A History of Opera
by Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker

Reviewed by Matthew Franke


Published by W.W. Norton, 2012   |   604 pages

Perhaps the major strand of opera scholarship in the last twenty years has been a turn toward studying social movements and contexts rather than simply studying composers. In this regard, the flood of recent work on aesthetic movements and the reception of opera – including work by Steven Huebner (Oxford 1999), Alexandra Wilson (Oxford 2007), and Gundula Kreuzer (Cambridge 2010) – is especially revealing. Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker’s book marks the first time this developing trend has taken the form of a book written for the lay audience. In A History of Opera, Abbate and Parker present opera as a spectacle consisting equally of poetry, drama, acting, and music. While A History of Opera naturally takes detours to explore each of these arts in turn, the authors focus on opera as it is, and has been, perceived by operatic audiences; that is, they present opera in its totality as an event or an experience, as something heard, seen, and felt. The result is a full re-imagining of opera’s history: not as a succession of “great” works by “great” composers, but as the emergence of the modern operatic repertoire over time.

Naturally, performers have a major part to play in the experience of seeing and hearing opera. Singers have historically dominated opera, commanding legions of fans, often being paid more than composers or other musicians. As late as the nineteenth century, operas were altered and rearranged so that a star singer might make the best impression, even though today performers largely hew close to the notes in the printed score. But Abbate and Parker see the operatic voice as something more inherently mysterious than mere notes on a page. Part of opera’s fascination lies in the way that singing voices split off from reality, to permit, for example, a character dying of tuberculosis to sing in full voice, a man standing on a crowded stage to enter into a soliloquy heard only by the audience. The singing voice, in short, can transport opera to an emotional plane which leaves everyday reality far behind. It has also exposed opera to ridicule as unrealistic and exotic. Those who have sought to reclaim or purify opera have often begun by attacking the voice in all its extravagance, calling out for a clearer balance between music and the other elements of the drama.

Abbate and Parker recast opera’s history as a succession of approaches to the operatic voice. The earliest operas, written for Italian courts and literary circles at the turn of the seventeenth century, promoted an incipient fusion of speech and music, the recitar cantando. Fast forward to the early 1700s and an entirely different attitude had emerged, dominated by elaborate, decorative solo for star castrati, men who had been castrated to keep their adolescent voices from breaking as they reached puberty. After this, another sixty years brings us to Christoph Willibald Gluck’s (1714 – 1787) ‘reform’ operas, which sharply reduced the elaborateness of the singing; musical display was not to get in the way of emotion and drama. In the first half of the nineteenth century, Gioachino Rossini (1792 – 1868) and Gaetano Donizetti (1797 – 1848) both placed the voice at the center of their work; Giacomo Meyerbeer’s (1791 – 1864) grand operas gave explicitly social and political contexts to vocal outbursts, usually through plots in which romantic love and political duty were placed in tension. Giuseppe Verdi (1813 – 1901) increasingly denied the voice, pushed it, tormented it, so as to depict scenes of striking melodrama and increasing realism. Richard Wagner’s (1813 – 1883) concept of operatic reform, dating from the middle of the nineteenth century, was a reaction to what he perceived to be the excesses of vocal and visual display in grand opera. And so on, through the eventual fusion of opera with avant-garde drama in works such as Claude Debussy’s (1862 – 1918) Pelleas et Melisande, and the voice’s re-emergence in the operas of Benjamin Britten.

In keeping with their focus on opera as an event, Abbate and Parker emphasize elements which would have directly concerned opera audiences throughout history. We learn of the castrati’s role as a symbol of exoticism and luxury, of arias written specifically to suit singers’ demands, and of encounters across class boundaries in opéra comique. Nor are the historical and cultural aspects of opera denied. Abbate and Parker discuss the politics of claiming Heinrich Schütz’s Dafne as the first German opera and the effect of Wagner’s evolving views on gender roles on his Tristan und Isolde. Surprisingly and unfortunately, while the authors assert the twentieth century to be the “richest and most complex” part of opera’s history, the book cannot show this in the bare 123 pages devoted to the last century (the nineteenth century receives twice as many pages). Nor do they address the role of sound film in hastening opera’s fall from prominence.

When musical details do rise to the surface, as in the discussion of the ‘Wolf’s Glen’ scene from Carl Maria von Weber’s (1786 – 1826) Der Freischütz, they are explained so that the general reader should be able to understand the point of the discussion by listening to a recording or watching a film with the book in hand, more easily done now in the era of YouTube than ever before. Most references to music involve readily audible phenomena, such as changing tempo, the use of repeating themes, and melodic ornamentation. Indeed, the discussion of Lohengrin is striking precisely because it is one of the few times in the volume in which the authors refer to a score. Abbate and Parker possess a formidable talent for explaining the essence of musical action in simple yet effective terms without employing musical jargon or relying on scores, as shown by their discussion of the duet between Violetta and Germont in Act II of La traviata. They beautifully explain the central concept of the duet—Germont persuades Violetta to abandon her lover, his son—via the explication of Verdi’s technical strategy: as Germont convinces Violetta, she adopts his musical style; feeling remorse at his success, he adopts hers. This and similar passages in the book offer rewards for both the scholar and the general reader alike.

Abbate and Parker’s deepest insight into the nature of opera is their acknowledgement of its unknowable, inexplicable side, already hinted at in their homage to the magic of the singing voice. They explain opera’s effect without ever explaining it away. Their discussion of Mozart’s (1756 – 1791) three operas written with Lorenzo Da Ponte (1749 – 1838) is a case in point:

A ghost; a philosophical discussion about redemption; forgiveness; sophisticated, sadly accepting clear-sightedness about infidelity: these are all imbued with super-charged emotional resonance by means of music. To ask how, precisely, is to pose an impossible question. Mozart’s late operas…in one sense simply happened, one can’t account for their power simply by explaining local context and generic lineage.

The authors remain gently skeptical of any attempt to locate dramatic meaning precisely in a specific combination of notes, without also considering the other elements of the drama. Creating a broad yet nuanced context for Wagnerian music drama, for example, is more critical for understanding opera’s impact than exploring the minutiae of leitmotivic musical constructions.

Abbate and Parker consistently relate their topic to the contemporary reader. They suggest, for example, that George Frideric Handel (1685 – 1759), for all his fame now, was a ‘content person,’ overshadowed by the singers who performed his works; likewise that Rossini’s Guillaume Tell is perhaps best remembered today for its association with the Lone Ranger radio and television series; a New Yorker cartoon provides a useful insight into Richard Strauss’s (1864 – 1949) Der Rosenkavalier. Yet some attempts to translate the unknowable aspects of the past into contemporary Anglo-American popular culture imply correspondences between past and present which may mislead the reader. Thus we are informed that writing a work for the Paris Opéra in the mid-nineteenth century was ‘the Nobel Prize of the operatic world.’ Occasionally, too, the book is guilty of a gross oversimplification: ‘parallel triads’ were not ‘a Debussy invention.’ Similarly, the authors perplexingly describe a ‘sensual passage’ in Wagner’s Tannhäuser as accompanied by ‘an exotic, Moorish harmonic progression’ [emphasis mine]. Occasionally, too, for a book otherwise clearly intended for a popular audience, the authors neglect contextual information that would have been beneficial: a section labeled “Wagner’s Carmen” (304), occurs in the text before any discussion of Georges Bizet’s (1838 – 1875) Carmen has taken place.

While situating opera firmly within the history of ideas, A History of Opera is all the while mournfully aware of opera’s current status as a piece of museum culture. For, as the text’s final chapter reminds us, the most popular operas today are by Verdi, Mozart, and Puccini (1858 – 1924); Benjamin Britten (1913 – 1976), Philip Glass (b. 1937), John Adams (b. 1947), and other opera composers of the present or the recent past trail far behind these “classics.” Abbate and Parker note that the dearth of new operas for the modern stage has paralleled opera’s assimilation into modern popular culture. The style of music often referred to as ‘popera’ or ‘classical crossover’ draws some of the authors’ fiercest invective. A performance by the child singer Jackie Evancho typifies opera’s descent into kitsch: “It’s the burial rite for opera’s fundamental ground note of adult passion, the utter loss of meaning and context…” Thus, as the book reaches the present, opera is seen to, at least ostensibly, have exhausted many of its creative possibilities. Abbate and Parker conclude with a metaphor: “The trees in its vast forest are indeed very old and very grand. Their beauty, and the shadows they cast, are immense.” (548) Opera, the museum: not a pile of dead smoking ruins but of ancient trees still living, of operas performed again and again, the Aidas and Bohèmes and Lucias and Carmens, waving their leaves in the wind.

Matthew Franke is a Ph.D. candidate in musicology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where his research focuses on cultural translations of French opera in late nineteenth-century Italy.

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