An Insider Look at What Happened Before The 'Fat Lady' Sang

OPERA OFFSTAGE: PASSION AND POLITICS BEHIND THE GREAT OPERAS

By Milton Brener

Walker and Company

240 pp., $24.95

Opera in America has always been taken very seriously, even reverently. Not so in 19th century Europe, when, as Milton Brener reports in his entertaining volume, ''Opera Offstage,'' the opera house was considered a place for business, social, and even political discussion.

Not until the 1870s did anyone feel compelled to pay much attention to what was happening on stage. It was Richard Wagner, who, ''in his specially built theater in Bayreuth, turned out the lights, faced all seats irremediably forward, and demanded strict attention to the performance, banning even whispered conversation.''

Brener's guide to the backstage circumstances of 27 grand operas, from Mozart to Richard Strauss, is an invaluable companion for those who never quite finish the program notes before the house lights go down.

The author, formerly a reviewer for Opera News and Opera Canada, is both knowledgeable and enthusiastic. His evident delight in staged musical works is compelling. He argues that ''the bloom of creative genius that was nineteenth-century opera ... may well have been the most powerful explosion of artistic expression ever known [since] the prehistoric cave paintings in southwestern Europe.''

Brener may be pardoned for his fervor, since his exuberant thesis is merely a frame for the stories he narrates so engagingly. Many of the tales he tells have appeared elsewhere before .

Indeed, he admits that there is very little original material in these essays. Their value lies in the author's distillation of obscure and foreign language sources into coherent and fascinating stories.

Brener supplies insider accounts of the machinations and jealousies that lay backstage throughout the century in the opera houses of Italy, France, Austria, and Germany. He begins with Mozart's ''Marriage of Figaro,'' and dispenses once and for all with the idea that he was poisoned by his rival, Salieri.

Bitter rivalries did exist, however, among later Italian composers.

''Madame Butterfly'' was roundly booed on the opening night, despite the presence of the composer and his whole family in the audience. Brener suggests it may have been a jealous rival who paid the claque to drown out the music with boos and catcalls.

Puccini decided to withdraw the opera from Milan, and revived it before a more sympathetic house in Brescia. ''The firestorm of enthusiasm ... dwarfed that of any of Puccini's previous works.... The entire love duet had to be repeated to quiet the thunderous ovation ... and with the humming chorus at the conclusion of the second act, the enthusiasm became hysteria.''

Puccini said it remained his favorite opera, and the only one ''that he did not tire of hearing again and again.'' Opera lovers everywhere can only agree.

German opera composers had their share of problems as well. Wagner never got to hear ''Lohengrin'' performed in Dresden because his involvement in the radical uprising of 1849 made him persona non grata in that city. Only after almost 11 years, in Vienna in 1861, was he finally able to attend a performance of his tale of medieval love and knightly devotion. ''His entrance into the hall was the occasion of a massive demonstration of affection and respect that brought tears to his eyes.''

A more sinister story concerns Richard Strauss's late opera ''Die Scheigsame Frau.'' Based on a 17th-century play by Ben Johnson, ''Epicoene,'' or ''The Silent Woman,'' this was to be Strauss's last opera.

Strauss wanted Stefan Zweig as his librettist. Hugo von Hofmanstall, the writer of Strauss's great modern operas ''Salome'' and ''Electra,'' had died in 1929.

Zweig was an Austrian author and poet, an opera lover and a great admirer of Strauss's work. He was also Jewish. In the political climate of the time, it was nearly impossible for a respected composer of German opera to collaborate with a Jew.

Brener sensitively discusses Strauss's support for his colleague. Strauss asked to see the program for the opening at the Dresden Opera House in 1935.

''As Strauss had suspected, Zweig's name was not on it... Strauss's face flushed. 'You can do this,' he declared, 'but I will leave tomorrow and the show can take place without me.' With his own hand he restored Zweig's name. The next day, the program was changed to include it.''

Four performances were allowed, after which the work was banned and not heard in Germany again until after the war.

The passion, love, treachery, and sacrifice that plays on the opera stage are often mirrored by the scenes offstage. Whether great art requires great suffering, or even madness as some have said, is still subject to debate.

What is clear, from these accounts, is that the soaring splendor of European grand opera was often the reflection of the struggles and pain of its creators.

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