Endpaper Literary Review

Bibliophile in B minor

Titled ‘The Book Collector’, the libretto, written by a respected rare book dealer who knows this world intimately, had its world premiere recently at Schuster Centre, Dayton Performing Arts Alliance.  

What’s new in the rare book world? Plenty, I’m sure, but probably nothing as surprising and exciting as a new opera — yes, an opera — on antiquarian bookshops and collectors. Titled ‘The Book Collector’, the libretto, written by a respected rare book dealer who knows this world intimately, had its world premiere recently at Schuster Centre, Dayton Performing Arts Alliance. The libretto is by Ernest Hilbert, an acclaimed American poet who works at Bauman Rare Books, and the story and music are by Stella Sung, an award-winning composer. Sung, collaborating with Hilbert on an earlier opera, had become fascinated with his job as a rare book specialist and thought it a grand idea to set an opera based in that world.

I don’t think I can recall anything like this before: cinema and television have rarely bothered with the rare book world (except for token representations) and here comes something as classical and grand and full-fledged as an opera. Thank the bibliophile goddess that there was a librettist who was also an antiquarian bookseller.

The story is set in the 19th century, and unfolds one summer in the city of Bamberg in Bavaria. The three principal characters are: Baron Otto von Schott, a middle-aged and reclusive book collector, Anna Schott, his beautiful young daughter, and Herr Franz Bierman, a young and attractive bookseller. There is also a monk in a non-speaking part who lurks on the side, and an auctioneer.

As the opera begins, we learn of how all of Europe is in the grip and fear of the plague called Black Death. The reclusive Baron, sealed in his fortress, dares to step out to attend an auction. He risks the journey because he is himself in the grip of another disease known as Bibliomania: coming up for sale at the auction is a rare book he must have to complete his bespoke collection. Also present at the auction is Franz, our gentle, knowledgeable and determined young rare book dealer. As the auction progresses, the contest for this volume — “an imperial folio with elaborate clasps and bindings” — comes down to the Baron and Franz. The duel begins. And to the Baron’s astonishment and outrage, it is the young bookseller who wins, taking away the priceless volume.

Back in his ancestral house, the aristocrat collector broods and schemes to win it back. Yes, he will use his lovely daughter Anna to win it back. The ruse is simple: send her to the unsuspecting book dealer as a customer interested in rare books. And then set the trap. Anna is sent off to St. Martin Platz, the location of this antiquarian bookshop. Her instructions are to locate the book in the shop and, if it is not on open display, to coax it out of the book dealer using her charms. Once she has the book, she is to mark the pages with a red dust her papa has given her. The Baron tells her this mark will help him find the book one day. Anna and Franz fall in love, bonding over their passion for rare books. But though conflicted about harming him in any way, she obeys her father. The dust is a kind of poison that induces hallucinations and Franz succumbs. The Baron now makes his move.

An old and wonderful story with echoes of Flaubert’s Bibliomanie and Umberto Eco’s poisoned pages from The Name of the Rose, but with a wonderful difference: narrated in operatic song. Imagine it. What fun. For bibliophiles, I mean. I hope very much that those who commissioned the opera will make it available on video as filmed opera — which is the only way curious bibliophiles around the world can view it. We can at least be more hopeful of a recording of the songs becoming available. Here is a stanza from the Baron’s ‘poison aria’: “I must complete what I’ve begun. Just one more shelf to fill. I must take back what he has won, I know, I must, I will.”

Pradeep Sebastian is a bibliophile, columnist and critic.

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Printable version | Jan 22, 2022 12:08:48 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/Bibliophile-in-B-minor/article14384518.ece

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