Daniel Snowman suggests in his introduction that most books on opera are musicological and pay only perfunctory attention to the social context, while most books on social or cultural history give rather short shrift to opera. This is certainly as good a one-volume survey of the social history of opera as one could wish for, frequently sparkling and full of pen-portraits and anecdotes. It is also beautifully and lavishly illustrated.
When opera began in Mantua in 1607 with Monteverdi's `Orfeo', it was an entertainment for courtiers; and although it retained this aspect for much of the 17th and 18th centuries, it was already very soon after its beginning that it also went outside the royal or princely courts. Opera houses were built in many cities and a wider public became involved, and so opera became commercial, first in Italy and soon all over Europe. Partly this was because operas have always been expensive to produce, and even princely patrons admitted the public to help them to defray at least part of the cost for something they enjoyed and that added to their renown. Composers were originally court servants - Haydn always dressed in the Esterhazy livery - but gradually they became either partly or mainly freelance. Snowman shows that Handel, though he received pensions from the Court, had much of his work paid for by public subscription; but it is Mozart whom Snowman credits with the breakthrough of leaving aristocratic employment and venturing to become freelance. This reflected a more exalted view by composers of their own status.
In any case the French Revolution struck a heavy blow at aristocratic patronage, at the same time as it changed the nature of the public (which actually began to behave more decorously during performances than had been the case in the past, with members of the audience often arriving late, chatting during the music, etc.)
In the 19th century orchestras and choruses became larger; the greatest singers, and later the greatest conductors, were given near god-like status as Art itself - and worship of Wagner's music - became a kind of religion. There is a fascinating chapter ("Prima la Donna") interpreting in social and psychological terms the opera-goers' reactions to the overheated drama that is so often portrayed on the stage.
By the middle of the 19th century opera, sometimes in truncated form, had spread to every continent, and touring companies of singers undertook the most arduous journeys to perform in the cities and even before rough gold diggers in America and Australia. Snowman gives plenty of space to the United States, and we have the story of the great opera houses in New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
But even opera in Thailand, Japan and South Korea gets a look in.
Snowman goes into all the hazards involved in opera production. There were financial risks (opera productions hardly ever brought in as much money as they cost); the rivalry of several opera houses in Paris, London, Prague and New York was fierce; and one of the most serious dangers in the 19th century were fires caused by gas lighting: virtually all the great opera centres in Europe suffered from some 11,000 major fires during the century: at the time the average life of a theatre was around 18 years.
Snowman is good at describing the impact of technological advances (recordings, broadcasting, film and television) had on bringing opera to an ever wider public, making the famous stars even more famous and interesting many more people to going to live performances. And the last chapter speculates on what technological advances there are likely to be in the future.
In the 19th century some operas had given expression to liberal and nationalist feeling, evading censorship by setting their plots in the distant past. During the First World War this nationalism would lead countries to ban operas, composers or performers from belligerents on the other side. There is an excellent passage about new works being staged during the Weimar Republic at the Kroll opera house, avant garde both in their music and in their staging, while in the early days of the Soviet Union familiar operas were being given new ideological interpretations. Afterwards, under Stalin, who took a personal interest in opera, any innovation was crushed and opera, like all the other arts, were put into a Socialist Realist strait-jacket which brooked no bourgeois `formalism'.
Hitler and Mussolini were also devotees of opera, and both were determined to make it serve their state and their ideology. Toscanini left Italy in disgust. In Nazi Germany the cult of the German genius in music culminated in the worship of Wagner, whose family were ardent Nazis. All Jewish composers, conductors and performers were dismissed. Some great figures like Klemperer, Ebert and Busch left of their own accord, and Snowman discusses the famous artists who stayed to serve the regime.
Ebert and Busch were later instrumental in the creation of Glyndebourne and contributed to that post-war renaissance of British world-class opera houses in which Covent Garden and Sadlers Wells, helped by government subsidies, also played such a major role.
In one of the last chapters Snowman shows how a canon of operas emerged: in the early days of opera, composers and opera houses were expected to produce many new works. Now, though new works are of course produced, the greatest and most frequent successes are the staging of a relatively small number of canonical works. These, however, are open to varied approaches, ranging from productions aiming at scholarly authenticity in the music (and in the language, too - which leads to an interesting discussion of surtitles) to radically unhistorical staging by innovative directors.
The last chapter shows how since the 1980s and 1990s governments in East and West have cut down drastically on subsidies to the arts in general and to opera in particular. Opera faces great challenges in the future, but Snowman feels it will adapt, as it has done throughout its history.