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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences




The Billboard Illustrated Encyclopedia Of Opera edited by Stanley Sadie, Jane Bellingham (Billboard Books)  One of the most exciting and enduring forms of entertainment, opera has given rise to countless passions over the centuries. Inspiring a mixture of joy, rage, hope and despair in its audiences, as they engage with the characters through the combination of poetic libretto, beautiful singing and evocative music, the versatility of opera has seen it grow from a simple court entertainment to a complex art form which, for many, holds an almost spiritual significance.

The Billboard Illustrated Encyclopedia of Opera explores the dramatic and ever-changing world of this most complex of art forms, tracing the development of opera from Ancient Greece through to the present day. Each chapter begins with an "Introduction", which examines the relevant period, clarifying the backdrop against which the music developed and setting it in its social, historical and cultural context. There then follows a "Genres and Styles" section, detailing the new musical trends, performance styles and compositional techniques that emerged, as well as looking at the development of those that already existed.

"Key Composers" entries provide major biographies of the main composers of each era, including timelines and comprehensive lists of the operas they composed. These are supported by a section in which a number of each composer's most popular operas are discussed in more detail, together with synopses of the works. The "Other Composers" sections comprise shorter biographies, organized alphabetically, with synopses and further details of the more popular operas. In addition, there are entries on the main "Librettists" of each era, including the poets, novelists and playwrights on whose works the libretti were often based, and the most famous and infamous "Singers" that thrilled audiences across the globe by bringing the operas to life on stage.

There are also themes running throughout the book, highlighting further aspects of opera's development, such as how techniques in staging and scenery developed, and what roles the various opera houses and opera companies around the world played in popularizing the genre. Other boxes highlight well-known opera excerpts, familiar through their use in the popular media, or recommend the best recordings available on CD and DVD of the works discussed.

Combining authoritative yet entertaining text, hundreds of illustrations and a vast amount of fascinating information, The Billboard Illustrated Encyclopedia of Opera succeeds in bringing across the passion and excitement of opera in one highly accessible and deeply informative volume.

Beautifully illustrated and richly detailed, The Billboard Illustrated Encyclopedia of Opera examines the history and development of opera, from its roots in the theatrical choral       dances of ancient Greece, through the sublime compositions of Handel and Mozart and on to the groundbreaking works of Verdi, Wagner and beyond.

The comprehensive text, with over 200 opera synopes supported by over 500 vivid illustrations, bringing to life the visual splendour and emotionally charged atmosphere of the opera house.

*      Written and edited by a team of experts in the field

*      Organized chronologically by era, each chapter begins with an introductory section outlining the historical, social and cultural background of the period, together with discussion of developments in orchestration and in musical and compositional techniques

*      Each section contains biographies of the major composers, librettists and singers of the period, examining their lives and key works

*      Detailed synopses of over 200 operas are given, outlining the plots and characters Recommended Recording boxes suggest the best CDs and DVDs available for listening to and watching opera at home

*      Popular Melody boxes explore snatches of music from the world of opera that have become well-known through the popular media

*      Cross-referencing enables the reader to follow a subject of interest in more detail thematic entries can be traced throughout the book, developing subjects such as Opera houses and companies, or stage and scenery               

*      The extensive reference section includes a glossary and bibliography for further study

First Nights at the Opera by Thomas Forrest Kelly (Yale University Press) A behind-the-scenes look at the premieres of five extraordinary operas. Kelly brings the fuller human and historic-cultural contexts alive to these premiere’s giving a synoptic view of the many socio-psychological contexts in their aesthetic dimensions. A must-read for the opera or would-be opera buff.

Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, opera was the grandest entertainment in Western culture. In First Nights at the Opera, the renowned music scholar Thomas Kelly narrates the social history of European opera during its golden age by taking us behind the scenes at the premiere performances of five extraordinary and influential operas: Handel’s Giulio Cesare (London, 1724), Mozart’s Don Giovanni (Prague, 1787), Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots (Paris, 1836), Wagner’s Das Rheingold (Bayreuth, 1876), and Verdi’s Otello (Milan, 1887).

What was it like to be there, to see and hear and perform these operas for the very first time? Kelly takes us behind the curtains to introduce us to the nervous composers, the anxious impresarios, and the performers who had never sung these words to an audience before. Members of the audience, eager with expectation, take to their seats and boxes: What will appear on stage? Will someone miss a line? Will it be a triumph or a humiliation for the composer?

Richly illustrated and briskly narrated, this glittering introduction to the world of opera will delight aficionados and neophytes alike.

Excerpt:  What is it about opera that fascinates? For some it is being in the presence of great singing voices; for others it is the beauty of the music; still others feel a height­ened sense of drama when music makes its con­tribution to theater. It may be the sheer spectacle of so grand an entertainment, or even the purely social aspects of gathering with the élite.

For the twenty-first century—at least at its begin­ning—opera is a ritual in which predictable actions can be expected to take place in the presence of audience members who know how everything should go and will know immediately when things are not done properly. We mostly seek to hear operas we already know: we know the play, we know the tunes, we have heard many other singers in these roles and we want to compare them with the singers in tonight's performance.

Until recently opera was considered the summit of high art, combining theater and music, sight and sound, for the most discriminating audiences. It is still considered so by many. But opera is not, in our time, the grandest possible entertainment; there are rock concerts and sports events that cost more and entertain more people at once. Yet the many ways that the word opera is used to add glamour to entertainments and places make clear that the word itself adds luster. "Opera houses" that never housed an opera exist far and wide. "Light opera," "semi-opera," and "comic opera" describe musical enter­tainments of various sorts. And what of such terms as "soap opera," "horse-opera," "space-opera," and "Grand Ole Opry"?

An opera is a visual and dramatic experience, no matter how often we listen to one on a compact disc with our eyes closed. It is theatrical: it has characters, costumes, scenery, plot, movement, spectacle. But it is a form of drama in which the music dominates, and everything flows from this premise. Composers of opera, some of whom have made the greatest music ever composed, nevertheless intend their music to exist in this multi-media form. A recording is only the auditory portion of a much wider sensory experience.

The operas discussed in this book are among the greatest works by composers known in their own times primarily for their operas. Mozart and Handel perhaps are now known more for some of their other music, but they probably would have preferred to be remembered for their operas. Verdi, Wagner, and Puccini knew full well how to compose concert music, but they found their fullest expression in the theater. Making opera requires special insights, exceptional dramatic skill, a knack for balancing music and drama, and a knowledge of one's own audience. Not every composer has these talents: Schubert was a notorious failure at opera.

But composers of opera composed for people: for singers who would sing; for managers with a public to entertain; for, most of all, the people who would attend the performance.

A performance of an opera, like any performance, engages the active participation of many people—ushers, firemen, seamstresses, chorus members, orchestra members,

music-copyists, scene-painters, machinists, singers, audience members. All are part of what makes the performance happen, and in some sense the performance is an expression of the society that comes together to produce it.

The five operas in this book are among the favorites of their day. They have such a long history that any performance before an audience of experienced opera-goers brings with it a lot of baggage involving other performances, other conductors, other singers, other theaters. Modern audiences have heard many operas in many styles, from Hasse to Harbison, Monteverdi to Messiaen. In this context we tend to situate one of these great operas in a historical continuum, which our own culture allows and encourages. We are blessed with being able to hear almost any music, from any time and place, and from any culture, virtually any time we wish. We can have a breadth of stylistic and historical experi­ence that is unparalleled in human history.

But the blessing may also be a curse: because we have everything it is difficult to attach value to anything in particular. When we can cause the Festspielhaus at Bayreuth to perform the Ring for us whenever we want—and to pause when we tire—we may lose the excitement of being present at the magical moment when all those people came to­gether on one occasion to give one performance.

Mozart's listeners knew exactly what a late-eighteenth-century opera was like, what to expect, where the novelties were, which arias profited from the voice of a singer whom they had heard in many other roles. They knew the music around them, the theater around them, the people around them. For them this performance was the only performance, it was familiar and at the same time it was new. And it was happening now.

Of course, those attending the first performances of these operas came to the pro-gram fresh, without knowledge of the variety of operatic styles from many countries and centuries. But they had what we may lack: an intimate knowledge of the stylistic idiom of their own time and place.

There is something about performance that is exciting to everyone concerned. When the performance begins, we pay close attention. We don't want to miss anything—if we don't listen now we may never have another chance. Then there is the exhilaration of so many musicians making every effort to provide a good performance. Still, we can't be sure that nothing will go wrong. A singer may forget a line; another may not be in good voice; the orchestra may or may not be able to play the music in time and in tune. On a modern recording we can be pretty sure that the music will be of excellent quality and that there will be no musical disaster—otherwise the recording would not exist. So we can relax in a way, but we miss the adventures of uncertainty, of savoring every moment of an event happening in real time.


Opera is one of the easiest things in the world to mock. It has been ridiculed al-most from its beginnings with portly women in horned helmets, Bugs Bunny cartoons, the cult of Florence Foster Jenkins, Anna Russell's summary of the Ring, "The opera ain't over till the fat lady sings." Most of the jokes are related to the two basic aspects of opera that provide its energy but also create its problems.

The first of these is the duality of music and words. We do not go to the opera to see a great play; we go to hear the music. But the music does not move us nearly so much as when it also encompasses emotion, when it is the heartfelt expression of a character in a particular situation. Music can heighten drama in ways that any playwright would envy. But at the same time it can distract, slow the pace, even ruin the drama.

Music works differently from the spoken word. An actor speaking a part needs to go forward, to say more. But music often needs to pause, to repeat phrases, to give em­phasis by lingering or to build up a mood or an effect over time. This is why words are so often repeated in music. Leporello makes his point, as well as a musical cadence, when he says in his first song:

Voglio far il gentiluomo, e non voglio più servir, e non voglio più servir, no, no, no, no, no, no non voglio più servir.

Opera involves a tension between esthetic forces: the drama wants to move for-ward while the music wants to pause and reflect. The balance between these forces has shifted enormously over time. Whereas the earliest operas sought to provide simple melodies in speech-rhythms for a play of classical form, some later operas have been almost purely strings of beautiful songs connected by the thinnest of plots. Opera's continual "reform" is just a reshifting of that balance.

Second, opera is conventional. Nobody sings all the time in the real world. Nobody has an orchestra that begins to play whenever he feels emotional. Conventions are of course necessary in the theater, and even more so in opera. We like conventions, provided that we understand, accept, and desire them. Conventions are simply the result of participants' agreeing on the rules, of simplifying a complex world so that we can concentrate on what interests us. We are accustomed, for example, to detective novels, television situ­ation comedies, and western movies. We understand how each genre works, and we know that not every murder has six suspects who can be gathered in one room in the last chapter by a brilliant detective. Yet we gladly accept the unreality of the situation because of the pleasure it provides us.

The theater is by its nature conventional. In the operas we consider here, the theater allows us to look into a box in which people carry on their lives, oblivious to the hundreds of people watching them. What we perceive as an opening in that box they must see as another part of their world, a fourth wall transparent only to us. And yet they do not turn their backs to that fourth wall; they do not stand in a circle to have a conversation; they sometimes appear to freeze; their words are in verse; and an orchestra happens to be playing. We understand these conventions—they are characters in a play being presented for our pleasure: that is not really Julius Caesar but a famous castrato. We can ridicule the conventions if we like, or we can stay and enjoy the performance.

And these characters sing. In our world we communicate by speaking; but in

theirs, all discourse is sung. This is perfectly acceptable and desirable, so long as we accept and desire it. And at the opera, of course, we do. Indeed, that is why we are there. But the convention itself raises challenges. For if singing on the stage represents speaking in nature, how can we represent singing on the stage? Suppose a singing character invites another to sing a song? Composers have devised many ways to deal with this challenge: sometimes the speaking is done in recitative and the singing in arias, so that when the orchestra begins to play, we know that we will hear lyrical song. (More often, though, the aria represents not singing but an interior emotional reflection.) Sometimes the distinction is made in the lyrical nature of the melody, the clear musical references to song (a lullaby, for instance, or a serenade). Elsewhere a middle ground between speech and song is maintained in such a way as to make speech itself into song. And in some genres, including Singspiel (Mozart's Magic Flute, Beethoven's Fidelio), French comic opera (Carmen), and Broadway musicals, the dialogue is spoken.

Sometimes the characters who sing are not speaking at all—they are thinking. That is, in opera it is possible for time to stop and for a character to express in song what is known only in the heart. These are moments we remember for their beauty or their pas­sion, but they do not contribute to the real-time advancement of the drama. They can be a sort of freeze-frame, stopping the action and allowing us to be a part of the exterior drama on the stage and the interior drama of the heart. If we understand and appreciate this the opera can be a rich source of emotional and esthetic pleasure.


Opera houses, at least in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, were, like churches, imposing buildings in which all of society might gather together to view the grandest and most expensive entertainments available. Every small city in Europe has an opera house, and each tried to provide the most dazzling possible venue for opera. The velvet, gilt, mirrors, assembly rooms, and grand staircases made the opera house a palace for the public and a fitting temple for the ritual acts that the society would enact inside.

Those ritual acts, however, have evolved with time. It was usual in eighteenth-century London to hold a box for the season and to attend the opera repeatedly but to come to the front of the box only for a favorite aria or a favorite singer and then to retire to cards or other diversions. This atmosphere differs from the sacred silence and rapt at­tention that we now think of as normal. Parisian audiences thought it fashionable to come to the opera house partway through the performance; only tourists and first-timers came at the beginning. At La Scala in Milan the boxes were actually the private property of their owners—an extension of their house, a sort of reception room.

But the first night of a new opera is always exciting. Verdi's audience for Otello sought tickets by any means, and for once audience members were more interested in the opera itself than in the singers; Verdi is said to have wanted the most tuneful places in his operas to be rehearsed only at the last moment so that they would not be whistled in the streets before the premiere. This is not the excitement with which we greet a new work at the beginning of the twenty-first century, and most fans of opera are familiar with the op-eras discussed here. But there was a moment when each of them was new, and the audience

was eager to know whether this new entertainment would measure up. We now know the judgment of history, of how these operas and others have been revered and repeatedly performed. But there was a time when each was a cutting-edge contemporary music-drama, and it is those moments that we seek to recapture here.

Five operas are discussed in this book out of a vast number that might have been chosen. I selected these because I like them. But they are also among the great operas of all time, and they are representative, in a way, of major themes and trends in the period —roughly the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—when opera was the undisputed acme of the performing arts. There is, alas, no Monteverdi here, or any of the other great operas of the seventeenth century; nor is there anything from the important repertories of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. I focus on the period when opera was preeminent, on composers whose chief activity was in opera, and on places that have influenced the formation of opera traditions.

Nothing in this book is meant to suggest that we must reproduce opera in the style in which it was originally presented, or that first performances are the best or most authoritative. But something about premieres is exciting for everybody involved. The com­poser is on edge, hoping that the public will like what is being offered, and the impre­sario's fortunes may be made or ruined by whether viewers are pleased. The singers have studied and rehearsed, but they have not yet mastered these roles. Everybody is nervous, everybody is excited about being present for a significant event, everybody hopes for the best, everybody is waiting for the orchestra to play and the curtain to rise.

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