BOOK REVIEW: When the Fat Lady Sings  Opera history as it ought to be taught by David W. Barber with illustrations by Dave Donald Preface by Maureen Forrester  Published by Sound and Vision $12:95 ISBN 920151-11-6



This is, in my opinion, a very strange book. The title is clearly directed at people who have some degree of interest in opera, or perhaps may be tempted to buy it as a gift for a friend who is interested in opera. And yet the book is unremittingly hostile to opera itself, the composers who write it and, presumably by association, the  purchasers of this book.

The format consists of a chronologically ordered rag-bag collection of historical and biographical facts, which in the interests of charity I will assume have been accurately researched. These are interspersed with the author's opinions and asides presented in a relentlessly facetious, and sarcastically jokey manner, presumably intended to amuse, but which for me, failed dismally.

Now normally I subscribe to the view that if you don't like it, don't review it. I also have considerable respect and sympathy for all authors, and therefore hoped that the reading experience would be entertaining and, in view of the title, insightful. Therefore, when at first I found irritation rather than pleasure, I attributed the shortcoming to myself, and simply put the book down to be reappraised at a more propitious time.

Several attempts later, despite finding that the irritation was consistent in its presence, but increasing in magnitude, I decided, mistakenly as it transpired, to grit my teeth and carry on to the bitter end, still in the desperate hope that somewhere some redeeming feature was to be found.

Sadly there was none that I could perceive, other than that, in his dedication of the book the author lists a number of composers, all of whom "knew better than to write any operas" (my italics).

It can reasonably be claimed therefore, that Mr. Barber has honestly nailed his colours to the mast from the very outset, so perhaps we had been warned. But who reads dedications before buying a book? Not me, although I will in future.

The reason that I have made an exception to my rule of not reviewing the disagreeable is, I believe, justified by Mr Barber's complete lack of compunction about blatantly slagging-off a host of composers from Bellini to Wagner, none of whom are around to defend themselves, and many of whose operas have stood the test of time and, undoubtedly, given great pleasure to generations of music lovers, including myself.

I also feel that having endured his particular opus right through to the bitter end, I have earned the right to get my own back.

In fairness to him, the book contains glowing references from Maureen Forrester and Anna Russell, ladies whose musical stature is considerable, whereas I, to put it mildly, have none.

However, what damns this book irretrievably in my view, is its complete lack of humility, tolerance, or affection for its victims and, unlike the august ladies mentioned above, for me, it contains less wit than a custard-pie routine.

Don't take my word for it. Just be sure to sample before buying; almost any paragraph should suffice.

As a final aside, I find it interesting but somewhat inconsistent that he is quoted in the Author's Note as wishing that could claim kinship with the excellent Samuel Barber. This is a composer whose music I, among many, enjoy greatly, but whose all too brief output did include, dare I say it....operas.


David Dyer


David Dyer

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