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Ethan Mordden (born 1947) is a hyperproductive American author of the gossipy Demented: The World of the Opera Diva (1984) and lively Opera in the Twentieth Century (1978) as well as an error-ridden Guide to Opera Recordings (1980). In 1988, Mordden produced Opera Anecdotes (Oxford), succeeded by this volume, once again giving the impression of a Yank adamantly shouting out post-performance wisecracks in a crowded pub.

The author’s expertise and passion are not in doubt, but the intended readership remains mysterious for what is essentially a joke book about opera. In diffi cult times, light-hearted yarns are especially welcome, but some of these narratives lack even minimal plausibility.

For example, one undated gag has Lotte Lehmann and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf walking down a street, ‘two immortal Marschallins’ in Der Rosenkavalier discussing their relative experiences with the role as if they were contemporaneous rivals; Schwarzkopf observes flatteringly, ‘You sing as if you really enjoyed it.’ But the fact is, as Schwarzkopf told the New York Times in December 1960, she never saw Lehmann sing the Marschallin onstage. And Lehmann, whose first Marschallin was at Covent Garden in 1924, retired from opera in 1946, while Schwarzkopf’s first Marschallin was not until the early 1950s, at La Scala.

Perhaps the editorial rule here is Se non è vero è ben trovato (Even if untrue, it’s a good story), but a number of these chestnuts are neither vero nor particularly ben trovato. Boldly sidestepping any scholarly pretensions, the book nevertheless features pedantic transliterations of Russian names, like Galina Vishnyefskaya for a soprano who was billed internationally for her entire career as Vishnevskaya. Meanwhile, the English conductor Eugène Goossens is mystifyingly identified as ‘Eugene Goosens’.

In another jape, a Covent Garden ‘charwoman’ identifies two sculpted portraits of opera divas by saying, ‘We calls ’em Gert and Daisy’. Surely to appreciate this tale on any level, readers (even British ones) would need a footnote to remind them of Gert and Daisy, the wartime comedy duo incarnated by Elsie and Doris Waters, whose careers ended circa 1960.

When interlocutors speak German, they are given stereotypical vocabulary. So Herbert von Karajan (referred to as ‘Von Karajan’ rather than the correct ‘Karajan’) and the stage designer Günther Schneider-Siemssen (whose first name is spelled wrong as Günter), utter the German affi rmative ‘ja’ (yes) intermittently, presumably for verisimilitude.

In another story, ‘Von Karajan’ calls the baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau ‘dummkopf’ (idiot). I’ve interviewed Fischer- Dieskau about his work with Karajan, and Karajan would not have called him dummkopf or schweinhund or any other caricatural term of comic abuse. Similarly, Mordden has the German conductor Hans Knappertsbusch use the expression ‘Gott im Himmel!’ (good heavens) while Austrian maestro Karl Böhm favours the clichéd exclamation ‘Donnerwetter!’ (goodness!)

Fortunately, Malcolm Sargent and Adrian Boult are not quoted as saying ‘Gorblimey, guv’nor, you got me bang to rights!’. But even US expressions are stereotyped here, with soprano Grace Bumbry, an African American, starting a sentence with the interjection ‘Honey’ in a tale unpleasantly targeting her onetime husband-manager Andreas Jaeckel, a Polish-born tenor.

In addition to the overall style, for almost all the material, sourcing or attribution is surprisingly absent. Even in anthologies meant for amusement, such as the splendid Oxford Book of… series of yore, documentation was scrupulous, and the desire of readers to hunt down original texts should never be underestimated, if helpful citations are given. Mordden has clearly demonstrated elsewhere that he has real knowledge of, and experience with, opera, so a more fully documented edition of this same book would do more honour to his own achievement, as well as show greater respect to opera lovers.

Benjamin Ivry Read the full review on Agora Classica


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