Opera reference books tend to stick to the straight and narrow--synopses of the plots, a brief discourse on the music and biographies of composers, conductors and singers. And very valuable these books can be, too. Joyce Bourne has done something a little different; she has listed the major characters in more than 270 operas, giving details of their lives and relationships to other characters, and only gives a plot synopsis by way of a context for the characters. To which you might just say, "Big deal." But it's a bigger deal than it first appears. Quite apart from presenting a great deal of information that was hitherto unavailable in one book, Bourne is reminding us that it is the characters who are central to the opera. For many years, opera has been presented on stage as a narrative-driven art-form, which probably explains why so many reference books placed so much emphasis on plot, and the singers just stood on stage and sang without making much effort either to connect with their own character or anyone else's.
Thankfully, this has changed a great deal over the last few years. Singers generally now try to present their characters as credible people and give as much thought to their portrayal as would an actor. In short, they have to persuade an audience to understand their relationships and dilemmas and to care about the outcome. For audiences used to seeing dreary one- dimensional performances, Bourne's book will prove an invaluable help in meeting the singers half way.
Who's Who in Opera makes no claim to being all inclusive. You'll find all the major repertoire and some of the lesser performed works. If you're an operaphile, you're probably going to buy this book anyway. But if you're wavering, throughout the book there are a series of entries by singers and conductors about their favourite characters and how they see them which make fascinating reading. Placido Domingo on Otello might be slightly old hat, but others have gone for less obvious characters. Philip Langridge is brilliant on Aaron as is Charles Mackerras on Kostelnicka. But my personal favourite is Susannah Walton, William Walton's widow, on Cressida. Her moving essay is almost worth the price of the book in itself. --John Crace