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A musical challenge to our view of the past

Music and the Exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart

In Musical Exoticism (Cambridge 2011) Ralph P. Locke undertook an extensive appraisal of the portrayal of the ‘Other’ in works dating from 1700 to the present day, an enquiry that embraced a wide range of genres from Baroque opera to Algerian rap, and which was at once musical, cultural, historical, political and ethical.

Coughing and Clapping: Investigating Audience Experience

Is it okay to tweet during a concert, if it allows those who couldn’t attend to engage with the performance and the music? Or is it really just distracting, on top of all the coughing?

How to Write About Music: The RILM Manual of Style

RILM Abstracts of Music Literature is an international database for musicological and ethnomusicological research, providing abstracts and indexing for users all over the world. As such, RILM’s style guide (How to Write About Music: The RILM Manual of Style) differs fairly significantly from those of more generalized style guides such as MLA or APA.

Book Review: Opera in the British Isles, 1875 – 1918

Opera in the British Isles might seem a rather sparse subject in the period 1875 to 1918. Notoriously described as the land without music, even the revival of the native tradition of composers did not include a strong vein of opera.

Diary of a Redneck Opera Zinger

Heldentenor Jay Hunter Morris tells us about the lean times when the phone did not ring, as well as those thrilling moments when companies entrusted him with the most important roles in opera.

Weill's Musical Theater: Stages of Reform

Commonly viewed as a ‘second-rate’ composer — a European radical persecuted by the Nazis whose trans-Atlantic emigration represented a sell-out to an inferior American popular culture —

Opera from Cambridge University Press

Although part of a series entitled Cambridge Introductions to Music, Robert Cannon’s wide-ranging, imaginative and thought-provoking survey of opera is certainly not a ‘beginners’ guide’.

James Melton: The Tenor of His Times

Those of us of a certain age have fond memories of James Melton, who entertained our parents starting in the 1930s and the rest of us in the 1940s and beyond on recordings, the radio, and films.

Essays on Italo Montemezzi - D'Annunzio: Nave

An important new book on Italo Montemezzi sheds light on his opera Nave. The author/editor is David Chandler whose books on Alfredo Catalani have done so much to restore interest in the genre.

Alfredo Catalani — A new perspective on later Italian opera

Assumptions about later Italian opera are dominated by Puccini, but Alfredo Catalani, born in the same town and almost at the same time, was highly regarded by their contemporaries. Two new books on Catalani could change our perceptions.

The Sopranos — Dissecting opera’s fervent fans

I was feeling cowed by Herr Engels. The four of us had retired from the Stravinsky performance to a Billy Wilder-themed bar in Berlin, the least horrible late-night option in the high end mediocrity of Potsdamer Platz.

Opera Remade, 1700-1750

This substantial book is one of the latest in the Ashgate series of collected essays in opera studies and draws together articles from a disparate group of scholarly journals and collected volumes, some recent, some now difficult to locate.

Operatic Advice and Counsel…A Welcome New Reference Book

Vincent Giroud’s valuable new French Opera, a Short History, is in hand and very welcome it is.

Lotfi Mansouri: An Operatic Journey

The noted operatic impresario and stage director, Lotfi Mansouri, with the professional help of writer Donald Arthur, has issued his memoirs under the title Lotfi Mansouri: An Operatic Journey.

Cosima Wagner — The Lady of Bayreuth

Originally published in German as Herrin des Hügels, das Leben der Cosima Wagner (Siedler, 2007), this new book by Oliver Hilmes is an engaging portrait of one of the most important women in music during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Operatic Italian

Robert Stuart Thomson’s Italian language learning text, Operatic Italian, promises to become an invaluable textbook for aspiring operatic singers, voice teachers, coaches and conductors.

Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections

Ralph Locke’s recent book on Musical Exoticism is both an historical survey of aspects of the exotic in Western musical culture and a discussion of paradigms of the exotic and their relevance for musicological understanding.

Magic Flutes & Enchanted Forests: The Supernatural in Eighteenth-Century Musical Theater

Readers may recognize the author of this book, David J. Buch, a specialist on the origins of the libretto to Mozart’s Magic Flute.

Opera from the Greek

Perhaps it will be enough to tell you that I wasn’t halfway through this book before I searched the web for a copy of Professor Ewans’s study of Wagner and Aeschylus’s Oresteia, and ordered it forthwith: It has to be good.



Jack Winsor Hansen: The Sibyl Sanderson Story — Requiem for a Diva
06 Apr 2005

HANSEN: The Sibyl Sanderson Story — Requiem for a Diva

Jack Winsor Hansen's 520-page biography of Sibyl Sanderson (1865 - 1903) is packed with romanticism and gossip that will delight and titillate true worshipers of operatic divas and inquisitive opera fans. It also fills a gap in the music-historical writings about opera at the end of the 19th century.

Jack Winsor Hansen: The Sibyl Sanderson Story — Requiem for a Diva

Pompton Plains, NJ: Amadeus Press, 2004

ISBN: 1-57467-094-8


Sanderson was an immensely popular late nineteenth-century opera singer in Paris, where she made her debut at the Opéra-Comique in 1886. Sanderson and her family hailed from California where her father was a wealthy and influential politician and lawyer until his death in 1886, at which point Sanderson moved permanently to Paris with her mother and sisters, and Sanderson began her operatic career in earnest. That her studies began rather late resulted mainly from her father's opposition to her having a career on the stage, a circumstance that also resulted in a lack of proper vocal training until she was older than usual for opera divas to start studying. Yet despite her inauspicious beginnings, Sanderson became known for her three-octave range and excellent acting skills, as well as her apparently irresistible beauty. In particular, she was associated with the French composer Massenet, for whom she created roles such as Manon, Thaïaut;s, and Esclarmonde; and she also worked closely with Saint-Saens, who wrote Phryné for her.

There was, however a dark side of her life, as she developed an addiction to alcohol and morphine, which resulted in advanced liver disease at an early age. Hansen captures all of this, from the time that Sanderson's parents married through her tragic death at the age of thirty-eight. Moreover, he broadens the picture with information about the many composers, conductors, and singers with whom she worked.

Throughout, the attention to detail and thorough review of the numerous documents surrounding Sanderson's life and career attest both to Hansen's integrity as a biographer and to his obsession with the divine Mlle. Sanderson herself. Clearly, he has left no stone unturned, and he has thought long and hard about the reasons for her tragic illness, and subsequent poverty and early demise. Hansen supports his claims about Sanderson's life with a wide variety of documentary evidence including letters, telegrams, diary entries, receipts, hotel registers, newspaper articles, and extensive personal interviews with Sanderson's relatives and acquaintances and their progeny.

Unfortunately, in his zeal to present Sanderson's life in the fullest, Hansen often includes documents that are less than fascinating and occasionally banal. If the overall result is a scintillating story, it is occasionally a slow read. Hansen's prose is repetitive and too often spiced with dramatic insinuations and heavy-handed foreshadowing. And though the text is rarely interrupted either by musical examples (there are only four), or by copious endnotes, sometimes the lack of specific documentation sometimes gives the impression that Hansen is carefully controlling the reader's access to documents in order to support his own romantic versions of events. It is unfortunate that more documents are not made available in their entirety in an appendix or in the endnotes, since these would allow the reader to draw her own conclusions.

The reader might also find frustrating the lack of contextual information about French opera at the time of Sanderson's career. Although The Sibyl Sanderson Story includes captivating, if tangential, anecdotes and biographical tidbits about many of the major figures in French opera at the end of the 19th century, it fails to account for the overarching politics and nationalism then rampant in the opera business. While Hansen portrays Sanderson's career as turning on the machinations of such powerful personalities as Massenet and Svengali, he only occasionally alludes to the contemporary debates that raged over the direction of French opera in the face of the rising tide of Wagnerian music drama.

That Hansen is enamored with Sanderson is apparent in his portrayal of her as a larger-than-life talent moving in the highest echelons of musical society. He never acknowledges that Massenet may have been a "second-rate composer" (as Elliot Forbes describes him in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians) who needed a gimmick--such as a beautiful, unknown, American singer with extraordinary sex appeal--to help his operas fill the house. Moreover, though the reasons Hansen gives for Sanderson's alcoholism and forced early retirement, such as early overuse of her untrained voice and a predilection for socializing, may indeed be a part of her story, it is also true that the genre to which Sanderson dedicated her career--French grand opera--was not championed in her day (nor is it today). She dedicated herself completely to a small number of French lyric-soprano roles written by Massenet, Saint-Saens, and Gounod, to the exclusion of repertoire by Mozart, Verdi, and Wagner. Thus, her choice of roles limited her potential for popularity and fame outside the Opéra-Comique or the Opéra, just as much as mismanagement and greed destroyed her voice.

In short, The Sibyl Sanderson Story is an entertaining biography of an unusual operatic personality, though it occasionally lacks focus. Hansen speculates a great deal about the particulars of some events in Sanderson's life--including the possibilities of her lesbianism and of having been the victim of euthanasia--but having done exhaustive research on Sanderson, he is surely qualified to do so.

Megan B. Jenkins
CUNY — The Graduate Center

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