ARTS / Show People: Toiler in the Grove of academe: 55. Stanley Sadie

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I'M IN an office suite off the Strand in central London, and it feels as though I've broken into Tutankhamun's tomb. The room is dark and empty, but with evidence of some momentous labour having been accomplished at some time in the past. The walls are covered with hermetic messages; a frieze of letters from the alphabet presides over the empty desks; and I pick my way through stacks of files, index trays and foolscap envelopes bundled for dispatch.

Here, for the past five years, an editorial army has been working on one of the biggest publishing projects of the Nineties: the New Grove Dictionary of Opera, in four volumes and 5,200 pages, the work of more than a thousand contributors, goes on sale next week at pounds 550. Now a lone figure is left: Stanley Sadie, the man who makes the New Grove happen.

It was Dr Sadie who produced the most recent edition of the New Grove Dictionary of Music & Musicians (20 volumes, pounds 1,200, 1980), which remains the most comprehensive undertaking of its kind. It was Sadie who took the staid Grove empire, which had been publishing music dictionaries since 1877, into the world of the spin-off. Hence the Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments, the Grove series of composers' lives, the new opera dictionary, and a promised Grove Dictionary of Women Composers, whose length remains speculative.

Sadie's introduction to this rarified activity was conventional. Born into a family of mathematicians, he read music at Cambridge, took his doctorate and 'drifted into journalism, as you do'. He reviewed music for the Times in the Sixties and went to Grove in 1970. 'It suited my 18th-century temperament. I like precision. I like the idea of order emerging from chaos. And I like the interface - horrible word, I shouldn't use it - that dictionaries offer between scholarship and journalism. The consequence is that I'm regarded by serious scholars as a mere scribe and by the press as a dusty academic; but that's the price you pay.'

The truth, though, is that Sadie's full Grove is a masterpiece of scholarship and presentation, as is the new opera dictionary. The decision to focus on opera is driven by a desire to catch up with the expansion of historical research that has exhumed whole areas of repertory in recent years - especially baroque - and to acknowledge how perceptions of the household names have shifted. Wagner, for example, gets a sharper, more dispassionate appraisal. 'But it's not just views on composers that change,' Sadie says. 'In the full Grove, we had nothing on gender studies; and yet musicological conferences these days discuss nothing but - so that's one thing we clearly have to address. Another is non-Western music, which we only really began to deal with when we brought out the Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments. Look in there and you'll find things the full Grove wouldn't have dreamed of - like the ground zither, a piece of string stretched between two sticks in the grass. A washing line is a ground zither.'

Every decision Sadie has made - who's out, who's in, how much space they get - is liable to be taken as an authoritative value judgement. And he says that, broadly speaking, you can measure with a ruler how Grove rates each composer, 'so long as you're comparing like with like. A middling 18th-century composer might require more detail in his entry than, say, Puccini - although another factor is always the interest of the life.'

For the record, he gives Wagner 31 pages (with a separate entry for each opera), Mozart 13, Britten four. Broadway musicals do not make it (exception: West Side Story). Operettas sneak in - although Sadie admits that you encounter problems of nomenclature at this point. There is no entry on singing ('no one in the world could write it'), but there's a lot about voice types - with the caveat that the way we match voices to roles is modern: 'Mozart, after all, wrote Fiordiligi and Susanna for the same singer' - and still more about how opera is organised: casting, planning and staging.

The dictionary does not neglect the big issue of modern times, the rise of the producer (30 pages). More surprisingly, it throws a powerful beam on librettists as forgotten heroes of the genre. 'We've tried to get away from the idea that you classify operas by composer. Historically it wasn't like that: in the 18th century you'd be less likely to find the composer's name on the posters than that of the librettist. The composer was more of an artisan whose work would be discarded while the libretto lived on.'

What was the most difficult thing about the job? 'Contributors,' he said, unhesitating. Most are academics, mainly American, 'because they're the only ones with the funding to spend three years in libraries, poring over manuscripts'. And academics can be slow - the record for late copy is two-and-a-half years, but 'it was brilliant, worth waiting for'.

'The New Grove Dictionary of Opera' is published by Macmillan on 15 Dec.

(Photograph omitted)