Great Operas of Wagner: Short Guides to all his Operas
Great Operas of Wagner is a hardback compendium of Michael Steen's eGuides (internet guides) to all the operas composed by Richard Wagner, the great German opera composer. The book is a companion to Great Operas of Puccini , a similar hardback being published simultaneously. The books are associated with the series of internet guides, The Great Opera Companion subtitled Guides to One hundred Best Operas . This is Steen's first venture into hardback self-publication, having previously been involved in the publication of internet ebooks. Recently, he has been developing the series of internet guides, The Great Opera Companion , (see www.greatoperas.net). (1) Original purpose. The guides were originally designed to inform the author's wife (who is not especially enthusiastic about opera generally, or about Wagner), in a quick, efficient, light and amusing way, about what it would help her to know and expect when being taken to a performance. Also, people generally find that they do not have time, and there are too many distractions, to inform themselves once they have arrived in the foyer. A broad-ranging but economical, practical, crisp, and modern guide contributes greatly to appreciation and enjoyment. (2) Structure helpful to the user. Each individual guide, or chapter, is divided into sections. A quick grasp can be obtained from BACKGROUND and the following WHO'S WHO and WHAT'S WHAT (a short summary of the opera story and the roles). In TALKING POINTS the information is expanded, and may possibly facilitate conversation during the interval. ACT by ACT enables the opera-goer to `dig deeper', to appreciate further detail about the story and aspects of the music. The guides provide a brief potted biography of the composer, or a cross reference to one. (3) Self-standing guides. Each guide is self-standing and designed to be the sole point of reference for a specific opera. In such a structure, there is an inevitable element of duplication as information is amplified or repeated. Steen has had to judge the balance between making each guide easy to follow for the user, while avoiding too many cross-references. And the self-standing guide on Wagner's Ring , (Part Two of the book) has been structured so that the individual components may be used comfortably by both those primarily interested in the full Ring cycle, on the one hand, and those wanting a guide to just part of the cycle, on the other. In such a structure, it is helpful for certain of the images to be repeated. This also provides an element of unity and cohesion to the publication. (4) Non-technical. It has been assumed that the user has not necessarily been taught music but is motivated, educated and intelligent. Only in the guides on the later Wagner operas are there a small number of musical examples quoted. To help the reader, the musical notation has been simplified. The examples are necessary to elaborate on Wagner's objectives. And to give substance to various expressions, such as to Wagner's `Tristan chord' which greatly influenced subsequent music; and to his leitmotives (recurring musical themes which Wagner uses to portray a person, object or emotion etc.). (5) User-friendly: indexes, summaries glossaries The hardbacks require indexes which are not so necessary in the ebook environment. Both hardbacks include a comprehensive index, including an index to some better known items, choruses etc. in the operas (for example, The Pilgrims' Chorus, and The Ride of the Valkyries). The Wagner book provides a separate index for the Wagner family. The comprehensive index on Wagner himself provides a means of following his personal and musical development. For The Ring , a glossary of what George Bernard Shaw called `the curious harlequinade of gods, dwarfs and giants' is provided. (6) What about productions? There is well-identified controversy today about the extent to which it should be acceptable for opera directors to change the time and/or the place of story, the story itself, perhaps sensationalising it, maybe to attract and retain an audience's attention or to make some political point. Steen describes this as `hijacking' the opera. Each Guide carries a warning that the guides cannot anticipate a particular production which does not conform to the composer's intentions. Steen's individual guides are based on the actual text and score. They act as a benchmark against which an assessment can be made, albeit subjectively, about whether the opera is indeed the `composer's opera' or is mis-described as such. This is a judgemental matter. Productions inevitably have to be changed (for there are no castratos today, as there were in baroque opera) and they should take advantage of modern technology. But arguably many directors have pushed the limits beyond recognition such that it is questionable whether a particular production should properly be described as the composer's opera at all. Opera is entertainment. However entertaining and enjoyable a great evening may have been for an audience, the performance may have strayed beyond one which is faithful to the composer's intentions. (7) What about other opera guides - the associated eguides in The Great Opera Companion series? As indicated above, Steen has been developing the series of internet guides, The Great Opera Companion subtitled Guides to One hundred Best Operas . This was begun in 2012 with the publication, again by Icon, of the hardback compendium Great Operas - A Guide to 25 of the World's Finest Musical Experiences . Individual internet guides (eGuides) were subsequently published singly for iPad, Kindle etc. Apart from those published by Icon, they were subsequently withdrawn when their internet publisher (not Icon) unfortunately ceased trading early in 2016. The first twenty-five (those published by Icon) were supplemented in the further ebook compendiums More Great Operas (ISBN 9781483569123) and Many More Great Operas (ISBN 9780995538511). For convenience, the latter, although subtitled A guide to 40 more of the world's finest musical experiences , has been periodically supplemented by the addition of many appendices of individual eGuides. (The series, as it stands, actually comprises one hundred and twenty eGuides, and a few more, depending on whether one counts one-act operas as one or two.) (8) What about the other opera guides available? These guides are broader in coverage, lighter in touch and more entertaining than opera material which is generally available on the internet, or in the standard hard-copy opera guides. They are easy to read, but authoritative. They are full of insights. They enable the user to get more value out of an evening at an opera, which is often an expensive one. (9) Some hurdles encountered. The author experienced various hiccups in the development of these guides, the most memorable being in 2016 when, on a Friday night, he was notified `out of the blue' that the company publishing on the internet had ceased to trade and that the work-in-progress was lost in the ether. It took a considerable time to recover the work. Steven Weekes, the Irishman who had been handling the project, had lost his job, and his working facilities (including his email address) had been withdrawn. It took a long time to identify him, contact him, and get the `show back on the road'. These guides are the perfect accompaniment to a Wagner opera. They are also useful in education, and in teaching musical appreciation. They will be valued by old and young, seasoned and unseasoned, whether attending Wagner performances in so many of the world's leading cities in North and South America, Asia, Australasia, Africa and Europe perhaps Sydney, Tokyo, Covent Garden or the Met. Or in the UK, at the innumerable venues, such as Glyndebourne. Even deep into the countryside of the British Isles, say, at Longborough. And the local village hall close to the author's home, which is amongst the 1,000 cinemas venues to which operas, including Wagner's are streamed. ABOUT MICHAEL STEEN Steen is author of the acclaimed The Lives and Times of the Great Composers (Icon, 2003). He has also written Pauline Viardot, Soprano Muse and Lover (Icon, 2007) about the nineteenth century French prima donna, and featuring her great friends, the Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev and the composer Charles Gounod. Recently, he has been developing the series of internet guides, The Great Opera Companion subtitled Guides to One hundred Best Operas . Michael Steen OBE., Hon. RCM., was born in Dublin. He studied at the Royal College of Music, and was the organ scholar at Oriel College, Oxford. Opera has been one of his great pleasures. During a successful thirty year career in the City of London with KPMG, and afterwards, he has met many who go to it, thus gaining considerable insight into the information which it helps to know in order to enhance one's appreciation and enjoyment of the opera experience. He has been the chairman of the RCM Society and of the Friends of the V&A Museum, the Treasurer of The Open University, and a trustee of Anvil Arts, The Gerald Coke Handel Foundation and of The Royal College of Organists.