For me Christmas came early, when I got my hands on Simon Banks’ new book Opera: The Autobiography of the Western World. I mention that because this is the ideal gift for anyone you know who loves opera or who wants to learn more about the medium. It’s a perfect embellishment to decorate the coffee table.
The goal of Banks’ book is to examine how we find ourselves reflected in opera, literature and painting. These arts have been telling our story for centuries. Banks’ unlikely ambition is to summarize and paraphrase all of that into western culture’s life story: the history of the world.
I felt I need to put this preamble onto my review of the book concerning its goals, both because it is highly original (I was gob-smacked when I saw the table of contents) and fascinating in the execution. In passing I feel the need to observe how Banks is simultaneously studying opera, and writing a media history of the west, composed in words and images. This is a beautiful book, delightful to hold, full of pictures.
It fits nicely into a week when I’m obsessing about theatre history after seeing Red Velvet, a wonderful play reflecting on the discourse about our experiences in the theatre and its relationship to the world outside. I find the nerdy exploration of details in the background of a piece of theatre (operatic or otherwise) endlessly fascinating.
I should mention that I’ve seen other books with a clever concept, a unique pathway into the operas they study: where I was seduced by the concept, grabbed by the title: and then disappointed in how it was executed. In fact this also describes some opera productions I’ve seen, where the concept works for some scenes while failing in others. And so, while I quibbled momentarily against Bank’s bold pathway, I was hooked soon enough, especially by the combination of Banks’ analytical texts and the images he includes as corollary. Paintings portraying his subjects remind me of the smoking gun Banks would show us as evidence, as though from the scene of the crime.
It’s no surprise to discover that Banks has taught art history at the University of St Andrews, given the skillful matching of images to the essays. We’re thinking in multiple media, which is refreshing. I’ve written about inter-disciplinary and multi-disciplinary creators as the most exciting artists of our time. But opera has always been a hybrid, not just music, but theatre, design, drama, spectacle.
In the chapter on The French Revolution, for example, we see the above portrait, with the following caption:
“Putting political principle first: presumed painting of Lucile Desmoulins by Louis-Leopold Boilly of 1790. She loyally followed her husband Camille to the guillotine in 1794. Her self sacrifice is reimagined in the fictionalised heroines of Giordano’s ‘Andrea Chenier’ and ‘Massenet’s ‘Therese’. “
I’m reminded of something I saw as a teacher, that any subset of a discipline can become a lens for looking closer. Yes the study of film music shows you music: but it also offers you a new angle on film. A history of actors onscreen lets you study actors: but with a history of film as a kind of accidental by-product. Any of these lenses are useful, both in narrowing the purview (because the topic is too vast otherwise) and thereby offering a tighter focus. We go from generalization to the kind of specifics we need if there is to be proof.
Similarly with what Banks was doing, as he explains:
“There are two timescales in this book. Firstly there is a single historical narrative, one book-long journey through history beginning with the earliest mythological stories and moving onwards towards the present. Each chapter begins with a table listing clusters of related historical events. The 36 chapters are arranged in broadly chronological order.
But there is also a second timescale. Each of the 36 chapters takes its own mini-journey through the 400 year history of opera…”
So it’s not so odd that Banks’ history of opera ends up being the autobiography of our culture. It’s poetic and at the same time useful.
I don’t think it would be controversial for the writer seeking to tell the story of the 21st century to devote some of their time to examining how we reflect upon ourselves in television, film, music, social media. For the period from 1600 to 2000, before our modern mass media, we must rely on opera for that kind of reflection.
The history of the West was largely a transition from monarchies towards alternatives such as democracy or dictatorship. That narrative was sometimes dictated by the church or the state, the artists never as free to simply tell their story as what we often enjoy nowadays. No wonder then that opera functions as a kind of barometer, capturing both the aspirations for freedom and the various repressive frameworks against which artists were pushing.
So in other words Banks’ objectives are grand in the tradition of opera itself.
The plan of two time-scales suggests an inter-disciplinary approach, history & opera explaining and informing one another. I can imagine a graduate seminar, not quite sure whether it would more properly belong to or be taught by professors of “history” or “opera”, recognizing that at least for the time being, it would be more apt for the students of drama, music or art than history, even if I believe history students need this too.
There are a few caveats to mention. Opera in the purview of this book really means the text being set by a composer. We’re less concerned with singers or staging, and when we speak of composers we’re mostly using the composer to identify a work, even if the focus is mostly on the libretto, not the music.
As an opera enthusiast one might quibble with some of Banks’ choices. Why this opera and not that one? There are a great many operas in this book, not limited merely to the popular ones. I’m finding Banks’ book tremendous fun to explore, even as he raises some intriguing questions about history and historiography, that slippery question that underlines the relationship between the story being told and how you decide to study / tell that story.
It needs to be said that opera’s relationship to society was very different in the 20th century than before. I’ve often alluded to that seminal year 1927, when talkies are about to appear, when opera’s last popular works premiere. Before this time opera was popular, after this time, film becomes a far better litmus test for western culture. In blunt terms, opera has been on its death-bed since this time, only occasionally twitching since then. That 33 of 36 chapters in Banks’ book concern the period before 1900 is a perfect reflection of opera’s dwindling relevance in the 20th century. Opera isn’t dead, but comes to resemble a dim memory, a mere hobby rather than a preoccupation, an influence rather than a central element.
Banks’ prose does at times resemble an autobiography, flowing smoothly from opera to opera. The many pictures in the book literally illustrate Banks’ ideas, persuading us through another channel, additional evidence to underline what’s in the text.
It’s a perfect Christmas gift idea for the opera lover you know.
Who is Banks?
Simon Banks taught art history at the University of St Andrews and had a career in qualifications management with Cambridge Assessment. Since 2019 his publications include articles in Opera magazine and programme notes for Wexford Festival Opera.
And now he’s written a remarkable book. I suggest you find it and read it (here’s a useful link). While I don’t agree with every word, I know I’ll be coming back to it. It was fun reading.