Summer Reading

By Mark Schubin

From Shostakovich’s The Tale of the Silly Baby Mouse in 2012 to Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi in 2022, On Site Opera’s productions have generally been on the lighter side. That will change with Puccini’s Il tabarro [The Cloak]. How can you prepare for the passionate drama?

You might watch videos, listen to recordings, and study the libretto, but it’s summer, time to play outdoors and read books—mystery novels perhaps. The Metropolitan Opera commissioned an opera based on Winston Graham’s mystery Marnie; earlier, the Opera Theatre of St. Louis commissioned an opera based on James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice. You could read those books, or you could try Graham’s Take My Life or Cain’s Serenade.

Why choose the less-well-known titles? It’s because they’re both about opera. In fact, Cain wanted to be an opera singer; so did Agatha Christie. Opera is most prominent in her stories “The Face of Helen” and “Swan Song,” but it also plays a role in her novels Passenger to Frankfurt and (writing as Mary Westmacott) Giant’s Bread.

An opera composer figures prominently in the last. A real-life opera composer wrote an opera mystery novel also called Swan Song. You might not be familiar with either his novelist name, Edmund Crispin, or his composer name, Bruce Montgomery, but you’re probably familiar with the name of another opera composer and mystery writer, Hector Berlioz, who once planned murder, himself. His “Death by Enthusiasm” is unusual, to say the least!

It’s not just composers. Besides the likes of O. Henry, Ellis Peters, and Rex Stout, long-time Metropolitan Opera sopranos Queena Mario and Helen Traubel also wrote opera murder mysteries. So did Met tenor William Lewis. Violinist Erica Miner played in the Met’s orchestra for 21 years before writing Murder in the Pit. Conductor Cynthia Morrow wrote The Trill Is Gone. And the opera mysteries are not just hard-boiled crime stories. There are also opera spy thrillers (e.g., Gerald Sinstadt’s The Fidelio Score) and at least one opera ghost story (Dorothy Daniels’s Ghost Song).

Victims in operatic murder mysteries include singers and conductors, a prompter (in Traubel’s The Metropolitan Opera Murders), and a supernumerary (in Presidential daughter and soprano Margaret Truman’s Murder at the Opera). Besides Sherlock Holmes and Nero Wolfe, opera-mystery detectives include composer Wolfgang Mozart, his librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte, and singers Enrico Caruso and Geraldine Farrar.

Suspects run the gamut, too. In soprano Susan Larson’s The Murder of Figaro, they include just about everyone associated with the premiere of Mozart’s opera The Marriage of Figaro. In Barbara Paul’s A Cadenza for Caruso, set at the world premiere of the Puccini opera that preceded Il tabarro, they include conductor Arturo Toscanini as well as Giacomo Puccini, himself, composer of both past and upcoming On Site Opera productions.

Click here for a handy list of some opera mysteries, should you care to indulge. See you at the opera!

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