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What gives this pocket guide to opera (part of Quadrille’s new The knowledge series) far more clout than its mere 150-odd small pages might suggest is the stature of its author, Dennis Marks, who died in April this year. Quadrille could scarcely have done better than securing a writer of the pedigree of this former general director of English National Opera and head of music programmes at the BBC – someone who knew opera inside-out, wanted to make it accessible to all, and moreover someone with a deep love of musical history.

Marks plots a course from an examination of what opera offers that straight drama cannot, through elements of light-touch operatic history and a dispelling of ‘myths’ (such as ‘Opera is incomprehensible’) and on to such areas as the roles of opera company staff and a look at the prospects for the art form into the future. The text is regularly punctuated by thought-provoking vignettes – ‘What Makes a Great Voice?’, operatic rivalries, the shortcomings of various opera house designs and so on. Throughout there are brief trips round individual operas from all periods.

Marks’s achievement is to breathe such assurance and authority into the text that the short span never induces skimpiness. And he eschews resorting to levity as a popularising tactic. The style is always approachable but never talks the subject down. Imaginative layout and design add to the book’s appeal.

Who will read it? I’ll wager a good few existing opera buffs will be drawn by the Marks name out of curiosity, but the target readership (especially at the cheap price) is clearly those starting out on their opera journeys and wanting not so much something to read from start to finish but a ready reference book for moments of need.

Marks’ verdict at the close is that opera has a real future, thanks to such factors as the sheer variety of musical styles now in front of the public and the abiding popular fascination with aural spectacle offered by virtuoso singers, available in greater abundance today than ever before.

ANDREW GREEN Read the full review on Agora Classica

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