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The Black Opera by Mary Gentle

One of the most interesting features of information available to us is how quickly it enters the left ear and leaves by the right with almost nothing to show it ever spent time in-between. Yet, every now and again, one phrase or, in some extraordinary cases, an entire sentence will magically lodge itself in long-term memory. It’s as if we always knew this new thing yet never recognised it before. For example, in V for Vendetta, we discover that, “Beneath this mask there is more than flesh. Beneath this mask there is an idea, Mr. Creedy, and ideas are bulletproof.” We always knew you can’t kill an idea with bullets, but this scene somehow personalises it. We also know the same thing can happen to faith. The major religions of the world and their antithesis atheism seem to have weathered various attempts to eradicate them. Sometimes, the harder you push against a belief system, the harder it pushes back.

One of the times when the battle between faith and its enemies was drawn in more epic terms was during the Enlightenment. Not only were rationalism in general and science in particular threatening to displace ideas thought divinely defined, but religion itself was experiencing the Protestant reaction against the Catholic Church started by Martin Luther. This produced a period of intense conflict both physical and political as the emerging secular governments began to assert their right to rule without interference from the pulpits. At this point, let’s consider one simple proposition. In the opera houses throughout Italy, the emotion of life was expressed in newly permitted romanticism. Through the music, audiences could soar to new heights of passion and understanding. In the churches, sung masses were also developing into major musical events where massed voices were raised in celebration of the divine. When both secular and religious music was performed, there was always the possibility of “faith healing”. People in churches might be able to throw away crutches and walk again. People might leave an opera house with a depression lifted. In modern medicine, we talk learnedly of the placebo effect. In those times, such occurrences were considered miraculous or in need of scientific exploration to determine the cause.

Mary Gentle washed out after wrestling with some weighty ideas

So, in The Black Opera by Mary Gentle (Night Shade Books, 2012) let’s assume an alternate world, not unlike our own, in which a third party group emerges to represent the interests of the Prince of Darkness. Now we come to the problem of coincidence. Suppose this group believes in the power of music to change the world in the literal sense. They try an experiment and, while singing a Black Opera to their version of Krakatoa, it explodes and shrouds the world in volcanic ash. Not worrying whether there’s actual cause and effect, this group now plans a second performance. This time, they will sing to Mount Etna or Stromboli or both. Should the local Kings get wind of this plan, they would obviously commission a countervailing opera. We’re in Sicily and the King must find someone he can trust to produce it. At first, he gets the best in Italy to come to Sicily, but all their efforts are frustrated by illnesses and accidents — i.e. subtle sabotage. The project is abandoned as cursed. So he turns to an atheist librettist to pull something out of the fire. I forgot to mention this poet has only six weeks to bring the finished performance to the stage. Fortunately his cross-dressing sister thinks she’s a composer and a top-class violinist so she can also conduct. Now let’s be clear. There’s no need for anyone to believe Mount Etna will actually erupt, but it’s the idea that it might. . . Once it enters the heads of the King and his confidants, it’s not something that can be ignored. The idea has become bulletproof.

Anyway, our librettist is short of inspiration so, naturally, he resists the temptation to bounce ideas off the ghost of his father. He’s sworn an oath of secrecy and can’t trust his father not to talk out of turn. Perhaps someone ought to exorcise the father. Then the King selects a noble-born Count to write the music. He’s a poser who thinks he’s a composer with the librettist’s ex-lover as his wife, except she’s dead — this first zombie is only included because she’s a Countess and blessed with the most beautiful voice opera has ever heard. That’s always going to be a social challenge to add to the shortness of time to get words and music together. Then there’s the problem of the librettist’s dead father’s debts. Surprising, really, how quickly these distractions are piling up. Then the rehearsal theatre burns down. As you will gather, this is a fantasy with a sense of humour. Perhaps all this should become the libretto. It has all the drama. Surely no-one would miss hearing about an Aztec Princess anyway?

While he’s waiting for the music to catch up to his words, our librettist is sent off on a secret mission. The Satanic Cult is planning to destabilise the King of Sicily and something has to be done. After a successful outcome, it’s into the catacombs to continue the rehearsals while rumblings in Etna suggest the Black Opera is also in rehearsal. And then comes a revelation that changes everything! And here’s something to chew on while you read the book. If there was an eruption, there would be a lot of dead people. . .

I can’t remember reading a fantasy with such sensibilities before. It’s a magnificent blend of our history and a radically different alternate history in which religion and rationalism clash in a completely unexpected way. I was entranced by the possibility of our atheist librettist being able to debate theology with the dead. Anyway, putting this speculation to one side, I’m reminded of Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche. In both our history and this fantasy world, humanity might give meaning to life through a belief in a God. Indeed, the absence of such a belief would be likely to produce a dangerously unstable nihilism. So if an Übermensch was to emerge, it would create a new set of values affirming the value of continued existence without having to rely on Platonic idealism. In such a case, the Übermensch would not be an individual. It would probably take the form of a Volksgeist, a spirit collectively representing the human race, or at least a substantial part of it.

At this point, I apologise to my readers. I’ve allowed myself to be distracted by philosophical issues that are not directly relevant to The Black Opera. Mary Gentle is playing with some heavyweight themes, but you don’t need to be interested in such background issues to enjoy this book. So here comes the headline. I was entranced, but I acknowledge that I’m a sucker for big idea books. It’s a wonderful story capturing the detail of how to write and stage an opera in six weeks, hoping it will somehow prevent a volcanic eruption. If that’s all you want, you will enjoy this book. If you want more, you only have to look beneath the surface of what happens when the curtain finally goes up.

And will you just look at the fabulous cover artwork from Sam Burley! Everyone who likes spectacular art should take a moment to look at his site.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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