"In Conversation" with ENO

November 07, 2022

By kind permission of ENO, here is the transcript of the "in conversation" with Damien Kennedy on 12 October 2022. 


Damien Kennedy (Music Library and Surtitles Manager at ENO)

Hello everyone, and welcome to Simon Banks, I'm delighted you could come and join us tonight on ENO TV.  Simon is a writer of articles on opera & history and he's written a book which has recently been published called "Opera: The Autobiography of the Western World".  It's a beautiful book, beautifully put together, and it's obvious from the book that you're a great lover of opera. Could you tell us a bit about your history and your connection to opera please?


Thank you! I’m a first-time author, I set up my first book website expecting that the first contact I would get on it would be from my cousin Yvonne. But it wasn’t my cousin Yvonne… it was English National Opera - which was a great moment! So, thank you very much for inviting me tonight!

The book was written in the Coliseum more than in any other theatre. My first opera was English National Opera: La bohème in 1973. My first Mozart was Don Giovanni, with Rita Hunter as Donna Anna, in 1977. My first Ring cycle was the Goodall Ring in the 1970s - my first Siegfried was Alberto Remedios. And since then, in the journey I’ve made through life, the Coliseum has been with me all the way. There was John Tomlinson singing Boris Godunov in 1998. That was one of the first times where I had to go back two nights later because I needed more of it!  There was The Makropolous Case, first discovered with Charles Mackerras conducting in 2006. The book has got quite a lot of contemporary operas in it and obviously ENO is the house for contemporary opera in the UK, maybe in Europe. Doctor Atomic, Satyagraha, Nixon in China - all those works are part of the story that I tell. The sentences in the book were born in the Coliseum in many cases.

I’ve been writing the book in my head for about 35 years, maybe since my first ENO Mastersingers in 1977. What the book tries to do - or at least what the book set out to do - was to tell of a journey I have made over many decades: a journey to discover history, and a journey to discover opera. For me these two things were extraordinarily closely connected. Until I was in my 40s, history books took more effort than I was prepared to put in. Whereas how marvellous to sugar the pill of history by getting to know it through opera! The tunes are so wonderful, the soundtrack is so superb… and for me Ancient Greece still sounds like Strauss’s Elektra and Monteverdi’s Orfeo; Norse mythology sounds like Wagner; Russian history sounds like Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky; The French Revolution is a mixture of bits of Fidelio and Tosca and Andrea Chénier. And I wanted in one small book to tell the arc of history as experienced through opera.

For decades I’ve been inspired by a quote from Saint Saens: he’s talking about the final scene of Götterdämmerung, and he talks about how you’re sort of on Mont Blanc in that final scene with Brünnhilde and you’re looking back over the great range of the Alps - at the Eiger of Siegfried and the Matterhorn of Die Walküre - and you’ve got this great mountain range of history that you can see into the work. When I was planning the book 20 years ago I wanted, at the threshold of the 21st century, to give a sense of what it was like to be able to look back over the mountains of European history: from the ancient world and then the medieval world, through the early modern period, over the French Revolution, and into the modern democratic West… and to celebrate it as a story with a fantastic soundtrack. 


That's great, fantastic to have seen those performances in the 1970s - the Goodall Ring!

What you said about looking back from Mont Blanc over the range of the Alps - that is how the book is for  me, it's not just a chronology, it sugars the pill of history.  And I thought the way it is structured is great, it takes a theme and then looks at how operatic treatments of that theme have changed over the years, which then tells us a lot about the times they were written and about history itself.

What brought you to create the structure like that? What inspired you?


Well that’s an interesting question because the book I finally wrote was not the book I set out to write - which was pretty much as I described it a few moments ago. But there’s a problem with that, which I’m sure everybody who is listening to this can see (…and I’m very grateful for your being here, thank you for listening in and for being here). There’s a problem with the story I wanted to tell, it became more and more of a problem the more I researched the composers in detail, the more I listened to them better. The problem is that in many cases the composers weren’t all that knowledgeable about the history they were setting their operas in, and of course there are some howling historical errors in quite a lot of operas as well! 

But I was determined to write this book, I was not going to let this stop me! For a while I tried to push these problems under the carpet, tried to sweep them away. The book took about 6 years to write down and about halfway through I had a kind of Copernican moment. I’m a first-time author so I don’t know, but I think maybe other writers have experiences like this too: you find out that your biggest problem and the bugbear that is making your life really difficult is actually your solution if you will only embrace it and let it sing to you.

Verdi, Wagner, Mussorgsky, even Handel - actually increasingly I think most great composers -  were passionately engaged with issues in their own time. So I needed to find a structure that would enable me to answer the questions that really wanted answering, which were “Why was this brilliant music being written by these great composers - at the time it was – about these historical periods so long ago?” “Why was it that Mussorgsky was at his greatest writing about a 16th century ruler hundreds of years before?” “Why was Verdi at his greatest writing about another 16th century ruler, Philip II?”  “Why did Handel write this stupendous music for Scipio Africanus from Ancient Rome?”

And what I finally came upon is the structure. And once I had found it, the book actually wrote itself.  It was a strong story that I had uncovered. I felt like a journalist who was trying to answer the question “Why - at any particular time - did that history really matter?”

So if I can do a diagram – the horizontal axis is the ancient world and then you’ve got the medieval world and then the modern world. That’s one axis and the book follows that structure of 3,000 years of history.  But then I chunk it all up into little chapters. And the little chapters then have a vertical axis which is from 1600 to the present. And each chapter looks at how that story, how that bit of history, was told differently at different times in the history of opera. Because these composers were highly engaged in issues relating to their own time. In a sense, it all comes back to the music in the end, that’s why the music is so amazingly good - because these stories mattered at the time of composition. And once I was telling that story (and not trying to cover up the fact that the history was actually quite dodgy) the book really took wing.


Yes that comes across, and it’s interesting to see how certain composers were selective with their history - and selective with the facts sometimes, as well as being inaccurate. When you explore it you can see why they were writing it in that way. For example they might have been writing it to order for a court - whereas later composers were writing for themselves, trying to uncover truth, rather than writing for a court or writing to order.

In the book you mention the year 1805 as a seminal turning point in the history of the modern West in general. What kind of radical differences can you see in the operas that were composed before this watershed moment and after?


When you dig deeper into stuff you always find things that disprove your thesis. But in 1805 there really was a significant change. Not necessarily in that year, but around that time. And broadly speaking – people will know this - until that time operas were based mostly in the ancient world, they were mostly based on ancient authors. And then from about 1805 you get the Revolutionary-romantic period (which I have for convenience characterised as the period 1805 to 1848, but it can go a bit either way).

That period really sees an extraordinary change, because the writers who people are now setting to music are recent writers: Goethe, Schiller, Sir Walter Scott, Byron, Victor Hugo, Pushkin. Part of the journey I have had with opera is to discover these writers in their own right.

And all these writers, all of them were in very different ways asking the question “How have we got to where we are?”  And if they thought we were in a mess: “How have we got into the mess we’re in?” And they all explored recent centuries of European history from the 14th 15th, especially the 16th century, and then into the 17th and 18th centuries. And these operas written in the 19th century are engaging with a history that is not remote, that is part of what Europe now is. Writers and composers are wrestling with it in order to understand why there are tyrannies, why there are these political systems and church hierarchies that they are chafing against. And that then gives you a whole world of engagement with the recent past.

One of the things that’s really extraordinary, particularly about the 19th century but it’s true of other periods in opera, is that there are periods of history that have been ignored for centuries, and suddenly everyone’s writing operas about them - for a very narrow period of time. There’s all those bits of 14th century history -  nobody was writing books about them, let alone operas about them, in the 17th and 18th centuries! Things like:

  • The Battle of Morgarten Pass, where according to legend William Tell establishes the beginning of the modern Republic of Switzerland.
  • Cola di Rienzo, who led a rebellion in the 14th century against the Holy Roman Emperor and tried to restore the ancient Roman Republic.
  • There’s Simon Boccanegra who rose up against the aristocratic families of Genoa and became the first doge of the Genoese Republic.

Those bits of history had been utterly ignored and I certainly wouldn’t know anything about them at all if it hadn’t been for opera.  There are no operas about them in the 18th century and not even in the 19th century at the beginning. But then in 1829 Rossini does an opera about William Tell. And then all the great composers in the world at the time pile into this tiny bit of 14th century history! Wagner writes Rienzi, Verdi writes Simon Boccanegra. Donizetti writes a string of operas: Marin Faliero is about a chap who rebelled against the aristocrats of Venice in the 14th century. His opera The Siege of Calais is about another "anti-monarchical" incident in the 14th century. And it’s fascinating to see that all these operas are being written. The tunes in them are stupendous, they’re inspiring great music. But then after about 20 years they‘re just dropped like a stone. And nobody writes an opera about these people ever again.

And similarly in the 18th century it’s fascinating that suddenly there’s loads of operas about Alexander the Great. Mozart does an opera about Alexander the Great; Handel does 3 operas about Alexander the Great. The 18th century is obsessed with this chap. Handel’s working in London where the British empire is being established, a new global empire. And what a marvellous story Alexander the Great is for 18th century England! Because here’s a man who marched off into the East and destroyed the old Persian Empire and set up a a new empire in the Indian subcontinent that was subservient to the hegemony of Europe. And you get all these operas about how to be a really great empire builder. And you can follow the advice of Alexander the Great and go off to India and run things from a British Imperial point of view. Obviously, that is all very politically incorrect, but there’s a lot in the 18th century that is.

And that really is what the book tries to get at: why history matters to certain people at certain times. And that’s the journey that I wanted to share.


One of the things I love about the book is that you don’t have to read it from start to finish, you can just dip into various chapters and read a particular theme that interests you. One that is kind of pertinent to today - because today is Columbus day – is the section on the colonies in South America, and for a while that seemed to be a hot topic. It’s interesting to see how these topics come and go as fashions change. And that, in the 19th century, they looked to the 14th century in order to tell their stories, whereas I think nowadays we would just tell a contemporary story – at least we don’t seem to look to the past in that way nowadays.

Then of course later on you talk about nostalgia for older times, works like Der Rosenkavalier that go back to earlier times but see them through a 20th century or late 19th century lens. The chapters are divided into historical themes – some of them are quite broad like ‘monarchy’,  ‘the artist in society’, ‘the outsider’, ‘war’. And some of them are more specifically connected with particular themes such as ‘Napoleon’ and ‘Russia and the Romanovs’.

Were there any themes throughout the ages where you were struck by the difference in the treatments over the ages? And were there any where you were struck  by the similarities that had remained thoughout?


I would say that it is remarkable how little repetition there is. Even though the same stories keep coming back, they come back in such fundamentally different ways. 

One of the earlier chapters is about Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt and into Sinai. It’s always a story about man’s relationship with God. But if you follow that story in music it’s utterly different at different times. In the 18th century Handel writes the oratorio Israel in Egypt and it’s overwhelmingly a choral work, about a community united in faith. It’s a prime example of where the music and the content are absolutely the same thing, because the work is a song of praise for God and a celebration of faith by entire community, a belief in the wisdom of the stories of the Bible. 

But then in the 19th century Rossini comes back and tells the story of Moses and Pharaoh. And for me the really interesting thing about that is that eventually he drops the choral ending and instead he writes a piece of pure orchestral music which communicates the epic power of the deluge and the sense of awe after the destruction of Pharaoh’s army. And that speaks directly to the romantics’ belief in nature as a place where you could encounter God or you could go yourself into the mountains or into a remote place and experience the sublimity of nature, and commune with the divine in that way. 

And then the final section is the 20th century with Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron. And that work comes at the thing from such a different point of view - and again the music tells that story.  It’s a work that asks “Is there a God out there anyway for us even to speak to?”  At the end of Act 2 Moses has got himself into a situation where he thought he was speaking for God and he doesn’t think he is speaking for God anymore. The silence speaks incredibly powerfully because Schoenberg had intended to write a third act which would be a restoration of faith but he never could write that music and he went to his death leaving that music untold.

So to answer your question: did I find things that were the same? Really – No!


I can believe that – as you’ve demonstrated with the story of Moses, Moses in Egypt and Moses und Aron - how contemporary thinking will influence how someone writes an opera. That’s so 20th century, the final bit - and obviously Handel’s work was rooted in his time when people wanted to hear stories of faith and of God having great power.

The book is illustrated in full colour with some gorgeous pictures in here. I imagine it was a lot of fun choosing the images and I was wondering how did you choose what to go into the book?


Well the book didn’t originally have pictures, it didn’t have pictures for a long time. I walk the dog on a Thursday with a neighbour called Sheila and over various Thursdays I’d told her that I was writing this book, and probably foolishly she said that she’d like to see the manuscipt. So one Thursday we got out of our cars and I presented her with the current ringbound photocopy. And she flipped through it and just went “What, no pictures?” At that point I almost thought I’d lost her from the get-go because there were no pictures!

The thing about writing a book about opera is that in many ways it’s a stupid idea anyway and maybe an audio book would be better because what you really want to illustrate the book with is sound.

One of my challenges was to try and tell the outline of a story very briefly, in order to then look at how that story was being treated. Great art can tell a story far better that I can write it. So, for example, a lot of 17th century operas were telling the same stories as Rubens paintings. I’ve got some luscious colour Rubens pictures in there. Titian tells the story of Bacchus and Ariadne better than I could do and he’s giving Hofmannsthal and Strauss a run for their money. 

Then in the 19th century there’s John Martin who paints these epic landscapes. There’s quite a lot of him in the book. I think you pick up that I rather like Martin. Then there’s a pretty obscure Italian 19th century historical painter called Francesco Hayez. I think he’s very well known in Italy, not so well known here. And he’s astounding at telling a story! You can really tie yourself in knots telling the story of The Two Foscari by Verdi or telling the story of Caterina Cornaro which is a Donizetti opera.


Yes there are some lovely pictures of Venice by him in the book…


…yes, yes, and he tells a story so fabulously. All I needed to do was write a little thing that just says “Look at this bit!” “Look at this bit!” and then that story just bounces out at you. It’s fair to say that a number were just chosen because I just like them. This is my Tristan und Isolde page and this is three different paintings of Tristan and Isolde. It doesn’t help the argument at all. They’re there because I love them. Quite a lot of the pictures in there are just there because they’re beautiful, or I thought they were beautiful.


That’s interesting because I’ve bookmarked the pictures of the Ring, which are quite close to that in the book, which I also thought were beautiful. I think you’re right that audio might be a good medium to tell the story - maybe a spotify playlist or something like that. It’s a bit like The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross which made me want to listen to everything that’s in the book. And I found this book’s the same, you read about it and then you think “I don’t know that, I want to listen to it”.

If you have a contemporary picture of a production when the opera was first written it can tell you a lot about people’s ideas of that time as well. You have these Wagner paintings which are full of natural beauty, almost pre-Raphaelite in the way they look. And that’s very much of the culture of the time - you’d never present it like that nowadays. But it tells you a lot about how people viewed those stories at the time - everything complements each other.

The book has a huge range of repertoire and quite a lot of obscure works, when you get into the Donizettis and some of the modern operas. It has a lot that we’ve done here in our ENO seasons  - modern ones like John Adams and Philip Glass. One chapter speaks about Akhnaten and Aida – the two ‘Egyptian’ operas - and you make the point that where Verdi made the past seem very close and familiar with Aida, with Philip Glass (using similar cultural material, even though it’s not the same story at all) you found he leaves it distant and strange. I thought that was a really good example of the contrasts in each chapter of how composers treat similar cultural material in different ways.

We’ve got Akhnaten coming up and I was wondering if there was anything else coming up at the Coliseum that particularly interests you and which you speak about in the book?


Well I was at all of the first 3 revivals of Satyagraha - and again at the first 2 of Akhnaten. I’ve got a good friend and we’re both Glassheads - which not everybody is, so you have to find your Glasshead buddy! I’ve followed those productions by Improbable since their inception. My friend often says that a Glass opera is like going on a kind of religious pilgrimage, in the sense that you go on a journey that’s always the same (in the sense that the work is always going to be the same), but the journey you take at that time in your life will always be different. Those productions are wonderful for this. I’ve really enjoyed growing up with those productions.

At the most recent revival of Akhnaten - I think it was the last performance of the run – I remember my sense of euphoria at being back in that environment, and just thinking “I love this music, this is better than the real world!” - and you go into that different timespace.

Glass has something which, for example, Richard Strauss and Rossini might have: which is that he’s at his best in the theatre. You can actually feel when you’ve been at a performance of a work by Glass, Strauss or Rossini, I think, that you’ve really experienced that work as it was meant to be. It lives in the theatre. Whereas there’s a sense with Wagner and Mozart, for example, where I sometimes feel that no production can ever quite get there. But with Glass I think you get the genius of that work in its full existence at that performance. So I love those productions.

In terms of the other productions that are on this year, I think they’re all in the book. La bohème and Carmen are important in my story obviously. In them, you can hear democratic Europe being born. I think they are often underrated perhaps because they’re so famous but they’re endlessly fascinating works. And then I have a lot of time for Tosca! It’s got this reputation for being appallingly bad history but it’s actually extremely good history. It says something which is really at the heart of my book. At the end of the Ancien Régime you’ve got Maria Carolina, sister of Marie Antoinette, who was queen in Italy. She is in the background in Tosca, she’s offstage – she’s literally downstairs in Act 2. She’s trying to keep the Ancien Régime going and she’s commissioning artists to do it – these artists are around - people like Cavaradossi who’s not only a radical - he’s a republican. And Maria Carolina had exactly that experience: she commissioned music from the composer Cimarosa, who turned republican - he turned into a radical. She was disgusted. So Tosca is an extraordinarily accurate insight into that incredible crucible in 1800. That’s when it was all happening, when the modern world was being born! So yes, a wonderful work.


That’s fascinating - if you look at a lot of these operas, like Carmen, you don’t tend to think too much about what the political background is, because the main theme may be a love story. But there’s a lot of politics going on while the story is playing out. I think Tosca unfortunately has the shabby little shocky label which tends to overshadow it.


Hehe yes!


Anyway Simon, it’s been a pleasure to speak to you about the book. And I think we’ll hand over and see if we have any questions from our viewers this evening.



Grace Kendall (Philanthropy Co-ordinator at ENO)

I’ve got a few questions for you, Simon. To start with - what section of the book were you most passionate about, and really got into… the research, everything behind it… what was one thing that you really fell down a rabbit hole with?


Oh - it might sound a bit daft, but the Ring chapter. Wagner is extraordinary, one feels that we’re only just beginning to get to discover Wagner. I’ve known the Ring for 40 years now, yet every time I hear The Rhinegold – which is on later this season - I’m more astounded by that music. I think it sounds stranger than it did before. Just telling that Ring story in a very short period of time was an extraordinary rabbit hole.

It’s a lovely phrase a rabbit hole: there was the discovery of democracy in the 14th century, which I was talking about earlier - a story that wasn’t really known. Then there’s the story behind Tannhäuser and The Sicilian Vespers - the massive argument between the Pope and the Emperor Frederick II in the 1200s – an astounding story and once you get that story into your head, then those works: they sing in a way that they just don’t otherwise - so I would say that. I would say the “outsider” operas – Puccini and all those verismo composers – Leoncavallo, Mascagni - extraordinary works.

I’m worrying because I’m going to kick myself later that I’ve missed something out! Ah - the extent to which Russian opera was subversive in front of the Romanovs’ noses, an extraordinary story that I had no idea I was going to uncover.


Thank you for sharing! This might be complicated as you wrote this book over 20 years - I’m sure there were a lot of high highs and low lows. But what did you find was the hardest part of the writing process for you?


It took me 6 years to actually write it down – you’re right I'd been writing it in my head for long before - and the first 3 years were pretty hard going. It was always hard going because I was trying to ignore the fact that these people were misrepresenting the facts. I felt that I had a bad conscience, it was like I’d got this dirty secret! And trying to write the Introduction – “The great story of western civilisation has been told in opera” and actually I was thinking “No, but it wasn’t really was it? Because they’re actually telling their own stories!” It was a 3 year struggle.

And then my Copernican moment came just before lockdown – there’s little good about lockdown… But for me, it gave me an opportunity to get my head around the fact that this book was going to have to be about the times when the operas were composed. And after that it became plain sailing.

There’s a story that’s told about Michelangelo - that he just uncovered the statue that was already sitting inside the marble, and all he had to do was chip away the bits of marble that surrounded it. I always thought that was just one of those pretentious things that artsy people say. But I was astonished when I was writing the book, and suddenly I had my Copernican moment, and I realised that I needed to tell the story about why the composers were telling these stories at this time, and why the music was so good was because they were engaging with things that passionately mattered at the time. Once I was telling that story - I just disappeared …because the story was so powerful, it was so interesting, it was so urgent, it needed telling so badly. All I needed to do was tell it in as few words as possible.

So the worst bit was the first 3 years and the best bit was the final 3 years when I actually knew what I was doing.


Amazing, I feel like that’s often true in every creative project… where there’s that moment when everything becomes better.

I’ll use your words and say you are a “Glasshead”! Is there anything else that you’re fanatic about? Is there one sort of composer, or are you a general sort of guy?


If anyone asks what my favourite opera is I’ve often said that it’s the one I went to most recently. And I think that is sort of the case, as unexpected works can grab you.

The person I’m most in awe of as a human being, having written the book, is Verdi. It’s a cliché to say being a nice person doesn’t make you a great composer. It’s obviously the case that there are lots and lots of really nice people but they don’t write tunes like La Traviata. But in a funny kind of way, with Verdi, they’re connected! I love this man so much. He cared so much about war - Aida is horribly topical at the moment. And he cared so much about the hypocrisy in society around La Traviata. He cared so much about peace - in La Forza del Destino he’s longing for peace by pointing out exactly how dreadful it is when you have war.

He argued with his librettists because he wanted to get these works right. Forget about all the other bits - if you just read the bits about Verdi I think that’s an astonishing story of this wonderful wonderful man who wrote his best tunes when he was most engaged. He was angry about the totalitarianism of certain aspects of the Cathoic hierarchy in the 19th century, and Don Carlos was his way of exorcising that anger. He put the sight of people being burned alive by the Catholic Church onstage. It wasn’t so much that he was anti-Catholic as that he was anti-cruelty. The story of Verdi’s engagement with the world and that music is a wonderful, wonderful story. 


Thank you for sharing - I think so much beautiful art comes out of something rebellious, and out of a kind of resistance, that was beautiful. Our last question for you is: what’s next for you?


Oh – well, I hadn’t really thought about marketing and I’ve discovered that I need to do some marketing. I have an advertisement coming out in Opera magazine soon, and I’m delighted that there is a review of the book in Opera magazine in December. I need to do some work to get the book out into the world.