The NAB Blog

Introducing opera…

By Nicolas Soames

1 September 2007

Being part of the international classical music label Naxos, music is one of pillars of Naxos AudioBooks, and has been since its inception. We began with the platform of classical music with classic literature and it formed the distinct character of our abridged recordings: Beethoven Piano Trios with Jane Austen, lots of exciting late nineteenth century and early twentieth century chamber music with Sherlock Holmes, and Russian symphonic music with the great classics of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy.

But it was the Naxos AudioBooks team that also produced the range of music audiobooks that are now under the Naxos Educational banner: principally two series, Life and Works of 11 composers (Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Schubert, Verdi etc) and Opera Explained, 28 lively introductions to the major operas.

The Life and Works are available on 4 CD sets and as downloads and, written and read by Jeremy Siepmann, they remain fascinating and informative. I was a classical music journalist for 30 years, but I still found new things in them, and enjoyed the entertaining weave of words and music – with Jeremy skilfully highlighting just those pieces of music you really need to hear to round off a biography.

The Opera Explained is a 1 CD series mainly written by Thomson Smillie and read by David Timson – Carmen, The Barber of Seville, Così fan tutte, Madama Butterfly, etc.

The audiobook medium is the absolutely perfect medium for this: perfect preparation for going to see the opera. They are available on CD, but for their downloads you have to go to, the new download site for classical music. All MP3 – a very good service.

I thought about all this because I have just had one of my most engaging audiobook experiences.

Stephen Johnson, who wrote the Naxos Books edition of Wagner: The Life and Music (a 300 page book with 30 pictures, 2 CDs, and a free website!), has just written and read the Opera Explained introduction to The Ring of the Nibelungs. It is a 2 CD set and it is totally absorbing. Have you ever wanted to get to grips with Wagner’s masterpiece, to understand the background, the story, the leitmotifs? Do you know it a bit but want to go deeper?

I have known the Ring for most of my life. In the (er…) 1960s, when Radio 3 would broadcast the latest production from Bayreuth, the family would stop and we would all gather around the radio and listen, often with the libretto. Just like those wartime illustrations – except that my father didn’t smoke a pipe. (He smoked cigars). I was barely into my teens, but it was a very special occasion. My mother, who was Hungarian, explained how she sat in her box in the Budapest Opera House with a torch and the libretto on her knee.

I went to the first Ring at Sadler’s Wells (I seem to remember) and thought that I knew it pretty well. So when surtitles came to Covent Garden I went to Das Rheingold with a vaguely superior air, convinced that I would never look at them because I wouldn’t need them. It turned out they were incredibly helpful, highlighting little things which made me realise why deep in the orchestra at that moment was a particular theme – such as when Brunnhilde tells Sieglinde that she is bearing a child and she will save her, there is a hint of the Siegfied theme!

NEVERTHELESS, when I listened to Stephen explaining and discussing the Ring, I remembered things I had forgotten and discovered things I never knew.

He says that you don’t really need to know all the leitmotifs, but he does pinpoint many of them, which is a great help.

So, I highly recommend it!

It isn’t released until October, but I have enjoyed it so much I couldn’t resist writing about it. And, because I have it in my office I can give you a special preview to listen to – it gives the flavour of it all.

For more, put a note in your diary for October, and rush to your music shop, or buy it from your online retailer – or even download it from!

Nicolas Soames

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