Divas and Scholars by Philip Gossett

Perhaps more than any other musical genre, opera results from the confluence of multiple (sometimes conflicting) contributions. Given the rise of interest in Bruce Latour’s “actor-network theory” and associated points of view, we might be tempted to say that this is equally true of every artistic production. What, the author of Art Worlds Howard S. Becker muses, would Thackeray’s novels have amounted to had his servant not brought him coffee every morning at the appointed hour? The so-called “work” is not the product simply of a single artist but always involves the often unpredictable influence and compliance (even compliance through resistance) of countless other figures. All art is a joint production.

Be that as it may, few genres depend so fundamentally upon the contributions of such a diverse assortment of professionals of different types as does opera. Some of these contributions are of an artistic nature (the composer, the librettist, the modern stage director) while others derive from more pragmatic concerns (the impresario hoping to guarantee impressive revenue, the modern director of an opera house who must ensure that patrons are able to leave the theater at a reasonable hour given that they have to work the next day) but all concerns must be taken into account and somehow reconciled if a production is to even get off of the ground much less turn out to be successful (by whatever criterion one might gauge success here). That such reconciliation is no easy feat, that it involves seemingly endless wrangling and haranguing and (in the end) pragmatic compromise is demonstrated amply by Philip Gossett’s new monograph, Divas and Scholars: Performing Italian Opera issued by the University of Chicago Press.

Despite the title, there is precious little here about divas aside from repeated encomiums for Gossett’s favorite mezzo Marilyn Horne and multiple digs at soprano Beverly Sills. The reason behind Gossett’s ire with regard to Sills would seem to derive from a rather unfortunate encounter they once had in the press surrounding a 1975 New York Metropolitan Opera production under Thomas Schippers of Rossini’s L’assedio di Corinto that featured both Sills and Horne. Rossini originally wrote the opera as Maometto II for Naples in 1820. He later used the work as the basis for his first French opera Le Siège de Corinthe and this opera was then translated back into Italian as L’assedio di Corinto. The Schippers production was neither Maometto nor the 1822 revision of that opera, nor Le Siège. Rather it was an amalgamation of the various versions plus another piece written for the opera by another composer. Although related, Maometto and Le Siège are quite different operas that make strikingly different dramaturgical and musical demands.

The Schippers production thus presented the monstrosity Horace excoriates in the opening of his Ars Poetica: part one thing and part another, it was neither fish nor fowl. Gossett gave a lecture at the New York Public Library the night prior to the opening in which he expressed his views concerning the aesthetic and historical failings of such an approach. Sills responded in an interview with the following caustic aside: “I think some so-called musicologists are like men who talk constantly of sex and never do anything about it”.

This is, of course, a telling (if somewhat tired) remark: those who can do, those who can’t teach. Although in a footnote Gossett questions whether or not the comment was meant specifically for him, the insult seems to have stung. And indeed one might suspect that this book is an extended rebuttal to Sills’s snide remark. Far from admitting to impotence, Gossett attempts to demonstrate that his efforts and those of his scholarly colleagues have laid the groundwork for a renaissance of the performance of the music of the Primo Ottocento (the Italian music of the first half of the 19th century). Gossett has a clear score to settle here. He has been accused of empty erudition for many decades by assailants ranging from conductors who fall prostrate before the altar of a false “tradition”, divas drunk on their own egos, and music critics salivating for a clever opening line for a review. This monograph is Gossett’s eloquent reply.

In this endeavor, Gossett has little patience for divas (his comments concerning Samuel Ramey and Sills are ample witness to that) but certainly he is determined to clarify the role of the scholar in operatic productions. Perhaps no one is better qualified to do so. As the general editor of both The Works of Giuseppe Verdi and The Critical Edition of the Works of Gioachino Rossini, Professor Gossett has been one of the central figures in the scholarly effort to produce a series of critical editions (editions that carefully scrutinize the manuscript and printed sources in order to reproduce the most reliable text possible — we will return to the question of what “reliable” means in this context) for Italian operas of the 19th century and he here emerges as an eloquent spokesman on their behalf.

Divas and Scholars is, in the final analysis, an extended apologia for these editions and their role in past, present, and future theatrical productions. (One might think such a lengthy apologia unnecessary and while Gossett allows that such may be the case in the United States, he insists that a defense of his position is still necessary in an Italy still bound by the putatively illegitimate practices of the early twentieth century.) This book attempts to come to grips with the sometimes rather fraught intersection between the scholarly ideal and the practical exigencies of the stage. Thus it enacts what might properly be called a “practical or applied musicology”.

Gossett’s personal involvement in the effort of realizing performances based on these critical editions is what gives rise to the book’s most rewarding and most frustrating aspects; it is his passion for the attempt to realize historically plausible (if not authentic) modern performances that engages the reader. But this all-enveloping passion also makes portions of the narrative feel like a private communion with the author’s past. This is a book founded upon the rich experience of an important career and if, at times, the accretion of minutia seems to outweigh the point being made, one should be sympathetic to the need to make an account of a life dedicated to a genre that the musical elite often treats with supercilious disdain and advocates of popular music view as the height of snobbery. Opera can’t get a break from most people; Gossett loves this music and he wants to ensure its longevity.

The book opens with a short preface that immediately communicates the author’s love for opera, discovered in his youth through the Metropolitan Opera’s radio broadcasts and culminating in his sneaking into a Bayreuth festival performance of Die Walküre by locking himself in a backstage bathroom stall. From the beginning, we are aware that this is a personal story of dedication — perhaps, in this case, bordering on the obsessive. Gossett then initiates the main body of Divas and Scholars with a prologue that briefly examines specific difficulties that arose in several productions during the summer of 2000 — some of these productions involved Gossett while others did not — in order to expose the various questions that must be answered when producing early 19th-century Italian opera; the remainder of the book attempts to provide Gossett’s considered answers to those questions. Throughout, Gossett maintains a balance between idealistic desires to remain faithful to the texts as left by the composers and the practical demands of the theater and the audience. Indeed, he registers some slight pessimism with regard to the latter: “And how does one decide between several desiderata? If 95 per cent of the public can’t tell what musical edition is being used, but everyone is pleased when just a little more gold paint is applied to the set, how do you spend your limited resources?”

Part I of the book, “Knowing the Score”, investigates sundry issues that arise in the preparation of a critical edition of an operatic work. Aside from his eminently practical considerations with respect to such editorial projects, Gossett provides the reader with an astoundingly precise and concise overview of the work-a-day practices of theaters and opera composers. Here we learn about the working relationships between composers and their librettists, detailed information concerning the intricacies of Italian poetic meters and their importance for understanding the operas as aesthetic and historical objects, as well as the specific use of paper and the sketching process of individual composers. Although much of this material can be found in other sources, I have never seen it presented so succinctly or so well. Doubtless these chapters will soon figure as required reading for all students seeking to understand the social practices of 19th century Italian opera.

All of this is in the service of demonstrating the vital need for a serious reconsideration of the sources in order to produce a workable new edition. Operas simply were not printed in full orchestral score during the first half of the 19th century in Italy. The theater that owned the manuscript score (until relatively late in the century it was the theater and not the composer that owned the rights to the scores) would rent the materials to other venues or, more often, would arrange to have the performance materials copied for a fee. Thus the same opera might exist in various copies in numerous locations throughout Europe; every copy presents the opportunity for errors to creep into the scores. Furthermore, theaters had no compunction against modifying a work (at times to a rather extreme degree) in order to fit the tastes of their audiences, or to make the opera more suitable to the singers that they had at their disposal. At this time, the singers were the most important figures throughout all aspects of a production. If a prima donna did not find an aria particularly suitable to her voice, she had it altered. If she thought it would not produce the desired effect, she simply eliminated it and replaced it with another aria — often an aria written for another opera by another composer altogether. The dramatic situation portrayed in the aria need not necessarily reconcile itself to the narrative of the opera — dramaturgical continuity and the integrity of an artist’s work was not the primary consideration here. Depending on where a scholar locates the score of the opera being studied, it is possible to get a very different idea of what constituted what we would now consider the work.

But that is precisely the problem and it is one that clearly vexes Gossett and one that he strives hard to untangle. The notion of staying true to the work (the notion of Werktreue, the development of which Lydia Goehr carefully traces in her influential The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works) simply did not exist for the theatrical worldview of 19th century Italy to anywhere near the degree to which we feel it today. Gossett attempts to demonstrate that this concept arose as an emergent discourse within the operatic world under consideration but even if one is convinced by his demonstration (and I cannot say that I am entirely) this emergent notion had little impact on the way that these operas were actually produced and received at the time. This is an age when patrons would go to hear the same opera repeatedly on successive nights. They did not, as we do today, sit in a darkened theater and listen with the utmost concentration. They chatted, gambled, ate food, and wandered about the theater. Opera of the 19th century was more akin to a modern day baseball game than an evening at the Metropolitan.

However, the work of a critical edition is to establish a text and to provide those attempting to produce an opera with the most reliable version possible of the opera. If an opera was not necessarily a “work” as such in the 19th century, it must be considered so now if one wants a text to perform. The guiding force here, of course, is the work done by the actual composer — whether that work was executed prior to the first production or it was accomplished in the course of preparing that premiere and later revivals. When a composer provided multiple conflicting versions of a portion of an opera (which happened quite often), the editor must look to historical and aesthetic factors in order to determine what reading to represent in the edition. The editor, according to Gossett, endeavors to understand the social systems that underwrite performances but in the end “the critical editions continue to recognize the composer as the central figure in the Italian operatic landscape and to seek where possible to reproduce his voice as fully and accurately as possible”.

All of this would seem fairly unobjectionable with regard to the preparation of scores. However, Gossett does not limit his purview to the rendering of a critical edition but rather devotes the majority of the book to the issues involved in bringing a rendition of that edition to the stage. After an “Intermezzo” that introduces his main concern (“What happens at the point of intersection between scholarship, with its effort to develop accurate texts and to provide precise historical knowledge, and performance?”) Notice Gossett doesn’t feel obligated to elucidate what the goals of performance are or should be), the author launches into the expansive second part of the monograph, “Performing the Opera”. Here Gossett devotes himself to issues ranging from choosing an appropriate version, making cuts, ornamentation (singers of this period traditionally ornamented repetitions of phrases), transposition, translation, instrumentation, and staging.

Setting aside for a moment the issue of staging, Gossett recommends that all practical decisions involving alteration to the score as precisely written (or at least as precisely represented in the critical edition) should involve considerations dependent upon what he posits as a “three-dimensional grid of aesthetic criteria, historical circumstances, and practical conditions”. In the final analysis, however, Gossett’s recommendations amount to one basic precept: make no change to the work that would not have been countenanced by the composer himself. If you make cuts, then follow the cuts made by the composer or at the very least make cuts comparable to those allowed by the composer. Ornamentation should conform to 19th century standards. When an opera company needs to choose a version of the opera, they would best be served by selecting a version with which the composer was directly involved. While it might be “possible to concern oneself with the historical problem of how successive generations have modified a musical text”, Gossett assures us in a footnote, “few, if any, would urge us to allow the perceived necessities of London performers in 1821 to guide our behavior in mounting Mozart’s opera today”. One might indeed ask why not. It seems to me that it might be rather fascinating to experience Figaro more or less as performed in 1821 London and since opera is realized as an ephemeral theatrical production and emphatically not an instantiation of some eternally valid abstract (quasi-Platonic) work that somehow exists over and above each of its performances, we might hasten to suggest that it matters little which Figaro we hear so long as it is effective.

But there is the rub. For Gossett, the issue of effectiveness is ultimately secondary to the issue of fidelity. Performing the London 1821 Figaro is not performing Mozart’s Figaro (whatever that might actually be) and is therefore, at best, a questionable practice. He repeatedly insists that there are no absolutes, that “no moral code can be invoked” when dealing with issues of performance practice and yet time and again he employs such locutions as conductor X’s approach to making cuts denatured the composer’s work or soprano Y’s gesture falsified the composer’s intention. Such vocabulary necessarily carries the weight of a moral injunction. While I do not advocate doing whatever we want with these texts, I do think that a greater degree of latitude is not only desirable but also necessary if we want to rejuvenate interest in this particular artform.

On the surface, Gossett would seem to agree, going so far to at times make the rather dubious suggestion that the box office receipts can be an accurate guide to success (dubious because it can hardly be reconciled with the general drift of his argument). But despite such gestures, Gossett takes a fairly strong stand against meddling with the composer’s music. The problem comes down to the issue of definition. If we consider Rosini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia to be precisely that music written by (or at least sanctioned directly by) Rossini — as it is clearly necessary to do when preparing an edition but may not be when staging a performance — then performing music not sanctioned by Rossini is simply to not perform Il barbiere. But if performing Il barbiere is something fuzzier and less Werktreue, as Gossett eloquently demonstrates was the case historically, then it seems less clear that we need necessarily be so limiting in our choices.

When it comes to staging, Gossett is (perhaps surprisingly) rather lax. He seems willing to tolerate both what he calls “displaced” stagings (where the basic dramatic structure remains unaltered but the temporal or spatial location has been changed) and “radical” stagings (where the stage director takes sometimes rather extreme liberties with the scenario). At least allowing “displaced” stagings was a pragmatic stance throughout the majority of the years of our renewed interest in this repertory. But now that our historical understanding of 19th century stage practice has advanced, I am somewhat surprised that Gossett does not strive to ensure fidelity to that integral aspect of these operatic texts. Perhaps it is owing to his disciplinary commitments: as a musicologist, Gossett’s primary concern is with the music; the staging is a secondary aspect.

The quibbles noted above do little to mar this excellent book. Divas and Scholars is well-researched, well-argued, and well-written. It is a book, however, written primarily for the initiated. If you do not already love Primo Ottocento opera, this book will not tell you why you should. It will, however, provide lovers of Verdi, Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti with a marvelous understanding of their working conditions, the process of preparing an opera (both in the 19th century and today), the historical knowledge that may illuminate these works, and a compelling argument for listening carefully to these works — always with fresh ears and open minds.