Monday, July 8, 2013

Disjointed, Self-Centered, Boring, and Condescending: Sir Rudolph Bing's "A Knight at the Opera"

I thought I found a really exciting find, but the find I found turned out to be better off lost. 

Last week, I was going through the accumulated library of the last three music directors of the church where I currently serve in the same role. There was a lot of crap (teaching method books from the 50s, ancient hymnals that no one would ever use, old worship bulletins) and a few cool finds—many opera vocal scores, a book about Toscanini, and a Dover complete edition of the Beethoven String Quartets.

And Sir Rudolph Bing's A Knight at the Opera. I thought I'd hit paydirt, but I should have put that one in the throw-away/give-away pile, too. 

Back in the 70s(?), I remember reading Sir Rudolph Bing's 5,000 Nights at the Opera, and thinking it was a pretty great look into the life of the Metropolitan Opera. Of course I was younger then, but my minimal research today leads me to believe it wasn't a bad book. I also read opera singer autobiographies, and it was fun to live their lives vicariously More recently I've read some other accounts of life at the Met, and found them enjoyable and informative, giving added insight to the strange world of opera.

Three fun books about opera.
But, back to the book at hand. First of all, it seems like a last-ditch effort to make a few bucks in the autumn of life. There is no cohesion to the book at all. It's a series of unrelated remembrances, anecdotes, and stuffy opinions. I am a patient reader, and willing to slog through a lot to get to the good stuff, but last night I picked up the book again and read this:
I would dare to state that, in general, actors have a higher level of intelligence [than singers], if for no other reason than that they have at one time or another read Shakespeare and other great playwrights. I venture to guess that there are many singers who have never heard of Shakespeare. While that does not necessarily imply a lack of intelligence, it does mean a lower level of interest. 
Singers, on the whole, will know only the operas in which there are suitable parts for them And indeed they may not know much more about the opera itself. They may know the plot, but many do not know their partner's part...I do maintain that learning Verdi arias is somewhat easier than learning a Shakespeare role.
ARGH! I kept thinking of the adage about biting the hand that feeds you. And, while this was written over 30 years ago, and he is talking about a whole other generation of singers, it was hard not to be offended personally and on behalf of today's hard-working, tallented and intelligent opera singers. Besides, the writing is not that good to begin with. The best I could say about it is that the print is large enough for me to read without my glasses. And what's with Sir Rudolph's Shakespeare fixation?

Apparently I am not the only one who found the book lacking in...well, just lacking.  It received neutral to negative reviews when it came out. The Kirkus Review wrote: 
this slight volume is a sad, patchy grab-bag of opinions and anecdotes, along with reprinted memos and letters from Sir R.'s file at the Metropolitan Opera.
And that sums it up pretty well.  The only part really worth reading is the introduction by Garson Kanin, but I wouldn't recommend a book based on the introduction. I can't even find a photo of the actual book cover on line (I know I could take a picture, but it's not worth it.) I guess most people who bought it didn't want to keep it. There are tons of used copies available. You could purchase a dozen copies of it at Amazon Marketplace for basically the price of shipping. If you really wanted to. Which you shouldn't. 

I am not even sure it's worth carrying to the dumpster. I think I'll just toss it in the back of the closet and leave it for the next tenant to deal with. 


  1. And never mind that the categories of stage actors and opera singers overlap - Kasarova said in an interview once (if my memory is correct) that she considered a career as an actor and if she left opera it's something she'd do. She's probably not the only one.

  2. Ouch! But thanks for the tip... it's the kind of thing I keep encountering in second-hand bookstores and wondering if I should take home with me.

    1. Glad to be of assistance. I'd advise that you only take it home if you find $10 stuck inside it.

    2. >>>I'd advise that you only take it home if you find $10 stuck inside it.<<<

      not even then! Take the tenner and kick the book ;-) in my experience people who rush to mention Shakespeare when they mean "culture" are not very cultured themselves. Like those people who think opera singing begins and ends with Callas.

      (btw, I've been randomly hitting your blog again.)

    3. @dehggial: Awesome! So have I :)


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