Conrad L Osborne, Opera as Opera: The State of the Art

By So, Joseph | Opera Canada, Summer 2019 | Go to article overview

Conrad L Osborne, Opera as Opera: The State of the Art


So, Joseph, Opera Canada


Review: Conrad L Osborne, Opera As Opera: The State of the Art New York: Proposito Press, 2018. 827 pp. US$45

The cover art says it all. OPERA AS OPERA in big capital letters. The first "OPERA" in the title is given a pristine graphic treatment, the second resembles crumbling marble. It's perfect imagery to sum up the impetus behind this book--that the operatic art form today is in serious decline, if not in imminent disintegration.

Conrad L. Osborne, elder statesman among music critics, took 18 years to write this book and the result is 827 densely packed pages. Even for opera lovers accustomed to lengthy works, this magnus opus is formidable, a veritable treasure trove of operatic/cultural observations from the last fifty plus years. While it's impossible to cover all the details here, I will address Osborne's main points, many (not all) of which resonate with this reviewer.

Divided into seven sections, the book begins with a discussion on the nature of opera, which Osborne calls "theatre through song," a genre that only comes alive in performance. It's the end-product of a chain of hierarchical events--from creators (composers/librettists) to interpreters (singers, musicians, conductors, directors) to receptors (audience members/critics).

While interpreters are necessarily given a certain degree of freedom, the ultimate arbiter of the work must rest with the creators, who set the boundaries or "rules of play. The interpreters should yield to the creators--after all, the opera is the intellectual property of the creators, not the interpreters. Osborne feels directors and designers today largely ignore this code of ethics, citing Robert Wilson's Met production of agner's Lohengrin as a case in point, in a chapter humorously titled "Dob Does Dick."

According to Osborne, the Wilson Lohengrin removes the work from its time and place, separates the music from the action and the words. Whatever the dramatic situation, he prescribes movements that are glacial and devoid of urgency. The opera's meaning is therefore no longer narrative-based, but instead, embedded in the design or stage action. …

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