Baker's Dictionary of Opera, edited by Laura Kuhn

October 1, 2000

operaBaker's Dictionary of Opera, edited by Laura Kuhn.  New York: Schirmer Books, 2000. xvii+1047 pp. ISBN 0028653491.

A quick search of library catalogues and Internet booksellers will uncover more than a dozen dictionaries of opera. What then would be the purpose of adding yet another volume to the list? More important, what truly unique features would make it more comprehensive, reliable, or indeed a more worthwhile investment than any of the others? Baker's Dictionary of Opera, edited by Laura Kuhn, is touted by its publisher, Schirmer Books, as a resource for "information on all aspects of opera." A casual perusal of the volume's contents seems to confirm this. In addition to biographies of personages in all manner of occupations (artistic as well as scholarly), there is a timeline of "famous operas"; a list of characters which, Kuhn notes, supplements information in the biographical entries and in a subsequent section of opera synopses; a section entitled "Grand Opera Houses of the World" which details, among other things, information about the buildings, seating capacities, and inaugural performances; and a glossary of operatic terms. However, this same information is available in any number of other references. What is unique about Kuhn's book is that it embodies the spirit of the late Baker's lexicographer Nicholas Slonimsky. In fact, many of the entries—save those which obviously post-date his death in 1995—are his, culled from his Lectionary of Music: An Entertaining Reference and Reader's Companion (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1989) and Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians (New York: Schirmer Books, 1992, 8th ed.). Others are reprinted from Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Twentieth-Century Classical Musicians (New York: Schirmer Books, 1997), also edited by Kuhn. Thus, this current book seems to represent a tradition crystallized in amber rather than a dynamic one which benefits from editing, revising, and correcting.

Although Kuhn supplied her own introduction to the Baker's twentieth-century volume, here she chose to allow Slonimsky, "the de facto father of the present edition," to "have the first word" (p. vii). While it may not be the case, Kuhn's silence suggests that there was no particular method, but rather a motive in preparing this bookto reorganize already-published material in order to eke out yet another Baker's. Worse yet, she allows Slonimsky to go without introduction, reprinting as the book's foreword his comments on opera from the Lectionary of Music. This tactic would be acceptable if all of this book's users are familiar with Slonimsky's unique style. However, students who will use this reference might know no better than to accept Slonimsky's word when he writes, "The United States has never been an operatic nation." This stereotypic view has been ably dispelled by studies published after the Lectionary which demonstrate what a significant role operatic music played in all facets of American life, especially in the nineteenth century. Other generalizations like "Italians were greatly adept as librettists"—what about the French? The Germans?—and "Fortunately, most of the victims [of mad scenes], practically all of them female, recover their sanity as soon as the dramatic situation improves" would amuse those accustomed to Slonimsky's entertaining prose; however, to the uninitiated, they give a skewed view of the truth.

Kuhn gives no justification for the selection of biographical entries, which have for the most part been taken verbatim from other Baker's volumes. For example, what connection to opera did Scottish countertenor John Abell have, since the entry indicates that his career revolved primarily around sacred and secular court music and specifically song? Nor is it made clear why German musicologist Walter Wiora, whose research appears to have been done on Volkslieder, is represented. Although most of the works lists have been edited for a volume which centers on opera, many entries have not. Only near the end of almost a full column of text on Johann Ladislaus Dussek and his importance as a keyboardist who "presaged the development of the Romantic school" is it noted that he composed the musical drama The Captive of Spilberg and incidental music for Sheridan's Pizarro. Because Kuhn provides no rationale for what types of stage music are included, the purpose of certain entries is unclear. Certainly George Gershwin called Porgy and Bess an opera and Andrew Lloyd Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar has been referred to as a "rock opera," but why reprint the entirety of their old entries, which deal almost exclusively with their musicals? Perhaps the gravest wrong is to submit readers to uncut reprints of Slonimsky's work. For example, before the word "opera" even appears in the two-page entry on Franz Liszt, there is a discussion of Liszt's "fantastic sexual powers" as portrayed in Ken Russell's film Lisztomania, "with a grotesquely extended male organ on which a bevy of scantily dressed maidens obscenely disported themselves." Eventually, mention is made of Liszt's connection to Wagner and of his "brilliant transcriptions" of operas, and finally of the fact that, "With the exception of Don Sanche, ou Le Château d'amour. . . , Liszt never wrote a full-fledged opera." Judicious trimming of previously-published entries, as well as consideration of recent research, would have allowed for the expansion of information on more significant figures such as Saverio Mercadante, one of the leading composers of early nineteenth-century Italian opera (even Slonimsky dubbed him "important"). In contrast to Liszt's, Mercadante's entry, again simply a Baker's reprint, covers almost a page, but the actual biography is given just over half a column. Even more ludicrous are the few inches of reprint on Giovanni Pacini, an equally significant contemporary of Mercadante. The composer of over eighty operas (his Saffo is included in the volume's "Time Line of Famous Operas"), his entry does not even merit a works list. Had Kuhn attempted to update entries, perhaps mistakes such as the erroneous listing of Emilio Pacini as Giovanni's brother could have been caught and corrected.

Small editorial inconsistencies trouble the rest of the book. Again with no comment by the editor, it is impossible to fathom why, in the "Time Line," some titles are first presented in English—such as The Barber of Seville (Il Barbiere di Siviglia)—while others are done in reverse fashion—Guillaume Tell (William Tell) and Der Fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman). Entries in the section entitled "Opera Synopses" often include no mention at all of plot details. While certain works such as Don Giovanni and Tosca are presented in short but fairly detailed sketches, others—usually lesser-known works about which a more informative entry would be welcomed—give minimal information. To cite an example, Luigi Rossi's Orfeo is only listed as a work "to a libretto after the classical legend" (with which ending?), even though it is "significant as the first Italian opera written expressly for a Paris production" (p. 1017). Although these sections provide engaging examples of Slonimsky's prose, their significance in this volume is often questionable, such as the overlong definition of "fiasco" in the glossary.

The section labeled "Grand Opera Houses of the World" seems arbitrary. Again, with no introductory material, it is difficult to know why these houses were selected for inclusion and others not. New Orleans's Theater for the Performing Arts, for example, is hardly a "grand opera house," but surely the Opera House at The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., could be considered so. The accompanying photos, all from one source, are equally unbalanced; some are views inside the theaters, others are outside shots. Still others offer strange angles which provide little or no information about the theaters at all: witness the view of a glass ceiling at England's Glyndebourne Opera House and the photo of the dome atop the Opéra National de Paris. Other photographs present problems of identification. While the pictures of the conductors are all adequately identified (although why picture Zubin Mehta playing the double bass!), those of singers and operatic scenes are not. At times the captions offer full information about singers, roles, and productions, yet often they only offer the opera's title. And then there is a curious photo labeled "Eddie Albert in stage makeup for Turandot." Could this be the same Eddie Albert of movies and television? What was his connection to opera? As he does not appear in the biographies, we may never know.

Baker's Dictionary of Opera is merely that—just another dictionary, no better than most of the others, and, in many ways, less praiseworthy. If the goal of the volume is to keep Slonimsky's work before our eyes in various guises, it meets the challenge. If, rather, the idea was to publish a truly comprehensive and up-to-date reference work, this Baker's misses the mark.

2963 Last modified on October 17, 2018