Rupert Christiansen

Keeping cool over Wagner

Opera has fallen out of fashion as a recreation of our humanist intellectuals. Even when I was an undergraduate in the mid- 1970s, the tide was beginning to turn in favour of the vacuous verbiage of Bob Dylan, whose soi-disant genius was being forcefully sponsored by Christopher Ricks. Nowadays, I imagine high-table chat is more absorbed by gangsta rap than Khovanschina.

But for the generations that span Isaiah Berlin and Roger Scruton, W. H. Auden and Susan Sontag, opera held powerful sway, with the focus on the complex case of Wagner, among the greatest of composers but a shit of a man. Typical of this breed is the late philosopher Bernard Williams, a long-serving board member of English National Opera and Provost of King’s College, Cambridge, an institution which has recently produced a richer crop of operatic talent than any of our conservatoires.

This slim volume of Williams’ essays, lectures and programme notes has been edited by his widow Patricia and furnished with a judicious introduction by the Spectator’s opera critic Michael Tanner, himself a Cambridge philosopher and perhaps one of the last of the line. It makes for a bitty and not very satisfying book, although it certainly raises several points of interest.

The major influence on Williams’ operatic outlook was Joseph Kerman’s Opera as Drama, published in 1956. In the manner of F. R. Leavis’ The Great Tradition, it established a firmly outlined canon of masterpieces, rooted in a demand for the integration of score and text, as well as a certain moral seriousness. The mature Mozart and Verdi, Boris Godunov, Tristan und Isolde and Wozzeck were in; Tosca (‘a shabby little shocker’, in his famous phrase) and kitschy Der Rosenkavalier were out. The list looks somewhat dated now: we feel that he didn’t give enough consideration to the baroque at one end of the historical spectrum, or Janacek and Britten at the other.

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