The Gilded Stage, By Daniel Snowman

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The Independent Culture

Opera is an impossibly ambitious art form that strives to combine the best of music, drama, choreography and design. Rarely requiring the collaboration of fewer than 50 performers, at least some of whom will need skills available to so few they can confidently charge fees to make a banker blush, it is compelling precisely because it often fails. When casting, direction, production and performance all succeed, it feels like the very distillation of man's greatest achievements, and on those far more numerous occasions where one or another department fails, the ideal is somehow implicit in the evening's endeavour. To the uninitiated, it is as inexplicable as fox hunting or sadomasochism, yet its devotees continue to blow a month's wages on a ticket. It has somehow survived, thrived even, when similarly extravagant pursuits have gone the way of court dress and visiting cards.

There have studies aplenty of the composers and singers but the historian Daniel Snowman takes a holistic approach, so that The Gilded Stage tells us as much about impresarios, socialites and the process by which the art form most often accused of elitism has travelled from Venetian nobleman's palazzo to rugby stadium. The journey has, he wittily shows, been nothing to do with democracy and everything to do with making a notoriously expensive art form pay. Opera, he repeatedly illustrates, has never paid and probably never will.

Snowman's approach is broadly chronological but homes in on key moments in opera's history. Inevitably the most striking chapters concern the least well-trodden areas: opera in England and the British colonies; the wrestling of power from star singer to conductor; the two mythically rich periods when, thanks to new wealth jostling old money, Manhattan found itself with equally magnificent rival opera companies, and the political uses that Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini made of the musicians at their disposal.

Inevitably there are familiar stories here – Wagner's obsession with his own genius, the extraordinary workloads of Donizetti and Rossini – but Snowman has also compiled tales about their audiences, patrons and publishers. Hard to believe that Covent Garden audiences once staged a prolonged – and successful – campaign to reduce ticket prices or that 19th-century performances, thanks to the obligatory ballets laid on to please lascivious gents in the stalls, routinely continued into the early hours of the morning.

Snowman is especially astute in mapping the piecemeal process by which opera came to be taken so very seriously and, indeed, silently, and shows how changing attitudes and needs were reflected in the design of opera houses – from flamboyant social parade-grounds to pseudo-temples. There is something almost touching in Wagner's visionary insistence that no one wanting to attend performances at Bayreuth should be asked to do anything so vulgar as pay (or indeed be paid if they were performing) and an answering comedy to Hitler's having kept the Wagner festival afloat by bussing in hordes of deeply reluctant servicemen and nurses.

The only time opera companies seem to have made steady profits was when – as at La Scala in Milan – the buildings played home to casinos, an idea which does not seem to have occurred to any opera house managements since the early 19th century and could surely bear reconsidering. Cumulatively, this is a social history of Western man's repeated (usually failed) attempts to make money out opera-lovers' extravagant tastes, and of the geniuses who benefited from such speculation. It is a box of delights for operamanes and the cloth-eared curious alike.

Patrick Gale's stories, 'Gentleman's Relish', are published by Fourth Estate