of the stars of opera with…

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