The New Grove Dictionary of Opera

When a dictionary of opera is, on the one hand, the work of 1300 scholarly specialists and, on the other hand, offered as the prize for the best question of the year on the Met's opera quiz, it hardly needs to be said that its appearance transforms the experience of learning about opera, for learners at all levels, in one stroke. That dictionary is The New Grove Dictionary of Opera (Stanley Sadie, editor; Christina Bashford, managing editor; 4 vols.; London: Macmillan Press, and New York: Grove's Dictionaries of Music, 1992)

That isn't to say that fine dictionaries of opera have been lacking before; furthermore, for readers of German there is an even larger opera dictionary in the works. Because the field is so full, in fact, the main task in reviewing Opera Grove is to ask how it replaces other works and what room it still leaves for them. Beyond that, the appearance of Opera Grove, announced by Stanley Sadie as the last of four multivolume offshoots from The New Grove Dictionary (Preface, 1/vii), provides an opportunity to assess the influence of dictionary-writing on the whole discipline of music, where it has always played an incomparably greater role than in, say, the discipline of literature.

What does Opera Grove include in its survey of opera? Its authors take the term opera to "mean, primarily, a work belonging to the genre that arose in Italy about 1600" (Preface, 1/ix). That means that consideration is not given to non-Western forms of musical drama or to certain Western forms, like ballet, and only cursory attention is given to others, like the Broadway musical. You can read about the importance of Showboat or Cats in Andrew Lamb's article on the "Musical" and in articles on the composers, but to find plot summaries of those shows you have to turn to a reference book about musicals or to Opera Groves's German competitor, Pipers Enzyklop├Ądie des Musiktheaters, which gives uniform coverage to opera, operetta, musical, and ballet. (Most of the volumes on individual works in Pipers have already appeared, but not the volumes on other subjects.) One can only dream about a dictionary that would deal as Opera Grove does with the musical theater of the whole world, or of one that would treat musical and nonmusical theater as one subject.

The specialized expertise of 1300 contributors has been enlisted in Opera Grove principally to create the entries on individual composers and operas. These entries need to be used together: the composer entries have much of the information about the creation of individual works, along with reference lists covering both the composers and their operas; the work entries have plot summaries and, especially for major works, analytical and critical commentary. Plot summaries are a humble service, but the study of opera can't go on without them, and with so many expert summaries available in one place, we can now discard many books that have stories of the best-loved operas, as well as books that locate summaries of the less-loved operas.

Grove dictionaries have always been praised especially for their coverage of individuals: composers, performers, places, and organizations. Opera Grove expands that list with entries on individual operas, librettos (when, as in the case of Metastasio's, the same text was set many times), and often-used subjects. It also devotes many entries to individual librettists, impressarios, patrons, set designers, stage directors, and others who make operas happen.

In a more general sense, Opera Grove can be praised for treating opera as a form of theater, not just as a body of "sacred" texts. This outlook is apparent especially in the general articles dealing with facets of performance: sumptuously illustrated entries on Production, Stage Design, Costume, Theatre Architecture, Lighting, and Orchestra, along with entries on Recording, Film, Radio, and Television, and others on Travelling Troupes, Rehearsal, even Playbill, Prompter, and Claque. These articles are among the special delights of the dictionary; every facet of operatic performance has its history, and Opera Grove gives us a way -- sometimes the only way to learn about it.

Like the Oxford English Dictionary, in fact, Opera Grove is very much a dictionary "on historical principles": it is much less concerned with definitions, even in entries on operatic terms, than with the history of practice that defeats any simple definitions. The historical bent of the editors is obvious in the part of the dictionary you notice first: in Opera Grove, far more than in older opera dictionaries or so far in Pipers , the illustrations of operas are drawn from first productions or other early sources. These images of first nights (assembled by Illustrations Editors Elisabeth Agate and Helen Ottaway) have a power like nothing else to make your feeling of familiarity with a masterpiece fall suddenly away.

The character of the dictionary can perhaps be summarized by observing that its keystone is not the short entry on "Opera," but the long one on "Italy." For Bernard Williams, charged with defining "The nature of opera" (in a subentry of "Opera"), the concentration of the whole dictionary on a single tradition was hampering. It is hard to imagine that if he had compared that tradition to non-Western and earlier Western traditions of musical drama, he would have failed to make any mention of the orchestra, since nothing distinguishes Western opera so clearly as the discrete role it gives to the instruments in the representation of speech. On the other hand, the genius of Sadie's editorship shows in his enlisting of the most sophisticated scholar in the business, Lorenzo Bianconi, to tackle what might have been one of the most mundane entries in the dictionary, "Italy." Bianconi comes at his subject from every angle -- conception, production, and consumption, treated systematically, historically, and analytically -- and the result is breathtaking.

The dictionary as a whole is not so balanced. The authors of articles on modes of interpretation and questions of reception (Allegory, Analysis, Criticism, Sociology of opera) were not given space for the full surveys and bibliographies that their subjects merit. (The entry on "Sociology of opera," for instance is smaller than the one on "Seating.") It might be claimed that these subjects don't lend themselves readily to dictionary treatment. Whether that is true seems to me a question given urgency by the continuing vitality of musical dictionary-writing, a vitality that Opera Grove exemplifies. As music scholars continue to address the public to a considerable degree in dictionary format, we need to consider how to give equal standing to subjects that, for whatever reason, have never had much place in our dictionaries.

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Last modified on Tuesday, 07/05/2013

James Parakilas

James Parakilas, a music scholar with a doctorate from Cornell University, teaches courses on music history and culture, music theory, and performance. He plays the piano, often in chamber groups with students and colleagues, and coaches student chamber groups. His scholarly publications include the books Ballads Without Words: Chopin and the Tradition of the Instrumental Ballade (Amadeus Press, 1992), Piano Roles: 300 Years of Life with the Piano (Yale University Press, 2000; paperback, 2002), and the textbook The Story of Opera (forthcoming from W. W. Norton). In 2010-2011, under a Phillips Faculty Research Fellowship, he studied recent research in psychology, neuroscience and other fields that is prompting new understandings of the nature of music.

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