Not everyone likes opera, but when someone loves opera, it’s a deep and passionate and unending love. There’s something utterly beguiling about the marriage of music and drama that makes some people downright demented about it. I know whereof I speak; I’ve been working with a small opera company since I was 11 years old, for nearly 44 years now, and I’m familiar with every form of opera dementia—my own and that of countless others. For the love of opera, people will stand in long lines in the rain, sit in uncomfortable seats for hours, travel long distances, spend years studying it, singing it, working at it, talking about it, writing about it.
It might be an exaggeration to say that Gustav Kobbé (1857-1918) was demented about opera, but the sheer scale of his masterpiece, The Complete Opera Book, proves that it was no ordinary labor of love.
Kobbé trained as a pianist, and took a detour to law school, but ultimately made his career as a music and drama critic for the leading newspapers and magazines of the day. In that capacity, he attended opera performances all over the world, including the 1882 premiere of Wagner’s Parsifal at Bayreuth, Germany. He put his decades of opera experience into The Complete Opera Book, published posthumously in 1919.
The book is truly a tour-de-force, covering over 200 operas in over 800 pages. Kobbé provides information about each opera’s premiere and important performances, with the leading singers’ names; a complete character list with voice types; anecdotes about the opera’s composition and early performances; analysis and criticism; a synopsis of the plot; and, as the title page boasts, “400 of the Leading Airs and Motives in Musical Notation.” The first edition also contains “One Hundred Portraits in Costume and Scenes from Opera”—fascinating historic photographs of the leading singers of the day, in character.
Alas, Kobbé didn’t live to see his masterpiece in print. In the summer of 1918, he was indulging in his other love, sailing off the coast of Long Island in New York, when he was killed by a low-flying hydroplane. According to the New York Times account, he saw the plane coming, and had just stood up to dive to safety when the plane’s bottom boards hit him in the head.
Luckily, he had nearly completed The Complete Opera Book, and it was decided to bring it to publication soon after his death, with fellow music critic Katharine Wright editing the work and adding some operas to it. But the apparent rush to publication unfortunately left numerous errors in the first edition. Still, Kobbé’s labor of love was deservedly hailed as a “notable addition to musical literature” (Oakland Tribune, Jan. 4, 1920).
The Complete Opera Book has remained an important opera reference work since. It was revised and updated a number of times, most famously by George Lascelles, 7th Earl of Harewood, whose best-known edition, The Definitive Kobbé’s Opera Book (1987) contains over 300 operas and is now considered a classic, though it lacks the historic photographs and some of Kobbé’s original commentary. The most recent edition, The New Kobbé’s Opera Book (1997), added some 200 additional operas, but disappointingly omits much of the detailed information and music notation contained in earlier editions, presumably to make room for those additional operas.
To my opera-demented mind, the later editions, while useful, somehow lack the charm of the original, with its frank enthusiasm (“Wagner’s genius was so supreme that, although he has been dead thirty-four years, he is still without a successor”) and its wealth of illustrations. The Distributed Proofreaders team has brought the original to life again, complete with photographs, and music that you can actually hear. Who knows, it may make an opera buff out of you.