From Development server
3 April 2015

Andrew Porter, 86, Longtime New Yorker Critic Whose Prose and Musical Discoveries Changed Opera, Has Died

Voice of Authority Porter HDL 811
Porter
© James Bradshaw 2015

ANDREW PORTER
Capetown, South Africa, August 26, 1928 — London, England, April 3, 2015 

On this side of the Atlantic, Andrew Porter was known best for the long period he spent as the classical-music critic of The New Yorker. His influence on the opera world, however, was far wider. He was a librettist, a prolific author of English singing translations, coeditor (with David Rosen) of Verdi’s Macbeth: A Sourcebook, editor of the newsletter of the American Institute for Verdi studies and an occasional stage director. He also reviewed for London’s Financial Times and the British magazine Opera, still contributing to the latter as late as 2014. 

Porter’s secure place in opera history would be unassailable had he done only one service: doing research in the library of the Paris Opera, Porter discovered that a substantial amount of music written by Verdi for Don Carlos, long assumed to be lost, and for which no conductor’s score existed, could in fact be reconstructed from the individual orchestral parts and singers’ rehearsal books. The music, which was cut after the final dress rehearsal and before the opening night in 1867, included a long Prelude and Introduction to Act I, an extended duet for Elisabeth and Eboli in Act IV and a long duet for Carlos and Philippe, with chorus, in the second scene of Act IV. In the orchestral parts, the cut passages had never been removed but were stitched or pinned or folded over, or covered by thin papers known as papillons. Porter built up the passages line by line, producing a full conductor’s score, and the music was published in the critical edition of 1974. 

After his boyhood in South Africa, Porter studied English at University College, Oxford. After graduating, he began freelancing for various London newspapers, then joined the staff of The Financial Times in 1952. He became the newspaper’s lead music critic, remaining there until 1972 before going to The New Yorker. Porter’s “Musical Events” column at the magazine quickly established him as the most knowledgeable music journalist writing in English. He originally was hired for a single season, 1972–73, during which he also reviewed dance. He returned to London for a season, making arrangements for a long-term commitment to New York. A typical review, reflecting what to all appearances seemed like unlimited space under the magazine’s editor William Shawn, might begin with a consideration of the manuscript of a given composer’s work, or the position of it in the composer’s output, or a history of revisions to the score and its history of previous performances. Porter traveled extensively to hear anything that interested him, and other reviews began with an appreciative overview of a city, with Cooperstown and Cincinnati receiving the same warm, open eyes as Milan. (One review began, “Bologna, a cultivated city that has long provided the world with a model of Communist civic administration….”) Poetry, architecture and the acoustics of various halls often came into play. Only after a full consideration of the context of the music would come an assessment of the actual performance, for which the reader was now thoroughly primed. Porter did not always immediately write about every event he attended, but over time he would draw on his huge reservoir of experiences, with the late performances of Janet Baker or Jon Vickers sparking a perceptive précis of an entire career, and with revivals of Britten operas assessed in the context of the entire performance history of the work since its premiere. 

There was nothing dogmatic about anything Porter ever did. In a 2010 interview with OPERA NEWS, after beginning to answer three different questions with the same words, he said, “I think you should call your article ‘It all depends.’” Unlike so many of his British colleagues, he did not automatically dismiss American composers and performers. He was particularly appreciative of the stage directors Sarah Caldwell and Peter Sellars (though not of Frank Corsaro) and the composers Sessions, Carter and Kirchner. It is possible that the bel canto composers never received as sympathetic an ear from any other working critic. As he gained hands-on experience as a stage director, especially with La Forza del Destino in Seattle, he became quite collegial in his sympathy for this task. His real-life practicality was also reflected in his discussion of singing opera in English translation, where again “it all depends” was a refrain. Porter’s own singing translations numbered in the dozens. They included the entire Ring des Nibelungen, which was sung repeatedly, and recorded, by English National Opera and published by Norton. Other translations, including Tristan und Isolde and Otello, are published in the ENO guides to those works. Porter’s astute comments on opera librettos, in English or any other language, came to incorporate his experiences as librettist of John Eaton’s Tempest and Bright Sheng’s Song of Majnun

In his long-term correspondence with composer Ned Rorem, documented in Rorem’s collected letters Wings of Friendship, Rorem refers to Porter’s “caring elegance.” The caring was manifest in Porter’s extraordinary attention to detail and his work ethic. When reviewing an opera that was new to him, such as Bloch’s Macbeth, he might attend three performances before he felt qualified to write about it; he frequently returned to productions after opening night to refine his viewpoint, and he reviewed virtually all music only after learning it from the score. The elegance came from his study of English at Oxford. The combination of deep musical knowledge with a sophisticated writing style, enjoyable as language alone, put Porter on an exalted plane matched only by Virgil Thomson. Porter demurred, saying that Thomson “was the master of us all,” but the bulk of Porter’s New Yorker reviews were collected in five published anthologies, and there is no question that they will continue to inspire musicians to try to meet the Porter standard. spacer 

WILLIAM R. BRAUN

Read an interview with Andrew Porter, "The Voice of Authority," from the August 2011 issue of Opera News. Porter wrote about Handel's Rodelinda on the eve of its Met premiere in "Music of Champions." His consideration of Forza del Destino can be read in "Grand Canvas." His appreciation of Berlioz's Benvenuto Cellini can be found in "Roman Holiday." 

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