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Emperors of Song: Three Great Impresarios.

Frederick Stockdale. John Murray. [pounds]20.00. 224 pages. ISBN 0-7195-5702-X.

This sprightly book outlines the lives of two Englishmen and a German-American who staged some of the finest and most lavish opera productions ever seen.

The author is not quite in that league, a Princeling of song, perhaps. But Frederick Stockdale knows what he is about; he founded the touring company, Pavilion Opera in 1981, and wrote a light-hearted account of it in his book, Figaro Here, Figaro There.

The author now looks at three major operatic personalities. The first is Colonel James Henry Mapleson (1830-1901). Born in London, he made an early stage appearance when he was 'christened' at fourteen days old, in a Drury Lane performance of Shakespeare's Henry VIII. At eighteen years he was a violinist in the Royal Italian Opera Orchestra and he also sang. His Army title came from his service in the 6th Volunteer Tower Hamlets Rifles.

Mapleson was not very successful as a musician. In 1861 he became an agent, supplying singers to London's opera houses. One of his first clients was a then-unknown soprano destined to become one of opera's greatest stars, Adelina Patti. In 1875 he launched what Mr Stockdale calls 'his mightiest venture, and also his most crushing defeat', a 2,000-seat National Opera House on the Thames Embankment. The Duke of Edinburgh laid the first stone and by 1877, a building 100 feet high was rising but the money ran out. Eventually the Metropolitan Police bought the site, and Norman Shaw built New Scotland Yard there in 1887.

That was to be the pattern of Mapleson's life: grand ideas and brilliant productions followed by financial crises. In Ireland he was known as 'Fableson' because the great stars he advertised for his shows there often did not materialise. Luigi Arditi, composer of the famous song 'Il Bacio', summed up his personality: 'Mapleson was gifted with rare amenity and amiability of manner . . . He knew exactly how to manage his artists, and . . . his suave, gentle art' calmed even his creditors. But they got the better of him in the end. From 1875 to 1876 he was in New York and Chicago with ever more extravagant schemes. A financial collapse forced him back to London in 1887, where he went bankrupt. His 1888 book, My Memoirs, was a forlorn attempt to pay off his debts. He died of Bright's Disease in 1901, 'a poor man, leaving his widow destitute', to quote his son, Henry.

The name Oscar Hammerstein inevitably calls to mind South Pacific and Oklahoma - but that was Oscar II. Mr Stockdale is concerned with his grandfather, Oscar Hammerstein I (1846-1919), who was born in Stettin (now in Poland) but ran away at 15 to seek his fortune in New York. A young man of great enterprise, he soon became wealthy by inventing various products, and speculating in property and the cigar business. But his great love was opera. Eventually he built eleven theatres, including the Manhattan Opera House and what became the Stoll Theatre in London's Kingsway. In 1912 King George V made a Royal visit there, to be greeted by a cigar-smoking impresario who inquired bluntly, 'How are you, King?' Like Mapleson, Oscar I was unable to keep his head above the financial water. Lawsuits brought him down, and he died disillusioned at the age of 73.

By far the most successful of Mr Stockdale's subjects was also the most eccentric: the wealthy science master at Eton, John Christie (1882-1962), who inherited the Sussex mansion and estate of Glyndebourne, near Lewes. He also became owner of an organ-manufacturing company and of the Ringmer Building Works. In 1920 he had an organ room built onto his house, where he put on musical evenings - mainly of Wagner. In 1930 he hired two singers from the Carl Rosa Opera Company. On showing one of them round the house, he said to her: 'This (bedroom) is where we shall sleep when we are married.' She was the 30-year-old soprano, Audrey Mildmay. She thought this was a joke, but Christie was in earnest. He pursued her relentlessly, and in 1932 they were married. He was 50. On their honeymoon, she was taken ill with appendicitis. 'To keep her company,' he said, he had his own appendix removed in the same hospital.

It was Audrey who spurred on Christie's operatic ambitions. When he thought of extending the organ room, she said 'If you're going to spend all that money, John, for God's sake do the job properly.' The result was the Glyndebourne Theatre and some of the finest Mozart performances this country had ever seen. It opened in 1934 with The Marriage of Figaro, with Audrey as Susanna. She carried with her Glyndebourne's future, for she was pregnant; seven months later she gave birth to a son, now Sir George Christie and the present chairman of Glyndebourne Productions.

John Christie shared with Mapleson and Hammerstein the essential qualities of enthusiasm, optimism, and passionate devotion to opera. Where he differed from them (which is why he was ultimately successful and they were not) is that he knew the importance of building a team. They were individualists. He knew he had to rely on others and he then gave them almost complete control, even over the repertoire. In 1962 his team chose Debussy's dismal Pelleas et Melisande. For the first and only time, John Christie did not sit in his box for the premiere; six weeks later he was dead. He had created an operatic miracle in the green fields of Sussex.

Mr Stockdale has written a thoroughly enjoyable study of his subjects. My main criticism is that he is not generous with dates - too often events are merely described as happening 'just before Christmas' or 'on 10 April'. Some detective work is needed to ascertain the years. But he conveys much of the excitement and enchantment of this most comprehensive of all art forms. As a member of the Glyndebourne Festival Society since 1955, I can only say in the words of the Christie family motto: 'Integer Vitae.' Live a fully integrated life - and opera is part of it.

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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Bird, Dennis L.
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1999
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