Springtime Reading for Opera Lovers (Part II)

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In the second of our two-part survey on new books for Operavores, we spotlight a book on the genesis of 15 great operas, and a penetrating analysis of a Philip Glass opera by one of today's leading essayists.

The Birth of an Opera • By Michael Rose

The 15 chapters in Michael Rose’s The Birth of an Opera (W. W. Norton) chronicle the genesis of 15 familiar music dramas, ranging from Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea to Berg’s Wozzeck. The preface announces that the book isn’t a history of opera, that it offers no continuous narrative or comparative explorations, and that it eschews musical examples and “complicated” analysis. Financial and copyright concerns, we read, prevented the author from delving into more recent works.

A graceful writer, Rose draws extensively on primary sources: letters, memoirs and contemporary press accounts relating to the operas under discussion. He includes a variety of choice tidbits: the catcall that greeted the Act I finale at the riotous premiere of Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia; the effect that it was funeral music for the theater’s recently deceased impresario; or the stately and often bilious courtesies traded by Strauss and Hofmannsthal as they crafted Ariadne auf Naxos.

That said, it is hard to tell for whom The History of an Opera is intended. The chapters on Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and Verdi’s Otello cover little more than well-wrought program essays; at the same time, discussions tend to start in medias res, limiting the book’s usefulness for opera newbies. The focus on composers and librettists feeds into “great-man” fancies, and many appraisals are diffuse or ill-informed: that Verdi for Desdemona’s music “turned to the pure melodic inspiration which had always been at the source of his art” (Verdi in fact often urged singers to serve the poet and not the composer); or that Poppea “is not a work in which moral judgments are made” (actually, many critics see it as an indictment of Roman imperial vice).

While the bibliography includes many worthwhile items, it is also shockingly out of date, missing such indispensable studies as Nicholas Till’s Mozart and the Enlightenment, Philip Gossett’s Divas and Scholars, Susan McClary’s Cambridge Opera Handbook on Bizet’s Carmen, and Carolyn Abbate’s In Search of Opera.


Waiting for the Barbarians By Daniel Mendelsohn

If I had to recommend a single recent publication to longstanding or newly minted opera lovers, I would direct them to the magnificent essay on Philip Glass’s Satyagraha in Daniel Mendelsohn’s Waiting for the Barbarians (New York Review Books). It doesn’t tell a making-of story the way that Rose’s book does. Instead, it does something vastly more important: it tells us why Glass’s opera matters.