Michael Halliwell reviews 'The Oxford Handbook of Opera' edited by Helen M. Greenwald

Michael Halliwell reviews 'The Oxford Handbook of Opera' edited by Helen M. Greenwald

The Oxford Handbook of Opera

edited by Helen M. Greenwald

Oxford University Press, $211 hb, 1216 pp, 9780195335538

Orpheus – composer and singer of his own song – is regarded as the founding figure of opera. One of the most arresting images of Orpheus is of his death – his dismembered head on his lyre floating down a river, still singing. Opera’s history is dogged by its own death wish; the art form has been pronounced dying, or even dead almost from its inception, yet zombie-like it refuses to die, and like Orpheus’s head, its song continues. Despite frequently being written off as nothing more than an art form belonging in a museum, more opera is being performed than ever before, and technological advances in the last hundred years have radically changed the way opera is consumed. In time, opera houses – temples or museums – might well disappear, but the art form still continue to flourish.

If opera has been in a constant state of dying, then the fundamental feature of this lengthy demise is the contest between words and music. ‘In the beginning was the word’, and premised on the centrality of the word has been a continuous dialectic between word and music, the successful operas achieving a unique synthesis. In almost biblical terms, every great operatic reform movement has argued the need to return to its founding principle in the word, but music has proven to be an overwhelming foe.

The history of opera spans more than four hundred years, and The Oxford Handbook of Opera almost matches the length of the subject, weighing in at well over a thousand pages. During the last twenty or more years, opera has become the site of a wide range of scholarly activity; Lydia Goehr in her chapter, ‘The Concept of Opera’, presents a broad-ranging overview of the territory, arguing that a history ‘may be written from different disciplinary and interdisciplinary standpoints’, including ‘genre, or opera’s relation to the individual arts, or on its constituent media, means, technologies … or on opera’s contribution to ideas such as work, genius or virtuosity; singing, diction, or acting; performativity, dramaturgy or theatricality’. She suggests that one may write opera’s history ‘along the lines of myth, religion, humanism, or secularization’, or in terms that reveal ‘the changing status of composers, performers, singers critics, and audiences’.

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Published in August 2015, no. 373
Michael Halliwell

Michael Halliwell

Michael Halliwell studied music and literature at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, and at the London Opera Centre. He has sung in Europe, North America, South Africa, and Australia, and was principal baritone for many years with the Netherlands Opera, the Nürnberg Municipal Opera, and the Hamburg State Opera. He has sung over fifty major operatic roles.

He has published widely in the field of music and literature and is Vice President and Editorial Board Member of The International Association for Word and Music Studies (WMA). His book, Opera and the Novel, was published by Rodopi Press in 2005. He is working on a book: Myths of National Identity in Contemporary Australian Opera (2016). Currently on the staff at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, he has served as Chair of Vocal Studies and Opera, Pro-Dean and Head of School, and Associate Dean (Research). He has recently premièred Lawrence Kramer's song cycles, Five Songs and an Epilogue from The Wings of the Dove (Edinburgh), Nine Songs to Ezra Pound (Vienna), Crossing the Water (Santa Fe), and Sounds and Silences (London).

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