Thursday, November 10, 2011

Opera for the Neophyte in War and Peace

Here's a three-way mashup: opera, literature, and research on the intertubes.
It's opera season in San Francisco, and while I'm not a full-season subscriber I see about half the season each year. This Fall I've seen SF Opera's productions of Puccini's Turandot and Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia. Handel's Xerxes is on deck for the coming week.

My grandma took my sister and me to see Carmen when we were kids. I might have been nine or ten years old, living in Chicago at the time. I don't remember much about it, except that one of the few tableaux of the day that remains in memory, of standing on the street outside the hall, has me pretty certain that the performance was at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. It would be another three decades or so until I reluctantly agreed to accompany my partner, a certifiable opera nut, to one performance, then another, and so on, and so on...

I had a hard time with the form at first. Where lyrics set to music is concerned I'm all about the words -- I admitted as much in Are you a lyrics person?, a post of April 2010. I paid attention to the stories in the operas I saw, and was distracted from the dramatic power of the scores by silly libretti, constrained acting, and often-overblown staging.

As I've mentioned a couple of times, I'm taking this year to read Tolstoy's War and Peace (Slow reading: Tolstoy's War and Peace, Tolstoy on 'hidden histories'). When I got to the author's rendering of an opera performance, in the point-of-view of young Natasha who is attending her first opera, I found it hilarious ... right in line with my early experience of the form.

Here's a glimpse, from Vol II., Part V., the opening of Chapter IX.:
The stage consisted of flat boards in the middle with painted pieces of cardboard on the sides representing trees, and canvas stretched over boards at the back. In the middle of the stage sat girls in red bodices and white skirts. One, very fat, in a white silk dress, sat apart on a low stool with a piece of green cardboard glued to the back of it. They were all singing something. When they finished their song, the girl in white went up to the prompter's box, and a man with tight silk breeches on fat legs, and with a feather and a dagger, came up to her and began singing and spreading his arms. 

The man in tight breeches sang alone, then she sang. Then they both fell silent, music began to play, and the man began to touch the hand of the girl in the white dress with his fingers, evidently waiting for the beat again so as to begin his part with her. They sang together, and everybody in the theater clapped and shouted, and the man and woman on stage, who represented lovers, began to bow, smiling and spreading their arms.
After the country, and with the serious mood she was in, Natasha found all this wild and astonishing. She was unable to follow the course of the opera; she could not even hear the music: she saw only painted cardboard and strangely dressed-up men and women, who moved, talked, and sang strangely in the bright light; she knew what it was all supposed to represent, but it was all so pretentiously false and unnatural that she first felt embarrassed for the performers, and then found them ridiculous. [...]

Tolstoy goes on like that for paragraphs.

You might wonder whether Tolstoy was describing an actual opera in the passage quoted above, a mid-19th century performance of a specific work. I did. Apparently I was far from the first. I did the usual search thing, and found a thread titled A "Contemporary's Impression of Opera on that informed me:
According to Joel Hewett, Verdi, Meyebeer, and Gounod were primary influences as was as Donizetti's La Fille du Regiment and probably a couple of Rossini and Bellini operas as well.

Sounded convincing. Sounded as though somebody did their homework.

Or did they?

I looked for Joel Hewett. Who is he? What did he really write?

I found was an abstract of an article in Vol 57, Issue 2 of Notes and Queries, from the Oxford Journals series in the Humanities, An Overlooked Source for the Opera Scene in Tolstoy's War and Peace. What the abstract tells us Joel Hewett said about Tolstoy's opera scene is this:

In a comprehensive survey of Tolstoy’s diaries and letters from 1856 to 1866 (preceding and during the writing of the novel), David Lowe concludes that the opera scene draws most heavily from works by Giuseppe Verdi, Charles Gounod, and Giacomo Meyerbeer, and that Tolstoy had attended only the following operas from which to draw inspiration: Donizetti’s La Fille du RĂ©giment ...

Hmmm ... my original source on was already a bit off. It wasn't Joel Hewett who made the assertion, it was David Lowe, cited by Hewett.

What else?

The full text of the article is not available to the public. But, by my association with UC Berkeley and the library privileges that come with employment, I was able to view the full article in the comfort of my own browser. In it, here's what Hewett himself says in making his article's principal point:
The list of works that Lowe and Rosen consider as possible sources for the opera scene is incomplete, however. Omitted from Lowe's catalogue and Rosen's content analysis is Mikhail Glinka's A Life for the Tsar, which Tolstoy attended in December 1864. [...] Tolstoy's boredom with the repetitive score of A Life for the Tsar and the insufficiently interesting audience may well have inspired the 'estranged' depiction of the opera's on-stage action.

Maybe the contributor to the thread didn't get further than the Hewett article's abstract.

And there you have it: the peril of hasty research, limited to the first thing or three you find at the top of a page of search engine results. It's way too easy to come up with a jumbled answer.

As I asked a few weeks ago, in Japan vs. United States in squishy numbers, what have you done lately to verify information found on the intertubes?

Thanks to Jaymi Heimbuch for sharing her photo of the chandelier in the San Francisco Opera House via Flickr.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Japan vs. United States in squishy numbers
Tolstoy on 'hidden histories'
Slow reading: Tolstoy's War and Peace
Are you a lyrics person?


  1. Hi, and many thanks for this article - it seems to be the one and only on this matter on the Internet! Sorry for my sloppy English, it's not my native language. I'm still wondering what opera was described in War & Peace. May I ask you, if you've found the right answer? Thank you, I'm so excited to find you! :)

    1. Hello Sasha. As my blog suggests based on what I found written by someone who has dug deeper into this question than I have, it seems that the opera described through Natasha's naive point of view in War and Peace was not any single, particular opera, but seems to be a pastiche of Giuseppe Verdi, Charles Gounod, and Giacomo Meyerbeer, and Mikhail Glinka. The short article I cite suggests that Mikhail Glinka's "A Life for the Tsar," which Tolstoy attended in December 1864, might be the opera from which the scenes are most directly drawn. I don't know that opera myself. Thanks for visiting!

    2. Steve,
      Another source: an academic at Columbia believes it to be a single opera, Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable. Check it out: