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Opera has inspired a host of novellists to explore flights of fantasy, tales of murder and skulduggery, scenes of illicit back-stage passion and brittle social satire. Time to treat yourself to some gripping page-turners for the summer holidays...

All opera lovers worth their salt are likely to be familiar with such opera-oriented novels as George du Maurier’s Trilby, Willa Cather’s Song of the Lark and Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera. Delving further into fiction catalogues can lead to some unexpected joys, a reminder of happier days of operagoing in a pre-social distancing era.

Focusing chiefly on delight, since opera is first and foremost an entertainment, you might pick up the long-forgotten humorous novel by the American journalist Gustav Kobbé, author of the pioneering Complete Opera Book (1919) with its plot summaries of major repertory works. Signora, a Child of the Opera House (1902) prefigures the sassy New York tone of Damon Runyon’s fictional portraits of Broadway. Kobbé breezily captures backstage attitudes of opera house workers, offering material not suitable for his more sober-sided nonfiction about opera. Although Kobbé was a devout Wagnerian, writing books on the subject, characters in his novel express the opposing viewpoint. He captures choristers’ habit of attaching derisory nicknames to foreign operas. So at the opera house (‘with the contempt a chorus singer of Italian opera feels for Wagner’) Der Ring des Nibelungen is renamed His Nibs of the Ribgelungen. The protagonist Yudels, an opera house dogsbody who discovers a foundling, dismisses the scene between Siegmund and Sieglinde in the first act of Die Walküre as ‘two dogs barking at each other,’ adding: ‘Wagner required serpents, dragons, magic fire, maidens on winged steeds coursing through the clouds; the good old-fashioned operatic composers asked only for someone who could sing.’ This romp overdue for reprint is presently available for consultation on the website archive.org

Almost a century later, the US writer James McCourt was inspired by golden age Hollywood adverts for the 1930s Polish-born Estonian coloratura Miliza Korjus, which explained that her name ‘rhymes with gorgeous’. McCourt devised a Czech diva more resembling the soprano Jarmila Novotná than Korjus, whose name is pronounced ‘gorgeous’ despite being spelled Czgowchwz. Mawrdew Czgowchwz endures a maelstrom of professional and personal woes, complete with an ancient Sicilian nemesis, in a concoction that might be termed heroically camp.

As comforting in their way as comedies, mysteries by Agatha Christie and Rex Stout offer reassurance even as minor characters meet their doom. Christie’s tale Swan Song is a variation on Puccini’s Tosca, in which a singer named Madame Paula Nazorkoff actually kills onstage the baritone playing the role of Baron Scarpia. The whole thing is somewhat like an uneasy dream after eating too much blancmange, but enjoyable nonetheless. Stout’s

The Gun with Wings has the eminent detective Nero Wolfe investigating a case wherein a tenor is mysteriously murdered, with among the suspects a surgeon who had operated on his larynx. Equally suspicious is Edmund Crispin’s novel with the same title as Christie’s story, Swan Song, ostensibly about murder at a production of Wagner’s Meistersinger von Nürnberg, but really an excuse for snarky comments about singers, whose beautiful sounds, according to Crispin, are accompanied ‘by the witlessness of a barnyard fowl’.

Decidedly witty is Gladys Mitchell’s Death at the Opera, in which a murder victim at a school production of The Mikado is an unprepossessing interpreter of the role of Katisha. Although Gilbert and Sullivan at a girl’s school does not genuinely add up to being ‘at the opera’, this is an amusing read.

A more somber atmosphere pervades Ellis Peters’s The House of Green Turf, in which an opera star awakens in hospital after a car accident, certain that she has committed a murder sometime in the past.

More recently, the American author Donna Leon’s Death at La Fenice (1992) anticipated by four years the near-demise by fire of Venice’s great opera house, recounting what happens when a noted German conductor is discovered dead in his dressing room before the third act of Verdi’s La Traviata.

In contrast to these divertissements, Thomas Mann and his son Klaus created fiction expressing an entirely different level of personal and historical anguish. For those seeking a light, distracting read, they might not be the first choice. Nevertheless, Latticed Window, Klaus Mann’s novella about the final days of Ludwig II, Bavaria’s mad king who bankrolled Wagner’s stage productions, is pitilessly insightful. Intended to disabuse readers of the romantic legends surrounding Ludwig, which he likened to the ‘commonest kitsch postcards… saccharine tastelessness and profound mendacity’, Klaus Mann traces Ludwig’s ‘clairvoyance in paranoid darkness’.

Not much more sunshine illuminates Thomas Mann’s novella Blood of the Wälsungs, which takes Wagner’s stories and legends to a logical extreme. A pair of posh adult twins named Siegmund and Sieglinde become so overwrought by an opera house performance of Die Walküre that, rather than ‘barking at each other’ as in Kobbé’s novel, they rush home to commit incest, deciding that their dalliance will only make life more interesting for Sieglinde’s unwitting fiancé.

Franz Werfel’s somber Verdi: A Novel of the Opera is likewise much obsessed with Wagner, as an aging Giuseppe Verdi travels to the Venice Carnival in 1883, where Wagner does not deign to recognise him. Verdi, struggling with plans for a new opera based on King Lear, abandons the project. He finally musters up the courage to speak to Wagner, but the Meister has died the night before.

Following these and other incidents, Verdi is inspired to compose his next opera, Otello. Using a more true-to- life narrative, Marcia Davenport, the daughter of opera soprano Alma Gluck, wrote the novel Of Lena Geyer about a Czech soprano utterly unlike MCCOURT’s Mawrdew Czgowchwz. Lenzka Gyruzkova, who is based partly on Gluck and also on the German soprano Lilli Lehmann, is certainly exalted, yet within a context that will ring true for many operaphiles. In a sinister turn, the Wagnerian soprano Birgit Nilsson was stalked internationally in the 1960s and 70s by an obsessed admirer who sent her multiple scrawled excerpts from Of Lena Geyer. Honoré de Balzac’s Gambara, a story about an opera composer who only writes well when he is drunk, is comparably ominous in tone. Gambara’s wife deceives him with a Milanese nobleman, only to return later to their unhappy ménage, like an unusually gloomy opera plot predating the verismo style. Readers willing to let their imaginations run wild on the subject of opera may delight in the English author Malcolm Bradbury’s Rates of Exchange Why come to Slaka?, satires of Soviet bloc Eastern Europe in which an endless, baffl ing national opera, The Secret Unmasked, is described in surreal detail. Supposedly influencing later works by Mozart and Rossini, The Secret Unmasked is said to prove that in opera’s ‘domain of decadence and excess… confusions are essential’.

Equally fantastical is Terry Pratchett’s Maskerade, a parody of Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera set at the Opera House in Ankh-Morpork, Discworld, which as Pratchett admirers know, is a flat planet balanced on the backs of four elephants, which in turn stand on the back of a giant turtle. An opera house ghost commits murders as stage productions continue of such Discworld bread-and-butter repertory as Il Truccatore, The Ring of the Nibellungingung (shades of Kobbé’s choristers!), The Barber of Pseudopolis, Lohenshaak and La Triviata. Sometimes reminiscent of McCourt in its jocular wordplay, Maskerade is a nec plus ultra of operatic fictional imaginings.

Benjamin Ivry Read the full review on Agora Classica


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