BBC Music Magazine

Opera in the Jazz Age

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Alexandra Wilson

Oxford 978-0-190-91266-6

240pp (hb) £22.99

Today’s complaint is yesterday’s lament. In this scrupulous­ly researched and forcefully-argued book, Alexandra Wilson reminds us that opera was regarded as elitist, in search of an audience, struggling to appeal to the young and gripped by celebrity culture in the 1920s quite as much as we are told it is today.

Wilson well understand­s these anxieties mask a deeper cultural concern about opera as an essentiall­y hybrid form that had been used by an elite to enforce their own notions of good taste. What happens in the 1920s is that the traditiona­l wall between high art and popular culture is scaled by the newly emerging ‘middlebrow­s’ ‘who know what they like’, which is everything from popular novels, the cinema, musical theatre and opera. Critics and commentato­rs disparage them, but they play an essential part in attempts to reinvent opera for the British. Of course, British singers would never excel in such a ‘foreign’ work as Tosca. As one commentato­r wrote: ‘A drama of such hectic passion, fiendish torture and death .... calls for qualities which do not get even a sporting chance of developmen­t in a land of fogs, gloom and early closing.’ Christophe­r Cook ★★★★

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