Edited by Jeanette Winterson. Quercus. 329 pp. £18.99. ISBN: 978 1 84724 804 6
For this book, under the editorial baton of Jeanette Winterson and published to celebrate Glyndebourne’s 75th birthday, 19 writers have each chosen an opera and written a short story ‘from its music or its characters, its plot or its libretto, or even a mood evoked’. Winterson’s own contribution has the lot—this is passionate writing, with the action of the closing scenes of La fanciulla del West as a framework, the main character desperately desiring the real-life ‘Goldrush Girl’ of the short story’s title.
Some authors are more literal than others in paralleling their stories and their operas. Joanna Trollope conjures up the real spirit of Donizetti in Nemo, set in a health farm and involving little pills—‘pale blue and shaped like diamonds’—as its elisir d’amore. In Ali Smith’s Fidelio and Bess, the actions of the Beethoven and Gershwin works are imaginatively blended into a description of a seemingly doomed love affair between two women. A jaded American woman revisits Paris in Kate Atkinson’s poignant and witty To Die For and finds a ‘drugs and Hollywood’ modern production of La traviata at the Bastille ‘more real than her own life’.
Kate Mosse’s La Fille de Mélisande provides a poetic sequel to the opera. Mélisande is avenged by her daughter, ‘entombed in the green embrace of the wood’. And Andrew O’Hagan’s First Snow is set against some wonderful descriptions of Scottish landscape and concerns a librarian who ‘prides herself for laughing at romance’, but is obsessed with Eugene Onegin, a handsome visitor and male vanity.
Mozart was the inspiration for the greatest number of writers. The plot of Toby Litt’s absorbing The Ghost is gradually permeated with the supernatural elements of Don Giovanni. The Albanians, by Alexander McCall Smith, is a light-hearted tale of two couples for whom fidelity is an issue; and Antonia Fraser’s My Lovely Countess is an amusing modern-day murder mystery written in a suitably elegant style.
The seductiveness of opera on first encounter is the theme of several stories. A schoolboy’s experience of seeing Peter Grimes is described by Andrew Motion in Now the Great Bear. ‘It was a kind of floating, like being asleep, but I was completely awake at the same time. Awake and crammed with thoughts … Thoughts that were feelings, elongated achy feelings when the music was pulled tight.’
Colm Tóibín gives us seduction in more ways than one in The Pearl Fishers. As well as movingly describing another schoolboy falling under the operatic spell, he treats us to quite an insight into the sexual carryings-on in a Catholic school in that operatic Mecca, Wexford.
A word of warning to the impressionable: this inspired and varied collection may change your opera-going life—like the stage director in Lynne Truss’s alarming story who finds it impossible ever to direct The Turn of the Screw again after his unnerving experience with two sinister rescue cats called Miles and Flora. And I don’t think I’ll be able to see The Makropoulos Case in the future without thinking of Jackie Kay’s First Lady of Song, which charts the 300-year career of Janácek’s heroine and which, according to Kay’s story, included a stint when she was Ella Fitzgerald.
Paul Bailey, Sebastian Barry, Anne Enright, Julie Myerson, Ruth Rendell and Marina Warner complete the collection’s stellar literary cast; and drawings by Posy Simmonds of Glyndebourne, its people and some musical sheep, are delightful extras.