Book review: A Song of Love and Death

Peter Conrad’s A Song of Love and Death sports a grand subtitle: “The Meaning of Opera.” Don’t expect the promised enlightenment—“A Catalogue of Opera” would have been more appropriate. The book freewheels through the canon, calling on both famous and obscure operas to support the author’s claims. Conrad is especially fond of pointing out how particular operas tell the story of opera as a genre. (This seems facile. Is opera reaching its end? There’s a Götterdämmerung for that. Is it fighting time? Try Die Rosenkavalier. And even literal examples abound—plenty of operas, from L’Orfeo to Tosca, are about music or singers.)

The book is structured in three sections. The first draws links between opera and the pagan gods, centering on the conflict between Apollo and Dionysus as the wellsprings of the genre. The second provides an overview of the repertoire, and the third analyzes opera in performance (with an entire chapter devoted to “the black goddess,” Maria Callas). Each is stuffed full of examples, occasionally drawn together into broader insights about opera as a whole. These examples range from well-known (the gamut of frequently performed Mozart, Puccini, Wagner, and Verdi) to extremely obscure (Birtwhistle, anyone?).

Background information is not given. It can be hard to follow Conrad’s writing even if you know most of the canon. Multiple operas contribute to a single point, with only the character name signaling which one he’s referring to in a given sentence. I frequently found myself going back several paragraphs to figure out which “Leonora” was being discussed. Familiarity is assumed. Perhaps that’s why Conrad writes about the music of operas so little, preferring to focus on characters, plots, and stagings. Maybe he imagines we can conjure up the scores in our minds whenever he cites a line or aria. Still, it’s a strange oversight for a book that recognizes music as the heart of opera.

Even more preposterously, Conrad seems to assume his readers have all seen the same productions he has (largely in the U.S. and the U.K.). He breaks down the meaning of stagings without providing an overview to ground us. Since I was not alive for any of the productions he mentions (the book was published in 1987), descriptions or photographs would have been a great help. Still, his interpretations of directorial choices are one of the most interesting portions of the book. He is confident in his pronouncements about the symbolism of various settings, costumes, and blockings. Even when I found his suggestions far-fetched, I was intrigued. I would love to read his takes on some contemporary Regietheater, though I imagine they would largely be incisive. The overall bent of his criticism was traditionalist, with rare exceptions made for updated stagings where he “got” an especially interesting philosophical point. Even changing the time period setting of an opera provoked his scorn, unless the purpose was clear.

Opera lovers who read A Song of Love and Death will come away with a better understanding of the history of the art form, the canon, and the philosophical connections between operas. People who are not opera lovers will likely give up on the book in sheer confusion. Even for the proper target audience, it’s a bit of a slog—prosy and academic without the footnotes. Interesting insights provide scattered rewards along the way, but in the end there’s no great payoff for the effort the reading requires.

A Song of Love and Death: The Meaning of Opera. By Peter Conrad. Poseidon Press: 1987. Buy here.

2 thoughts on “Book review: A Song of Love and Death”

  1. Have you read “The Angel’s Cry: Beyond The Pleasure Principle in Opera” by Michel Poizat?

    The author, a scientific researcher in Paris, makes a significant contribution to the centuries-old debate concerning the relative importance of words and music in opera. He argues persuasively that opera’s most profound experiences go beyond the staging, beyond the words, to an apprehension of the music and singing “as pure music free of all ties to speech”

    His central thesis that the history of opera comprises a drive to transcend verbal expression.

  2. I have! I read it quickly, as it was for a paper I was working on, but I think it would repay a more careful re-read. I remember especially loving the transcript of a conversation between people waiting in line for last-minute opera tickets. The whole book felt very continental (as opposed to analytical) and psychological, but I did enjoy the discussion of opera as a sort of elevated primal scream.

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