Lee Langley

Sounding a different note

Midsummer Nights, edited by Jeanette Winterson

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Midsummer Nights

Jeanette Winterson (editor)

Quercus, pp. 329, £

What is inspiration and how does it work? Music and literature have a long record of mutual nourishment: Beethoven inspired Tolstoy who inspired Janacek, and each Kreutzer Sonata was different; miraculously rich and strange.

Jeanette Winterson, inspired by Glyndebourne’s 75th anniversary, has asked some distinguished fellow-writers each to produce a work inspired by an opera. The result is Midsummer Nights — 19 short stories, plus Posy Simmonds illustrating the Glyndebourne experience with wry affection. Edited by Winterson, who also provides a story of passion and Puccini, the book offers a glimpse of how the inspirational and the creative juices interact. The brief was clear: ‘Choose an opera, and from its music or its characters, its plot or its libretto, or even a mood evoked, write a story.’ My, how differently a brief can be interpreted!

Some authors take a chosen opera and reconstruct it, changing time or place to suit their needs. Kate Atkinson updates La Traviata to the world of Hello! magazine, Alfredo now a star-struck Royal, Violetta’s fatal consumption replaced by superstar substance-abuse. Jackie Kay reopens The Makropulos Case by revealing how its heroine became immortal, shape-shifting through the centuries, to embody folk-singer, diva and a jazz queen named Ella.

In Colm Tóibín’s Freedom, the surface seems sunny enough, but beneath lies something darker: the narrator re-encounters the gay lover of his youth, now married, and recalls the school performance of The Pearl Fishers where it all began, the fierce sexuality they shared. Meeting again there is wine and wit, but behind the smiling banter is an open wound, for one of them at least. The Kingsley Amis poem got it right: ‘Sex is a momentary itch, love never lets you go.’

Spirit of place is central to Andrew Motion, interweaving a performance of Peter Grimes with an East Anglian family tragedy; Eugene Onegin inspired Andrew O’Hagan’s glittering literary elegy; Marina Warner exhorts us to forget Virgil and Purcell’s Dido, offering a very different love story in its place. And Alexander McCall Smith provides a take on Cosí fan Tutte that sweetens the underlying bitterness of the original, without losing its spirit.

Intriguingly mingling fact and fiction, Sebastian Barry creates a touching and believable picture of John McCormack’s unforgettable experience performing Victor Herbert’s Natoma to a New York audience who loathed it (true) and (possibly?) some Blackfoot Indians who were so appreciative they invited the singer to Montana and made him one of the tribe. ‘You have to work just as hard to achieve a failure as a success. Sometimes the gods will simply fly away,’ Barry’s McCormack comments at one point. There are a few tales in the collection where the gods have failed to linger; and in some cases the operatic link is tenuous indeed.

Happily Paul Bailey has revived the eponymous hero of his 2002 novel, Uncle Rudolf for a poignant and evocative story, ‘The Empty Seat’, which resonates with the sorrows, the losses and the horror that spread across Europe through the Thirties. It’s a story inspired by love, and the joy of words and music.