Michael Tanner

But is it any good?

Writing to his friend and fellow-author William Dean Howells in 1907 about the Prefaces to the New York edition of his novels, Henry James said, ‘They are, in general, a sort of plea for Criticism, for Discrimination, for Appreciation on other than infantile lines — as against the so almost universal Anglo-Saxon absence of these things; which tends so, in our general trade, it seems to me, to break the heart.’

Happily for him, he wasn’t at all interested in music, or specifically in opera, otherwise his heart might have broken a long time before it did. For there isn’t much writing about opera which even pretends to be criticism, if that means a disciplined account of the nature and achievement of individual operas, in the light of a first-hand response to them, and of a general view of what opera, as opposed to other art-forms, is capable of achieving, and what are its limitations. Criticism of any of the arts is a demanding affair, and in the case of opera there are so many ways of avoiding it for something easier.

Obviously the simplest way out is to live from performance to performance, merely comparing one with another. In the old days, it would be a matter of comparing singers and conductors, and leaving it at that; now it is the much more luxuriant matter of what the ‘Concept’ of the production was like, so that any actual criticism is not of the opera concerned, but of the way it is presented. Of course you might say that it isn’t possible to make adverse remarks about a director’s view of a work unless you have an alternative view of what the work is about, but that would be too simple. 

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