Secrets of a Soprano
As a musician and opera lover, the story and background to this new novel from Miranda Neville are right up my street. Nineteenth century opera and theatre are things that have long been of particular interest to me, and some of the best things about Secrets of a Soprano are undoubtedly the accuracy and richness of the historical background and the insight into the life and habits of a famous singer that form the backdrop to the central love story.
Theresa Foscari – born Tessa Birkett – is half English but hasn’t set foot in the country for well over a decade. Following an unhappy love affair when she was just seventeen, she married Domenico Foscari, a dynamic impresario who turned her from a good singer into a great one; from someone worthy of gracing the stages of provincial opera houses to the most sought after diva in the world – La Divina. Her marriage was tempestuous and not at all happy in the later years; and to her consternation, Foscari’s death has left her in a very precarious financial position. She now realises the mistake she made in letting him handle her entire career, from deciding where she would sing to what she would be paid; not only was he cheating her, he has left her completely ignorant of how to negotiate a good deal. Because of this, she failed to see the loopholes in the contract she has signed to perform at London’s premier opera house, the Tavistock Theatre, which dictates that she will not be paid until the end of the season. With little left of value to sell and a small entourage to support (including her vocal coach and her maid) Tessa hopes desperately that her finances will hold out.
Now Viscount Allerton, Max Hawthorne fell in love with Tessa when he was a youth of nineteen and they were both living in Oporto over a decade earlier. Unfortunately for them, her grasping relatives forced a separation, but Max has never forgiven or forgotten Tessa, following her career with a mixture of interest and bitterness as La Divina’s countless affairs with illustrious men – she is even rumoured to have been the mistress of Bonaparte himself – are all reported with salacious glee in the newspapers and scandal sheets. And now the great diva is gracing London with her presence for the first time – but is signed to the company at the Tavistock instead of Max’s Regent Theatre, a new, far more modern and artistically pleasing venue.
The Regent has been a labour of love for Max, who, as one of the richest men in the country has no need to engage in any form of trade or employment. But as he can afford not to care what people think of him, he can indulge his passion for opera without fear of censure. However, his mother, a strong, autocratic woman whom he adores and finds extremely irritating in equal measure, sees Max’s love for the theatre as an opportunity to get something she wants. She makes him a deal – if he can make the Regent pay for itself by the end of the season, she will stop nagging him to get married. And if he fails, we will marry the bride of her choice.
Having La Divina singing at a rival establishment is, naturally, a blow to his cause, as the diva is singing to packed houses while the Regent remains half-full. But when Tessa makes a mis-step, his theatre manager sees the opportunity to turn the tables in favour of the Regent, and leaks a story to the papers which, while based in truth, is in fact an unfortunate misunderstanding. But it’s too late – the damage is done and suddenly, Tessa is persona non-grata.
There is quite a lot going on in the story and in fact, I’d say that there is perhaps a little too much at times. The relationship between Max and Tessa – each of whom blames the other for their earlier separation – is an antagonistic one, with much bitterness on both sides; and I have to admit that I wasn’t completely convinced by their reconciliation. The fact that they continue to harbor such strong feelings towards each other after more than a decade is, I’m sure, supposed to be indicative of the fact that there is still the potential for love between them, but I found Max’s turnaround, in particular, quite difficult to believe in. It happens with such speed that I felt as though I’d blinked and missed something. I will also admit to giggling at the use of Italian terms for certain body parts during the sex scenes. I can certainly understand any author wanting to get away from the throbbing members and dewy folds that are so prevalent in romances, but I’m not sure that putting them into another language was the way to go.
But on the plus side, Ms Neville has done an absolutely tremendous job when it comes to exploring the world of nineteenth century opera, celebrity and the media, and draws some wonderfully strong parallels between then and now. Opera singers at the time the book is set were the rock stars and celebrity footballers of their day, and featured just as frequently in the available media as Nicky Minaj or Wayne Rooney do today. Tessa’s husband was a master spin-doctor, creating a persona for her as a promiscuous, crockery-smashing, tantrum-throwing diva , which, as Max gradually realises, is a completely different person from the real Tessa that he knew before and is coming to know again. The part of the story in which Tessa’s reputation is ruined because of a mistake is chillingly close to the sort of thing that happens today, when the media will gleefully build up a celebrity only to take them down in a hail of Tweeted bullets the moment they put a foot wrong.
Ultimately, it’s this side of the novel that I found the most engaging. I liked Max and Tessa, and the various secondary characters – even Max’s mother, who is a determined and intelligent older woman without being an annoying harpy. But as I said above, the story is too busy and as a result, fails to properly explore certain plot threads. The wager between Max and his mother is somewhat redundant, and there is a storyline concerning Tessa’s search for her English relatives that disappears early on and then comes back near the end. Hints are dropped throughout that Tessa has suffered some kind of sexual trauma in the past, but the resolution is weak and almost an afterthought. And while I appreciated the inclusion of a secondary romance between an older couple, it took time away from the central love story that it could ill afford. I’d have liked to have seen something of Max and Tessa’s earlier relationship to help convince me that in spite of everything, they still loved each other; but all we knew about that was what we were told, and it wasn’t enough for me.
In spite of those reservations, I enjoyed Secrets of a Soprano, but grading it was a little difficult. The romance isn’t developed enough, so it loses points there, but the rest of it is terrific, which adds them back again. Ultimately then, I’m going with a B-; I’d probably have given a B or higher had the romance been more convincing, and I can’t go as low as a C because Ms Neville’s knowledge and love for the period and the operatic scene shines through so strongly that it’s obvious that for her, the book – like Max’s Regent Theatre – has been a labour of love.