- Opera in the British Isles, 1875–1918 by Paul Rodmell
The past twenty-five years have witnessed a growing body of scholarship on British music, much of it offering new perspectives on and approaches to neglected composers, genres, institutions, and other topics. Recent publications, including studies of non-British composers in Britain (such as Colin Eatock’s Mendelssohn and Victorian England [Farnham, England: Ashgate, 2009] and Lionel Carley’s Edvard Grieg in England [Woodbridge: Boydell, 2006]), have sought to place music in Britain in broader cultural and social context. Opera, until now, has been largely absent from this resurgence. Aside from two studies from the 1980s (Eric Walter White’s A History of English Opera , and Nigel Burton’s chapter on opera in Music in Britain: The Romantic Age 1800–1914 ), opera in Britain has only been dealt with as part of larger studies of composers, performers, venues, and organisations. Rodmell’s comprehensive study—which explores opera in Britain, including performances of both continental and native opera, opera in London, opera in the provinces, opera companies (permanent, touring, and visiting), theatres, and those who supported and funded opera—skillfully fills this glaring void.
The aim of the book is to “examine the nature of operatic culture in the British Isles between 1875 and 1918, looking at the way in which opera was produced and ‘consumed’ by companies and audiences, social and intellectual attitudes to the genre, the repertory performed, [End Page 149] and the position of British composers and their work within this area of activity” (p. 1). Rodmell accomplishes this monumental task through his impeccable research, which relies on extensive archival resources and coverage in contemporary press, and his well-organised narrative. The book centers on the fact that the dominance of foreign opera in Britain has perpetuated the erroneous view that Britain experienced a dearth of opera during this period. In doing so, Rodmell focuses on two points: there was far more opera happening in Britain from the 1870s to 1918 than has previously been discussed, and composers, impresarios, performers, etc., faced challenges largely unique to Britain.
While ending the study at 1918, at the end of World War I, is a logical choice, using 1875 as a starting point acknowledges, as Rodmell notes in the Introduction, three crucial events in British opera: Carl Rosa’s touring opera company’s first appearance in London, the beginning of a failed project to build a national opera house in central London (spearheaded by James Mapleson), and “the definitive establishment of Wagner’s operas in the British operatic repertory” (p. 3). Rather than relying on a strictly chronological narrative, Rodmell frames discussions of opera in London and the provinces with chapters on larger issues. Chapter 1, labelled as a prologue, provides an overview of opera in Britain in 1875, including the three events outlined in the Introduction, to set the stage for what follows. The next three chapters provide detailed histories of opera in London (Chapter 2 from 1876 to 1896 and Chapter 3, 1897 to 1918), and the provinces (Chapter 4). All include copious details and information situated in contemporary reception as well as current scholarship. Chapter 5, perhaps the most influential of the book, grapples with the “Operatic Problem”. Using the title of William Galloway’s 1902 publication that expressed dismay at the state of opera in Britain at the time, this chapter focuses on two aspects of the “operatic problem”: the organisation of opera and the “perceived failure” of British composers to produce a body of successful operas (p. 185). Tracing these issues in contemporary writings from the 1870s to 1918, Rodmell reveals additional difficulties as well as the reasons why no solution, or indeed consensus, was found during this period.
The following chapter is an extensive catalogue of operas by British and Irish composers known to have been premiered between 1875 and 1918, a substantial expansion of the coverage found in...