Posted by: Philip Carr-Gomm | July 21, 2008

Alchemy and the Opera

Engelbert Humperdinck (not the pop singer but the German composer who followed in the wake of Wagner) once saw a performance of his most successful opera, Hansel & Gretel, and confided in a friend that he was dismayed by its superficiality. You too would be dismayed I think – this season Glyndebourne has produced a dazzling production with the most wonderful sets. But the opera itself is so trite you can’t help feeling you are trapped in an end-of-term production of the biggest-budget children’s panto ever performed.

Some of us want more challenging fare, and it is no coincidence that ‘opera’ uses the same term as alchemy, from the latin opera (‘works’ but meant as singular: ‘work’). The connection between  opera and alchemy is only of interest to very few people, but I know that a few readers here are interested, so I’ll just mention an interesting piece I’ve just discovered. Cherry Gilchrist, a writer and soprano singer, devotes a chapter in her ‘The Elements of Alchemy’ (now undeservedly out of print) to the relationship between Alchemy and Baroque music. Well worth getting a copy from Amazon for 1p.

‘The audience watching a Baroque opera is like an alchemist gazing into his vessel.’

Cherry Gilchrist


  1. I remember this being a really interesting little book. I haven’t read it for years but have kept it – you’ve inspired me to take another look. I really liked the Elements books. I still have Caitlin Matthews’s one on the Goddess, one of the first books I read that made me realise I had that ‘Goddess shaped yearning’ that needed to be answered.

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