In an interview with Joyce DiDonato at London's Wigmore Hall in 2013 the veteran mezzo-soprano Janet Baker was asked what she had “looked for” in a first encounter with a new conductor or director. Her response was “a sense of being allowed to share in what he's trying to achieve.” It was, she said, “a question of balance between doing as you're told, which of course you must do,” and “being allowed to participate” in the development of mise-en-scène. She cited an instance during Peter Hall's rehearsals for Orfeo ed Euridice at Glyndebourne: as she was passing among the chorus she instinctively reached for a hand, and they responded in kind—an empathetic exchange that was retained in the final production. Baker continues, “To have the freedom … of a director who would accept that and incorporate it and see that it had come purely out of the spur of the moment, that's …” and DiDonato interjects, “That's the magic of it.” Baker replies, almost humbly, “You can't expect it of everybody, but it does happen.”1 

How strange to hear such gratitude from stellar singers of both the twentieth and twenty-first centuries toward a director's willingness to include the smallest improvised gesture within his production concept—and then turn to the contract for Giuditta Pasta at London's King's Theatre in 1826, where she was accorded sole authority for everything that happened on the stage, including the choice of program and the casting of other singers. Of course, both examples are extremes. Very few singers (if any) in the 1820s were granted Pasta's privileges, while there are—surely—directors today who seek to work more collaboratively with their casts, and to take advantage of the talents of experienced artists. Nonetheless, these two poles mark the changing position of the singer from the center to the periphery within the power structures of the opera house. By the end of the nineteenth century the singer's authority on stage was heavily circumscribed, not only by the composer's insistence on the integrity of the score but also by the arrival of both the conductor and the stage director, all with their own (sometimes competing) approaches to the performance of the work.

Karen Henson's recent book, Opera Acts: Singers and Performance in the Late Nineteenth Century, delves into precisely those final three decades of the nineteenth century in which the new systems were being more fully established within the major theaters. Her aim is to explore the “freedoms and creativity” (p. 2) that remained to the singer through interpretation, by focusing on ideas of acting in opera as well as issues concerning the singer's creative authority. Henson offers an intriguing glimpse of four major artists of the epoch in Paris, as she reveals to what extent composition and performance could still be shaped by, or in response to, a singer's individual talents. The quartet covers all the major voice types—Victor Maurel (baritone), Célestine Galli-Marié (mezzo-soprano), Sybil Sanderson (soprano), and Jean de Reszke (tenor)—while the operas of Verdi and Wagner sit alongside those of Bizet and Massenet. Three of the singers (Maurel, Galli-Marié, and Sanderson) are considered in relation to the roles they first created—Maurel as Iago in Verdi's Otello (1887) and later his Falstaff (1893), Galli-Marié as Bizet's Carmen (1875), and Sanderson as Massenet's Esclarmonde (1889) and Thaïs (1894).

Attempting to decipher day-to-day artistic negotiations relating to the business of composing and staging opera without direct access to singers and composers themselves brings (as Henson acknowledges) inevitable difficulties. In the first chapter, on Maurel, a handful of letters together with the baritone's own lectures and writings on performance fortunately provide some useful evidence. Henson traces Maurel's early career from his first, inauspicious appearances at the Paris Opéra in the late 1860s. In a familiar trope (evident in the careers of singers such as Pasta and Emma Calvé) Maurel then underwent a period of creative discovery that led to a redesigning of his performance style. When he returned to the Opéra in 1879 his portrayal of the title role of Ambroise Thomas's Hamlet (1868) contrasted sharply with that of its first interpreter, Jean-Baptiste Faure. Maurel's more detailed, less emotionally flamboyant performance was suggestive of new ways of acting then emerging in prose theater. It also, according to Maurel, impressed Verdi, who subsequently cast the singer as Amonasro in the Opéra's first production of Aida in 1880, supervised by the composer himself. Here, again, Maurel displayed an originality of interpretation and costuming, although it is not clear to what extent the singer (rather than the stage director, the costume designer, or even Verdi) was responsible for such innovations. Henson goes on to credit Maurel with considerable influence on Verdi, claiming that the singer “contributed to a composer's decision to continue to write in the art form of opera itself” (p. 47). It is a tempting notion, but one that Verdi would most likely have disavowed—see his comment (quoted earlier by Henson, p. 13) that while Maurel would “perhaps” sing the role of Iago better than anyone else, the role had most certainly not been composed specifically for him.

The next chapter, on Galli-Marié, similarly sifts through the singer's early career to provide an engrossing profile of her artistic development. As that of a mezzo-soprano, Galli-Marié's repertory inevitably included en travesti characters; more unusually, she had the opportunity of creating five new such roles at the Opéra-Comique. Henson identifies “a nuanced, mercurial androgyny” (p. 67) in her performances—a quality made much of in her portrayal of the eponymous heroine of Thomas's Mignon (1866), even if the production eschewed the masculine attire that Mignon first wears in Goethe's novel in favor of more feminine garb. It was, however, Galli-Marié's ability to project a dangerous sexuality that earned her both praise and (more often) opprobrium on her later assumption of Carmen. Henson concentrates particularly on the claim that Galli-Marié was instrumental in Bizet's rewriting of Carmen's entrance aria as the “Habanera” because of her supposed desire to “establish the gypsy's character boldly and definitively” (according to Pigot, quoted p. 52) from the outset.

Both Maurel and Galli-Marié were well-established artists by the time they created their most prominent roles. The American soprano Sybil Sanderson, considered in Chapter 3, offers a quite different case. When Massenet met her in 1887 she was only twenty-three and had barely begun a professional career since arriving in Paris the previous year. He revised Manon (1884) for her, coaching her assiduously (she became one of the most fêted artists in the role); then in 1889 he composed Esclarmonde for her astonishingly high voice, and returned to her again for the courtesan heroine Thaïs in 1894. Henson describes her as a “Galatea” to Massenet's “Pygmalion” (p. 97), and certainly her inexperience and curiously passive beauty made her the ideal blank canvas on which the composer could inscribe his music. The aspect of the body as erotic spectacle and the role played by photography in determining Sanderson's career are deftly drawn by Henson here. Yet Sanderson's distance from the model of an informed, even empowered interpreter as presented by Maurel and Galli-Marié is made apparent in the question posed toward the end of the chapter as to whether the exploitation of her body can be seen as providing comparable “freedom and creative force” (p. 120). Was Sanderson's body being used to sell Massenet's operas, or was she using Massenet's operas to sell herself to the public? Perhaps both. In any event, Sanderson's subsequent illness and early death at the age of thirty-eight precluded a real flourishing of her aesthetic independence.

The analysis of the tenor Jean de Reszke in the fourth chapter differs from the approaches adopted toward the other singers in two respects: he is the only one considered primarily in the context of vocal rather than histrionic performance and also in terms not of creating new roles but of reinterpreting existing ones. Henson illuminates de Reszke's evolution from a baritone into a tenor, including his notable appearances as Roméo in Gounod's Roméo et Juliette in Paris alongside Adelina Patti and his eventual emergence as Wagner's Tristan and Siegfried. Henson argues that de Reszke's transition to tenor roles was in effect a “vocal-performerly trompe l'oreille” (p. 143): an illusion rather than a true manifestation of the tenor voice. She also proposes that through this manufactured vocal lightness he was the precursor of “an ‘international’ Wagner performance style” that combined Germanic qualities with a “Franco-Italian approach to performance” (p. 153).

Here, as occasionally elsewhere in the book, one wonders whether the discussion might have been better served by a more nuanced and historically rooted perspective on performance modes. France and Italy had separate and distinctly different traditions of performance in both acting and singing, particularly with regard to textual delivery: tensions as well as cross-fertilization between the two traditions underpinned many of the developments discussed here. For example, the idea of “not singing” (p. 4) that Henson associates with progressive performance practice in relation to Verdi and Wagner might have been constructively inflected by contextualization of theories and practices of declamation in French theater, such as the systems devised by the singing teacher François Delsarte (Bizet's uncle, who believed that vocal performance should articulate the fullest tonal range of emotional experience), or the writings of François-Joseph Regnier de La Brière (tutor of Sarah Bernhardt, an admired actor, and a stage director at the Paris Opéra) on voice in singing and speaking, or even the way in which French singers who worked in opéra-comique with its spoken dialogue developed of necessity a more varied set of histrionic skills.

It also seems odd to associate Verdi and Wagner with the term “anti-performance posturing” (p. 21), given the assiduous involvement of both composers with almost every aspect of the production process in their later operas. At times the term implies an anti-singer stance; yet this too, despite their usual grumbles about various cast members, would not be an accurate description of either man. What both composers heartily disliked was anything that clouded the transmission of their own vision of the score to the audience; similarly, both, in their different ways, believed that singing should serve the drama—not simply itself. Their most productive working relationships were with singers who thought likewise. And the loss of the singer's autonomy also brought undeniable benefits, the most important being an awareness that theater tended to be made better by teamwork rather than individual privilege. The introduction of what became known as a “unified production concept” in the latter half of the nineteenth century—first nurtured in its early manifestations by the production system at the Paris Opéra long before being adopted by Verdi and Wagner—ensured greater coherence and cogency in the construction of meaning on stage, and hence (potentially, at least) a more revelatory experience for the audience.

Such minor matters aside, Henson has uncovered a vivid array of material in relation to singers active in late nineteenth-century Paris, providing a richly detailed account of performances that offers valuable insights. Her engaging volume charts a way station on the opera singer's journey from virtually unfettered creative authority to the modern Regietheater concept of professionalism as “doing as you're told.” Above all, it eloquently recalls a period in which, turning away from the highly stylized (if no less theatrically effective) modes of performance that had dominated opera for the previous two hundred years, singers began to reclaim the more spontaneous expressivity once exhibited by a much earlier prima donna: “Our Signora Anna is endowed with such lifelike expression that her responses and speeches seem not memorized but born at the very moment. In sum, she transforms herself completely into the person she represents, and seems now a Thalia full of comic gaiety, now a Melpomene rich in tragic majesty.”2 Anna Renzi in 1644. “Recitar cantando” indeed.



“In Conversation with Dame Janet Baker: The Full Interview,” YouTube video, 31:52, posted August 30, 2013,
Giulio Strozzi, Le glorie della signora Anna Renzi romana (1644), quoted in Ellen Rosand, Opera in Seventeenth-Century Venice: The Creation of a Genre (Berkeley and Oxford: University of California Press, 1991), 232.