When the Fat Lady Sings: Opera History as It Ought to Be Taught


141 pages
ISBN 0-920151-11-6
DDC 782.1'0207





Illustrations by Dave Donald
Reviewed by Desmond Maley

Desmond Maley is a librarian with the J.W. Tate Library, Huntington
College, Laurentian University.


Author Barber and illustrator Donald, who have published two previous
books of musical satire, turn their attention to opera with this latest
effort. When the Fat Lady Sings traces the history of opera from its
seventeenth-century origins in Italy to its spread throughout Europe in
the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Barber, a musician who is also an editor and writer for the Kingston
Whig-Standard, approaches his subject with a journalist’s skeptical
eye. And he is quick to point out the foibles and folies of the great
composers. The portrait of Wagner, in particular, is devastating,
discussing the composer’s penchant for wearing pink silk underwear and
his advice that the human race move to the equator and become

The book describes the evolution of operatic style, along with many
famous operas. The results are often hilarious. Surely there is no art
form that has more conventions or that more persistently strains
credulity than opera. Donald’s illustrations capture the satirical

An interesting sidelight is the chapter devoted to the castrati—those
unfortunate boy singers who lost “their marbles” (as Barber puts it)
to preserve their soprano voices.

The discussion ends abruptly with Puccini’s death in 1924; only one
page, described as “leftovers,” is devoted to the rest of the
twentieth century. Perhaps a chapter should have been developed on
Strauss, an opera composer of stature who lived until mid-century.

Still, When the Fat Lady Sings is a crackling good read and an
informative one to boot. It is recommended unreservedly to anyone
interested in opera. And do take time to savor the craft and wit that
has gone into the prose.



Barber, David W., “When the Fat Lady Sings: Opera History as It Ought to Be Taught,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed May 30, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/10781.