A History of Opera Considers a Time When All Opera Was 'New Music'

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You might not know it if you have heard, say, Missy Mazzoli’s vibrant and enthusiastically received Song from the Uproar, but opera is “a thing of the past,” a form in a stage of "terminal… efflorescence"—a “revenant,” even. That theme weaves its way through Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker’s A History of Opera, a bracingly intelligent postmortem that has the odd and welcome effect of inspiring a good deal of hope about a supposedly lifeless corpus.

The authors are eminent musicologists. Among their other activities, Parker is a general editor of the critical edition of Gaetano Donizetti’s works, and Abbate wrote In Search of Opera, a graceful reflection on the genre’s contingent and ineffable facets.

In A History of Opera, the authors consider the practice that emerged in the 1800s and reigns today of reviving old operas rather than staging new ones. In order to make opera houses something other than museums (or crypts), they suggest that “we would need to learn to discard at least part of the past” and adopt the attitudes of more confident and prolific ages. In centuries past, Abbate and Paker write, “music was almost always new because past efforts were almost always cast aside, being thought of little lasting value,” and fresh and better operas were thought to be “just around the corner.”

However, as the authors' lucid and attentive analysis makes clear, opera by one account was born of the attempts of Italian intellectuals c. 1600 to retrieve the past and revive the long-extinct performance practices of ancient theater. Accordingly, early operas often enacted a drama of (would-be) recovery and resurrection: the tale of the bard Orpheus and his quest to reclaim his wife Eurydice from the dead.

The notion of discarding the old to make way for the new wobbles on other counts. Which parts of the operatic past should be cast aside, and on whose authority? History has many lessons to teach, one being that cultural erasures can beget impoverishment, and worse. What of the fact that meanings and canons change over time? Operas by Handel and others that, in the authors’ words, once “congratulated and flattered the ruling classes” are now enjoyed for their wicked ironies. Finally, Abbate and Parker’s own perceptive explorations illustrate the lasting value and pleasures of works from many eras.

Take, for example, their eloquent evocation of Pelléas et Mélisande and its mysterious musical world.

Often the characters barely intone their lines, with music so austere as to be next door to silence. Phrases often funnel down into pure orchestral resonance, with the harp or another deep instrument playing a single note that decays into echoes in an empty space. The drowned causality in Maeterlinck’s play becomes Debussy’s model for a musical equivalent.

A History of Opera abounds in insightful discussions of matters sweeping and subtle: tragédie lyrique and its taming of Venetian opera’s carnivalesque ways; the mise-en-abîme use of ballads by Boieldieu, Weber and Verdi; Wagner’s massive debts to Bellini and French composers; Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte echoed in Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, suggesting (in a work sometimes dismissed as musical whipped cream) that “humane empathy for the unlovable is the most rare form of nobility.”

The book’s major flaw is the absence of musical examples on page or in a curated audio archive. The authors claim to have eschewed scores because they “encourage the idea of opera as a text rather than as an event,” but their writing grapples astutely with both aspects of the form. Their relative lack of emphasis on Eastern European opera and skimpy consideration of living composers (Philip Glass and Thomas Adès rate little more than a sentence apiece) are also disappointing.

While Abbate and Parker are chary of the account of opera’s origins cited earlier, its elevation of theory over practice and “idealization” of opera as “a noble, prelapsarian form of expression,” they skirt the most disquieting idea of all: that perhaps song is “natural” and speech is “artificial.” Humans, after all, enter the world shrieking and mewling and must acquire words. It could explain in part the consuming pull that opera has always had for audiences, the growing fascination that this “exotic and strange” art form exerts after more than four centuries, a spell so nimbly anatomized in A History of Opera.

A History of Opera
by Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker
Illustrated. 604 pp. Norton. $45.

Weigh in: Is opera a historical art form by definition? Are there great works being written today?