Friday, December 30, 2005


Books about opera lying around my house:

These books fall basically into three categories: books to help opera goers enhance their opera experience (Rough Guide, Getting Opera, World’s great Operas, etc.), books for professionals (Stanislavski, Smith), and books speculating on what opera is about. Because…. We aren’t really sure why we like opera. When we are watching car chases or love scenes in the movies, we are pretty sure why we like it. Opera inspires people to explain themselves. Missing from the list are biographies of singers and composers.

I. Books for everyone

The Rough Guide to Opera by Matthew Boyden.

This book divides opera into chronological periods and discusses selected works from each period. There is a plot summary and a discussion. Then recordings of each work are recommended and described. Missing is the standard list of characters with the vocal classification for each. This would make it easier to tell who was singing what in the recording listings. For the record collector this is the book. New editions appear periodically. If you own only one book about opera, it should probably be this one.

Getting Opera, a Guide for the Cultured but Confused by Matt Dobkin, 2000.

The first half is intended to draw people into opera who are not now interested in it. I am interested in two lists: opera on film and opera in film. There are a couple here that I haven’t seen. He has a sexy singers list and there is no overlap with mine. Isn’t that interesting! His includes Susan Graham, an idea that simply never occurred to me. In the second half of the book he describes 50 operas selected from all of opera, beginning with Monteverdi’s Orfeo and ending with Adams’ Nixon in China.

The New Kobbe’s Complete Opera Book by The Earl of Harewood, 1969, 1972, 1976 (originally by C.W. Kobbe, 1919.)

This is an extremely thorough plot book with voice classifications and musical examples. Material from the twentieth century has been added, including Britten, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, etc. My favorite is the inclusion of two operas by Ethel Smyth.

The World’s Great Operas by John Tasker Howard, 1948, 1959.

This is a plot book of over 200 operas, arranged more or less alphabetically. He includes the vocal classifications of the characters. There are appendices for composers, librettists, literary sources and characters.

II. Books that go deeper into the subject

Opera, a History by Christopher Headington, Roy Westbrook and Terry Barfoot, 1987.

This makes for interesting reading.

A Historical Study of the Opera Libretto by Patrick J. Smith, 1970.

Some librettists receive whole chapters of their own: Busenello (Venetian opera), Quinault (Lully), Metastasio (opera seria), Wagner (Wagner), Boito (Verdi, himself) and finally Hofmannsthal (Strauss). How interesting! He discusses Da Ponte from the perspective of his other librettos. Who knew he had other librettos? This is an excellent book written from a more academic perspective than opera books usually are. He fills in the holes between the works that remain in the repertoire and discusses the entire body of opera.

The Castrati in Opera by Angus Heriot, 1956.

This contains both general and very specific information about castrati, where they came from, who they were, where they went.

Stanislavski on Opera by Constantin Stanislavski and Paval Rumyantsev, 1975.

Constantin Stanislavski studied to be an opera singer before becoming the leader of the Moscow Art Theater after the Russian revolution. This is a fascinating book describing in detail Stanislavski’s approach to directing seven operas: Eugene Onegin, The Tsar’s Bride, La Boheme, A May Night, Boris Godunov, The Queen of Spades and The Golden Cockerel. There is also a long introduction called “In the Opera Studio” which describes the activities of Stanislavski’s opera studio. This book is essential reading for anyone interested in directing operas or acting in one of the operas listed.

III. Books on the meaning of opera

Opera’s Second Death by Slavoj Zizek and Mladen Dolar, 2002.

What was the first death? This discusses why opera isn’t keeping up with modern life. I have my own opinions.

A Song of Love and Death, the meaning of opera by Peter Conrad, 1987.

He begins with a section titled Rite and subdivides it into Orpheus, Dionysus, Eros, Mephistopheles and Dagon. Then he describes the opera of each historical period. I haven’t read this, but it looks interesting.

Opera as Theater by George R. Marek, 1962.

He works his way through ten operas from the standard repertoire and discusses how they are staged.

Opera as Drama by Joseph Kerman, 1956.

He gets pretty theoretical.

The Queen’s Throat; Opera, homosexuality and the mystery of desire by Wayne Koestenbaum, 1993.

This is not a sensible book, but why should it be? Opera is not at all sensible. There is an entire chapter on the Callas cult and another on how to behave like a proper diva.

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