RIP Rodney Milnes

17 Dec

I’ve just come across the news that Rodney Milnes died earlier this month.  I didn’t know him (though the immediate quality of his writing made me feel that I did) but the thought that there won’t be any more of his pieces in OPERA magazine or elsewhere for me to read means that my world will be a less comforting, less amusing, less interesting place.

I first came across him in 1974.  I was an earnest 11 year old fascinated by opera and all it held.  My father bought me a copy of OPERA magazine and, in it, was a review by Milnes of a revival of Jenufa at the ROH.  It began “Janacek is like Mozart in one respect if no other: when asked which your favourite Janacek opera is you can only answer that it is the one you have heard most recently.”  I’m not sure that I agree with any of that now but, then, to someone who had never heard any Janacek and who was a bit nervous of him, putting the two composers in the same breath this was surprising; it caught my interest.

And it was that ability to catch your interest, make you laugh, think, nod in agreement or throw the magazine across the room in disagreement, that was his essence.  He made bold statements, he’d say things that he’d later recant and cheerfully admit it and it was this very humanity and fallibility that made him so engaging.  He wrote as he spoke – reading him was like being in a conversation with someone tolerant and passionate, irascible and patient – a human being.

I didn’t agree with him about everything.  In principle, you shouldn’t need surtitles but for those of us who don’t have time to study libretti and scores and whose German, Italian or Czech isn’t as good as it might be, been they help a lot.  But I think we are all allowed our prejudices and it’s the passion behind those that made his writing immediate and entertaining.

The comfort about him was that, whereas with some music and theatre critics you have a feeling that opera is a peripheral to their interests possibly even a curiosity, to him it was centre of his interest and that it mattered as an essential part of human existence.  When I read him, I felt that was at the core and, as a result, I took what he said seriously.  And I don’t think I ever read anything he wrote that didn’t have some grain of an argument behind it.

Of that generation, Rosenthal might have been more encyclopedic, Porter more erudite and academic and Greenfield more gentle, but Milnes’s individuality, his personality and passion mad him the one I felt closest to as a reader.

So thank you, Rodney Milnes, for introducing me to new operas, for your passion and your wit.  I will miss you.



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