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For all the very public nature of their art much of what opera singers do is private; we only see the finished product. In this fascinating book, Linda Kitchen looks at what happens in those private moments, at how the magic is created, by exploring what it is to be an opera singer, what life is like. One of the book’s strengths is that she does not do the exploration alone, but with 20 colleagues.

The book is organised thematically, in each chapter, following Linda’s scene setting introduction, we get the singers’ thoughts on the subject rather like listening to multiple conversations. The contributors vary in ages, experience and style, from lyric soprano to Wagner, from character artist to leading soloist, as well as musical theatre and the choir stalls. Different personalities come over too, from the laconic to the confessional, combining into an illuminating picture.

We learn how they started, which teachers were important, how they work, what colleagues are important and how the business actually happens, from the inside. There are plenty of anecdotes, but there is also information about the nitty gritty of how voices do (and don’t) work and the list of singers includes two whose vocal problems led to retirement from singing. There is an equally candid strand about the strains that opera singers’ careers place on their life outside the opera house and even the shortest contributions can reveal the devastating effects such a life can have. The section on warming up makes it equally clear that even when things are going well, performing is a strange business if you have a family.

This is a book to dip into rather than read from cover to cover, the multiple voices can feel tiring. There are one or two slips in the subediting, but the concept is handsomely served. Each of the contributors is also featured in a tellingly characterful photograph by Nobby Clarke. Singers as a rule do not talk about the business of singing, so this book makes and engaging glimpse into the world of people who lead opera lives • With contributions from Thomas Allen, Susan Bickley, Philip Blake-Jones, Maureen Braithwaite, Susan Bullock, Anna Devin, Christopher Gillett, John Graham-Hall, Eiddwen, Harrhy, Richard Hill, Simon Keenlyside, Felicity Lott, Rosa Mannion, Morag McLaren, Paul Nilon, Joan Rodgers, Peter Rose, Nicky Spence, Keel Watson and Louise Winter.

ROBERT HUGILL Read the full review on Agora Classica


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