Almost as long as there’s been grand opera, there’ve been books to demystify and de-horrify it for those many hundreds of thousands of non-initiates who’ve for one reason or another over the centuries found themselves confronted with all that steep and unapologetic weirdness happening on stage. Those non-initiates have been dragged to shows by their wives, their lovers, their bosses, or even their guilty consciences, as they wonder that most essential of all opera-outsider questions: am I missing something important?

They find it hard to believe they’re missing something important – it all seems so bizarre and ultra-specialized, after all – but they are. They most certainly are. Opera is the most sublime and powerful of all the human arts – more immediate than classical music and immensely more moving than most drama. It’s theater purefied, the perfect, almost indescribable marriage of raw emotion and complete artistic calculation, something so arch and rarefied that even the most roundabout descriptions have a way of making it seem absurd. Devotees know it for what it is, but they have the mother of all uphill battles trying to explain its magic to outsiders.

In modern times, that battle begins on two fronts: a) 99 % of the world’s great operas aren’t sung in English, and modern-day audiences in the US and UK are resolutely, aggressively monolingual, and b) to the extent that opera is associated with Wagner and Hitler, it is tainted as being the soundtrack to Teutonic psychopathology. Even to the well-disposed, it can seem a little crazed in its size, spectacle, and zeal.

Hence the flood of books, a mere six of which are offered here as bread-crumbs to the non-initiates trying to thread this particular labyrinth. The first of these books isn’t at all the best, but it’s mighty useful: The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Opera (specifically the 1985 reissue) by Harold Rosenthal & John Warrack. Our authors were veteran researchers and first-class obsessives, and their book will give readers everything operatic from:

Abbey, Henry Eugene (b. Akron Ohio, 27 June 1846, d. New York, 17 Oct. 1896). American impresario. First manager of the NY Met (1883); lost nearly $500,000. Shared management with Grau and Schoeffel, 1891-96.


Zollner, Heinrich (b. Leipzig, 4 July 1854; d. Frieburg, 8 May 1941). German conductor and composer. Studied Leipzig with Reinecke, Jadassohn, and Richter. Kapellmeister of new Flemish Opera, Antwerp, 1907-14. His ten operas include Faust (1887) and his most successful work, Die versunkene Glocke (1899), frequently revived up to 1939.

Also useful is a very general, very genial overview/introduction to the whole subject. There are multitudes of these, of course, but former Time magazine music critic Michael Walsh’s book Who’s Afraid of Opera? (1994) takes the prize for breezy enthusiasm:

If this book can teach you one thing, it is that opera is not about extravagant plots or elaborate sets, although it certainly has these. It is not about cult of personality that has always surrounded the art form’s biggest (in more ways than one) stars, from Patti to Pavarotti. It’s not about having a box at the Met – although the Met was founded because a group of Manhattan society swells¬† were stuck in the cheap seats at the old Academy of Music – or wearing a monkey suit or a new evening gown on opening night. It’s not even about singing, although singing is certainly one of its most important components.

It’s about music and how, through music, we examine our common humanity.

Most opera books tend to delve much deeper than such well-meaning platitudes, and one of the best of these is A Song of Love and Death (1989) by the joyfully cantankerous Peter Conrad, one of the century’s greatest writers about the art. This particular Conrad book takes readers through all the major composers and most of the major works, always presenting great syntheses, always evocative:

One of opera’s gospels is gluttony. It delights in Don Giovanni’s gorging last supper and in the gobbled repasts of Puccini’s bohemians. Isabella in Rossin’s L’Italiana in Algeri manages Mustafa by sentencing him to a regime of full-time eating and stupefied sleep. The fat man Falstaff has an operatic bulk. Opera also irrigates the well-fed body, and abounds in the praise of drinking, from the inebriated romp of the emperor and the poet in L’incoronazione di Poppea to Herod’s inventory of his wine cellar in Salome. But this physiological art – about bodily satiation just as ballet is about the body’s ascetic training – is at the same time metaphysical, redefining the boundaries between earth and heaven, sanctity and profanation, love and death; and that is the greatest mystery of all.

Some leery outsiders to the genre might find all this a bit much, however – there’s always a place for an opera book that simply and engagingly lays out the nuts and bolts of what’s actually going on, and the best of these is Paul Henry Lang’s 1971 book The Experience of Opera, which takes the newcomer through every aspect of what they’ll actually encounter – not just the singing and the staging but the theater acoustics, the ticket breakdowns, the house protocols … Lang would provide train schedules, if he could. He spends the bulk of his book dissecting the heart of opera, the interconnection between the words and the music:

Music alone cannot create dramatis personae; to do so it must ally itself with words. Without them, the music of an opera, no matter how beautiful, remains a thought without a body. Yet once a text has sketched an operatic personage, the music takes over an develops it far beyond what is inherent in the words. No musical genre has ever been the subject of so many theorizing prefaces and exegeses as opera, and in no other genre do we have reform movements proposed and opposed with such frequency and ardor. Musicians, dramatists, and philosophers have all been concerned with it, discussing the relationship between the spoken and the lyric theater, words and music, dramatic poet and composer; the nature of the libretto; the primacy of music or the drama; and so forth. Even Mozart, a composer without literary interests and ambitions, expressed himself at length (in his letters) about operatic music and dramaturgy.

Perhaps the height of this nuts-and-bolts approach was reached in Ronald Mitchell’s endearingly over-earnest 1970 book Opera Dead or Alive, which he affectingly dedicates to “Those who buy a ticket and go.” This book, too, dissects the physical experience of going to the opera, ruminating on exactly what your ticket buys you … important notes for the open-minded provincial in the days before tickets at the Met cost a week’s rent. Mitchell has the deadpan of the true believer, and he works hard to see a bridge between the general public and what the present era would term “opera freaks”:

The strength of the real generalist lies in his impartiality, his weakness in his ignorance. A specialist knows far more about one aspect or a few aspects of a finished production, but it is harder fro him to see the work as a whole. If those with special interests can be induced to broaden their interests and all generalists be induced to broaden their experience, the first steps will have been taken to the signal improvement of the audiences. As soon as audiences become better, better pieces have to be done and the pieces have to be better done. It means a great deal more work. Is it worth it? It is not only worth it; it is imperative.

And then there’s the utterly delightful In Defence of Opera by¬† Hamish Swanston, which I’ve had occasion to praise once before. This 1978 book is everything that opera-writing should be: it’s accessible but not reductive, lively but not showy, and most of all, fiercely protective of the opera audience itself – its validity along the entire spectrum of a bit city opera house on any given night. Even in this gallery of opera enthusiasts, Swanston stands out, not only for his offhand knowledge (which rivals Conrad’s) but also for his unfailing believe in the egalitarian nature of the art:

The vitality of the tradition sustains the sharer. He has come with the conviction that it is in the opera itself, not in the performance of the singer, the producer, or the conductor, assisting though they be, that what is important persists. And singer, producer, and conductor, distracting though they be, cannot prevent his sharing what the composer is offering. Stendahl, attending a Vincenza performance of Rossini’s The Italian Girl in Algiers in 1817, noted how the opera could ‘fire a blaze of joy in a third-rate theatre where the highest attainment was unqualified mediocrity.’ It is characteristic of opera audiences, therefore, to expect a good deal from a performance and to recognize the demand made for their careful attention. Critics have not always admitted that others in the house have come with such serious purpose as they.

That egalitarian nature of opera is the very thing most in peril these days, as the general theater-going public comes to see grand opera more and more as some sort of hyper-stylized kabuki mystery, expense, uninviting, and inaccessible. Books like these – and there are dozens and dozens more – should act as good-will ambassadors to this most misunderstood of arts. Plus, they’re all plenty enjoyable in their own right, merely as camp-fires of enthusiasm.


© 2007-2018, Steve Donoghue