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Jeremy Com­mons used to put on draw­ing-room oper­as. He doesn’t now, but for 14 years he ensured that these intim­ate dra­mas were reg­u­larly re-enacted, for a small audi­ence of the dis­cern­ing, at the James Cook Hotel and the Welles­ley Club.

Rehears­als took place in his house on Hawker Street, in the shad­ow of St Gerard’s mon­as­tery. And what a house it is! Two-storeyed, high-ceilinged, it was a house of grand pianos and chim­ing clocks, its walls lined with art of every kind, its sur­faces over­flow­ing with books and sheet music.

Com­mons was a lec­turer in Eng­lish lit­er­at­ure at Vic­tor­ia Uni­ver­sity, but opera was his real pas­sion, right from the age of 13, when he played Yum-Yum in the Gil­bert and Sul­li­van com­ic opera The Mikado. “To begin with, I thought the love of my life was going to be Verdi,” he says, sit­ting at his liv­ing-room table, vari­ous of his aca­dem­ic pub­lic­a­tions strewn across its top. “I saw a film of La Travi­ata at 15. But then, a year later, I heard a very fam­ous old record­ing of [the Don­iz­etti opera] Lucia di Lam­mer­moor… I sud­denly thought, as much as I love Verdi, I think I under­stand Don­iz­etti bet­ter. I can see what he is doing, and what he is doing appeals to me immensely.”

At Auck­land Uni­ver­sity, he “frittered away an enorm­ous amount of my time” col­lect­ing notes on every Don­iz­etti opera. After that came Oxford Uni­ver­sity, then an Itali­an gov­ern­ment bursary, which he used for a year of “per­eg­rin­a­tions” around the coun­try, study­ing Donizetti’s manu­scripts. It’s an apt word, per­eg­rin­a­tion, for there is some­thing — in the best pos­sible way — sharp-eyed and fal­con-like about Com­mons. He says of his late and much-beloved part­ner Dav­id Car­son-Park­er (him­self a not­able arts sup­port­er), that “he nev­er put any­thing out without my approv­ing it”, and he delib­er­ately spells out for me the names of opera com­posers, so as to ensure no mistakes.

Much of Com­mons’ life has been devoted to unearth­ing little-known or for­got­ten 19th-cen­tury oper­as writ­ten by men with names like Bal­ducci and Pacini. He has spent count­less hours sleuth­ing in obscure Itali­an museums and archives. He also once pub­lished a col­lec­tion of every review of every premiere of Donizetti’s oper­as. “Reviews of that peri­od are as extens­ive as sports com­ment­ary these days,” he says, with an air of regret for opera’s decline.

All this activ­ity has led to “what I regard as a rather undeserved inter­na­tion­al repu­ta­tion”, Com­mons says, in his well-roun­ded Brit­ish accent. It also brings the odd con­flict of the kind that the clas­sic­al world rel­ishes: Com­mons uses ‘Vac­caj’, not ‘Vac­cai’, as the spelling of the largely for­got­ten Itali­an com­poser, “as he always signed his name with a ‘j’. Which brings me into con­flict with [the opera dic­tion­ary] Grove… but I stick to my guns!”

Hear­ing for­got­ten opera brought back to life is, for Com­mons, tre­mend­ously excit­ing. Take Vaccaj’s La Sposa di Mess­ina, which had “the most dis­astrous per­form­ance” at its premiere in 1839, des­pite deal­ing with — racily enough — sib­ling incest. “It was hardly heard by the audi­ence, it was booed so hard. But when you hear the music, it’s a mar­vel­lous opera.”

Com­mons is still act­ive in the arts, fin­an­cially sup­port­ing one young male dan­cer, among oth­er things. But he is now “try­ing to draw in my horns a bit”, and, after a health scare, no longer goes out at night if he can help it. When I arrived to inter­view him, he said, pleas­antly enough, “You’ve come sev­er­al years too late!” This wasn’t true. But he has stopped run­ning his private record label Siri­us, named after the Dog Star, which was thought to cause fevers and plagues and drive people mad: “I thought, I may as well have a private joke with myself, that this was an enter­prise of madness.”

Nor does he still mount his draw­ing-room oper­as. But people like Eastbourne’s Rhona Fraser, who puts on an opera in her garden every year, keep the spir­it alive. “In so far as I have a suc­cessor here,” Com­mons says, mus­ing on the idea, “it’s Rhona.”