"Contributors were given a keyword and instructed, more or less, to build their own sandboxes and have some fun." —Helen Greenwald, Introduction to The Oxford Handbook of Opera
Helen Greenwald's Magnum Opus
Provides an Everest for Book Reviewers
Published in 2015, The Oxford Handbook of Opera weighs in at more than 1200 pages, and would require very large hands of the casual reader. Helen Greenwald, who teaches a portfolio of courses on the core opera literature as a member of New England Conservatory's music history faculty, is no stranger to massive scholarly projects, having produced critical editions of works by Rossini and Verdi. As editor of this Oxford Handbook, she has invited her 50 article writers to temper their scholarship with playfulness and provocation. Scholarly journal and magazine editors, in assigning this book to reviewers, have demanded some exceptionally deep and critical reading, and it's no surprise that the resulting reviews continue to appear over a very long time arc.
In its March 2015 issue, Opera magazine was quick to comment on the book's heft. "I suspect you will need both hands and some shoulder muscle, not to mention several weeks of serious concentrated reading, if you are to have any hope of doing full justice to the book, its contributors, and its subject matter," comments Daniel Snowman. In the August 2015 issue of Australian Book Review, Michael Halliwell notes: "The history of opera spans more than four hundred years, and The Oxford Handbook of Opera almost matches the length of the subject … [I]f one wishes to engage broadly and in-depth with this infuriating but addictive art form … [t]here are many hours of fascinating reading therein." In The Musical Times for Autumn 2015, Patricia Howard writes: "The encyclopaedia of first resort is, inevitably, the four-volume New Grove Dictionary of opera … but the Grove empire, for all its utility, tends to exclude personal opinion and interpretation, and in both of these areas the Oxford handbook is particularly rich. [It is] a 'how to' guide for scholars whose privilege it is to study and write about opera. … The range of subject matter is remarkable. … Some chapters seem destined to become classics."
By 2016, reviewers for scholarly journals showed evidence of time to read and possibly re-read the book thoroughly. In a lengthy review for the February 2016 issue of Music and Letters, Flora Willson challenges the reader to match her own deep reading experience: "OHO is perhaps at its best when read whole." Willson describes Greenwald's introduction as "a virtuosically concise survey of what is to come," and picks up on the pluralistic implication of the "sandbox" instructions to her assigned writers. "Greenwald's tongue-in-cheek assertion that 'Everyone knows what opera is, right?' is, at best, implausible. As Greenwald … and others … make clear, it is agreement about opera's nature that is rare. … [T]he absence of a single 'argument' about opera within the volume—its refusal to iron out the significant difficulties in its project and its attendant lack of consensus about its own subject—is undoubtedly one of its most stimulating features. … [T]he variety that it captures [is] symptomatic of a discipline in rude health." And while at first appearing to challenge the necessity of multiple articles on Greenwald's own specialization of editorial practice, Willson concludes that "[O]ur disciplinary sense of what constitutes an operatic 'text' (and how it relates to 'history') has shifted far beyond the bad old days of The Music Itself. … Placed in dialogue with [a] 'problematized', even historicized view of operatic texts is a tendency in a handful of the most subtle and stimulating contributions elsewhere in OHO to pull the plug altogether on opera's putative objecthood," citing a contribution by singer-turned-scholar and NEC alumna Wendy Heller '78, '86 M.M.
The March 18, 2016 edition of the formidable Times Literary Supplement devotes a colossal, two-page, ad-free spread to popular opera journalist Anna Picard's review. Writing for an educated but perhaps casual reader, and playing off of Greenwald's "sandbox" metaphor, Picard attempts to summarize a number of individual sandcastles, noting that "[t]he best writers here are erudite, witty, thoughtful, a little weird. They can analyse and explain but they are still prepared to surrender to the impact of a greedy, usually overtly emotional art form." The extract she cites from Michal Grover-Friedlander's article on "Voice" examplifies the freedom Greenwald has given her writers:
The operatic voice is artificial, stylized, eccentric, extreme, extravagant, exaggerated, excessive, grotesque, bizarre, irrational and absurd. … It elicits physical, bodily, erotic responses; it is a desired voice, worshipped and fetishized; and it has its special forms of obsession, cult, fandom, and camp."
Picard: "For every irruption of critical theory jargon … there are compensating flashes of humour. … The impression given by the Oxford Handbook when read from start to finish is of an embattled, imperilled, paranoid form, despite unprecedented access to live-streamed productions from across the world. … [Readers] may prefer … to pick one of the livelier chapters … and follow Greenwald's cross-references at the end of those chapters, zig-zagging through the centuries, the styles and the sandboxes, having some fun where they find it."
And the reviews continue to come in. The Wagner Journal has an obvious focus, but the review in its July 2016 issue also notes more broadly that the Handbook is "readable in a way that might have been considered suspect a few decades ago."
Most of the publications cited here are paywalled in their online editions, but should be accessible through a large public library or academic research library, including NEC's Spaulding Library.