Michael Halliwell reviews 'The Politics of Opera: A History from Monteverdi to Mozart' by Mitchell Cohen

Michael Halliwell reviews 'The Politics of Opera: A History from Monteverdi to Mozart' by Mitchell Cohen

The Politics of Opera: A History from Monteverdi to Mozart

by Mitchell Cohen

Princeton University Press (Footprint), $84.99 hb, 512 pp, 9780691175027

Michael Halliwell

Michael Halliwell

Michael Halliwell studied music and literature at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, and at the London Opera Centre.


A major new exhibition opened at the end of September at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London: Opera: Passion, Power and Politics. The first of the three qualifying terms needs little explanation as a potential subject; as the title of Peter Conrad’s book A Song of Love and Death (1987) has it, opera is popularly seen as the supreme dramatic embodiment of passion in its various forms. The art form evolved in the city courts of Mantua and Florence in late Renaissance Italy, with the first public opera houses appearing in republican Venice in the 1630s. Opera has never completely lost its connection to centres of power and influence, however egalitarian its later intentions. This is made manifest in many European cities, where pride of place is given to an opera house as a display of royal or civic authority and prestige. And not only in Europe, but the saga surrounding the opera houses that were situated in three different locations on the island of Manhattan tell us much about the society of the city, so eloquently articulated in the fiction of Henry James and Edith Wharton. The case for Sydney needs no explanation. The Janus face of power is, of course, politics, and opera has always been imbrued with the political.

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