There have been many histories of opera. Most of them focus on the development of the genre from primarily a musicological perspective. In The Gilded Age: A Social History of Opera Daniel Snowman does something different. He looks at opera as a social and commercial phenomenon. Taking a broad sweep from late 16th century Florence to the Met’s “Live in HD” broadcasts, he looks at who attended the opera, how much they paid and what they expected from the experience. He looks at the always vexed question of who subsidised the opera; for ticket sales have very rarely covered costs. He analyses the entrepreneurs and bureaucrats who ran the opera houses. Of course, he looks at singers; where they came from, how much power they had and how much they were paid. It’s an intriguing and comprehensive analysis well worth slogging through over 400 pages plus apparatus.
I learned some interesting things along the way. I was particularly fascinated by how the role and influence of the various players have changed over the years. The librettist, once king, is now a relatively minor figure. Singers, who for a brief period pretty much dictated how works were performed, are now very much subordinate to conductors and directors. And so on. The section on the long transition from opera being about new works to opera being largely a canon of established works by dead composers is also a good read. Perversely it’s also quite reassuring to learn that throughout its history opera has been a precarious endeavour, always somehow scrambling to keep going.
Snowman’s conclusion is bittersweet. He points out that in the early 21st century more people are watching opera, in more places, via more media than ever before. It has never been so popular. Yet, paradoxically, it has never been so reviled as “elitist”. It’s an easy target for the Murdoch press and its poisonous friends to the point where in many countries it’s political death to be seen at the opera and opera, like the other arts, is a soft target for those seeking to monetize every aspect of human society.