A HISTORY OF OPERA by Carolyn Abbate


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An account of opera’s evolution stressing performance practices rather than theoretical mandates.

Abbate and Parker (Music/Kings College London) begin by noting the central divide in opera between the words and the music. “The story, the narrative element, can often be ludicrous; but it’s also essential,” they write, a comment characteristic of their nuanced, all-embracing approach. The authors have no use for the attitude promulgated by Wagner and his disciples, that an individual opera is a sacred work to be approached with reverence. They complicate the standard view that opera was born circa 1600 from the desire of Renaissance Italians to recreate Greek drama, pointing to various less-elevated national theatrical traditions as important contributors to the art form. While their discussions of such game-changing artists as Monteverdi, Mozart, Rossini, Verdi and Wagner are unfailingly intelligent, they are even better on such neglected but crucial genres as opera seria, grand opera and opéra comique; the out-of-fashion Parisian opera scene in particular, gets its due. The authors occasionally seem unduly preoccupied with the undoubted fact that there has been a steep decline in the creation of new operas, even as recording technology and publicity tactics have expanded contemporary audiences for “opera’s museum culture.” Readers will sense that they prefer the times when opera was part of a living (albeit elite) culture, when people talked, flirted and wandered the auditorium during performances. Nonetheless, their coverage of every period in opera’s history is scrupulous and provocative. Their insights are frequently both shrewd and stimulating: for instance, the distinction they draw between “plot-character” and “voice-character,” a divide that allows a heroine dying of tuberculosis to sing loudly enough to match the orchestra, but that also, more importantly, transforms stick figures moving along with the action into psychologically complex personalities defined in song. Such paradoxes are the lifeblood of opera, and the authors embrace them with gusto.

Formidably knowledgeable and bracingly opinionated.

Pub Date: Nov. 26th, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-393-05721-8
Page count: 576pp
Publisher: Norton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1st, 2012


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