Opera As Opera

Opera Book Review by Willard Manus

It’s a bit insulting to the author to review an 800-page book in a brief review. So apologies in advance to Conrad L. Osborne whose magnum opus, OPERA AS OPERA–-THE STATE OF THE ART, was published recently by Proposito Press. Osborne has written on opera for some six decades, contributing reviews and essays to such publications as “High Fidelity/Musical America,” “Opera News” and “New York Times,” among many others. He has also performed as actor and singer, and has taught singing technique and interpretation. Married to actress Molly Regan, he lives and teaches in New York City, where he writes a bi-weekly blog, “Osborn on Opera.”

The first thirty-two pages of OPERA AS OPERA consist of Osborn’s theory of opera as elucidated in fourteen “essayettes” (“Opera’s Essence,” “Belief,” “Skepticism,” “Creation and Interpretation,” etc.) His highly intellectual, complex theories make for somewhat difficult reading, though a central theme does emerge clearly in Part Two: opera as an art form has for some time dishonored its past, largely because of “pernicious and arrogant styles of production.” The main villains in that regard are boy-wonder directors like Robert Wilson and Peter Sellars.

“The dismemberment of opera is being undertaken by some of its most sophisticated, well-educated, and talented practitioners, and while their tongues are often in their cheeks, they don’t seem to know it–-they think they’re chewing over something significant in there. Operatic true believers must show not that they don’t understand, but that they understand all too well, and that they have reasons beyond the lazy pleasures of nostalgia for their dismay,” he explains.

In the book’s successive sections, Osborne writes about Production, The Intellectual Background, Performance (“Singing,” “The Pit and the Podium,” “The Leading Ladies Settle Down”, “A Review And Some Updates”) and more. Rarely has an opera critic gone so deeply into the heart and soul of opera, written about it with such erudition, conviction and bravery.

As one reviewer said, Osborne has “a passionate belief in the integrity of the original creative vision that animates every opera, masterpiece and lesser works alike.” Although Osborne fears that the betrayal of that vision has put opera (and classical music) in “end times,” he’s not ready to surrender to the Four Horseman. He believes opera can be saved if it gets public support. “The rationale is cultural,” he writes. “It doesn’t have to do with material necessities, public safety, or the survival of the republic. It has to do with richness of life, depth of understanding, satisfaction of aesthetic hungers, and a longing for something beyond economic measure–-not whether or not we can be a great and powerful country, but a great and memorable civilization.”

With financial help from the government and the private sector, Osborne’s “Dream-On” opera company might actually come into being. “Does all this seem no more than a fantasy in our real political world? I’m afraid it does. Yet to anyone who believes in the value of the arts to society, in what the economists term a ‘merit good,’ it is, like the Dream-On Company itself, entirely reasonable, no more than we should expect from any advanced nation. I like the attitude of the Russian film director Alexander Sokurov. Speaking of Russia’s troubled times, he said, ‘We’re not irrevocably fated to be civilized...every time we have to prove it, we have to pass the exam that we can be civilized.’

“That’s right, I think. That’s the task,” Osborne concludes, “it’s not Russia’s alone.”