Q: Why did you undertake this project?
Donna Leon: We decided to record the disc, write the texts, and ask Michael Sowa, a very well-known German artist, to do the paintings because we thought it might be a way to introduce Baroque music to people who might ordinarily never encounter it. The book gives them the texts, which try to explain the way former ages thought about animals, twelve of the many arias Handel wrote about animals (played and sung very beautifully) and the whimsical illustrations of Michael Sowa.
Q: Was it fun?
Donna Leon: I had more fun working on the book than on any other thing I've written. The Brunetti books are work; this was fun all the way: I attended the rehearsals and the recording sessions, spent time with the singers and the musicians, and became familiar with the arias and the operas from which they came
Q: What is included in the book?
Donna Leon: Twelve essays that present and discuss the way these animals were written about in the past and what people believed to be true of them; Michael's paintings; The arias sung beautifully.
Q: How closely did you work with the illustrator, Michael Sowa?
Donna Leon: Michael read the texts and listened to the first cut of the disc. Beyond that, nothing. A genius doesn't need suggestions.
When acclaimed novelist Donna Leon is not conjuring up tales of crime and corruption in Venice, or reveling in delicious cuisine, she is listening to music. For Leon, patron of conductor Alan Curtis and his celebrated orchestra Il Complesso Barocco, that usually means the work of her favorite composer, George Frideric Handel.
Over the years, Leon has noticed that the great musician filled his operas with arias that make reference to animals; rich in symbolism, the perceived virtues and vices of the lion, bee, nightingale, snake, elephant, and tiger, among others, resonate in his works. In Handels Bestiary, Leon draws on her love of Handel and her expertise in medieval bestiariesillustrated collections of animal storiesto assemble a bestiary of her own. Twelve chapters trace twelve animals through history, mythology, and the arias. Each is joined by whimsical original illustrations by German painter Michael Sowa, and an accompanying CD includes each aria, expertly recorded by Il Complesso Barocco. A fascinating, utterly original book, Handels Bestiary springs to life with Leons knowledge, passion, and wit.
(© Atlantic Monthly Press)