A History of Opera

A History of Opera

by Carolyn Abbate, Roger Parker

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“The best single volume ever written on the subject, such is its range, authority, and readability.”—Times Literary Supplement
Why has opera transfixed and fascinated audiences for centuries? Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker answer this question in their “effervescent, witty” (Die Welt, Germany) retelling of the history of opera,

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“The best single volume ever written on the subject, such is its range, authority, and readability.”—Times Literary Supplement
Why has opera transfixed and fascinated audiences for centuries? Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker answer this question in their “effervescent, witty” (Die Welt, Germany) retelling of the history of opera, examining its development, the musical and dramatic means by which it communicates, and its role in society. Now with an expanded examination of opera as an institution in the twenty-first century, this “lucid and sweeping” (Boston Globe) narrative explores the tensions that have sustained opera over four hundred years: between words and music, character and singer, inattention and absorption. Abbate and Parker argue that, though the genre’s most popular and enduring works were almost all written in a distant European past, opera continues to change the viewer— physically, emotionally, intellectually—with its enduring power.

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Editorial Reviews

Jeremy Eichler - Boston Globe
“Reason to applaud . . . vast scholarly authority is put to the service of a narrative both lucid and sweeping.”
Daniel Snowman - Opera
“Will surely become essential reading for anyone seeking an engaging and highly informed chronicle of the great composers and their works.”
G.W. Bowersock - The New Republic
“A highly idiosyncratic and personal history of opera. [It] has a brio, insouciance, and even irreverence that are very much their own.”
The Telegraph (UK)
“Fantastically clear-sighted and down-to-earth . . . focuses on what opera is and was rather than what it should be or would like to have been. . . . Their virtuosic spring-clean of opera’s past reveals an art form quite different to the one that we come across today.”
Literary Review
“Fresh . . . brave, challenging and, above all, useful.”
Publishers Weekly
In this sometimes plodding, sometimes energetic, but always fascinating history of opera, music historians Abbate and Parker conduct us on a captivating journey from the birth of opera in the 17th century up through the most recent technological innovations that bring operatic performances to wider and wider audiences. While the authors cover the breadth of operatic history—bringing to view important composers such as Monteverdi and Meyerbeer whose historical significance outweighs their presence in modern performances of their work—they focus their attention on the composers whose works are most performed today: Verdi, Mozart, Puccini, Wagner, Rossini, Donizetti, Strauss, Bizet, and Handel. The authors praise opera’s complex glories, demonstrating through their lovingly crafted survey that as long as performers are willing to devote themselves to singing the operas and as long as suitable spaces exist to host the performances, opera will continue to be brought to life, articulating some of the complexities of human experience in ways that no other art form can match. (Nov.)
Times Literary Supplement
“[T]his is the best single volume ever written on the subject, such is its range, authority, and readability.”
Daniel Snowman
“Essential reading for all who love this most ambitious of art forms.”
David J. Levin
“This book is not only a total delight to read, but its insights are so varied, its arguments so wonderfully precise and unpredictable, its prose so generous and engaging, that it is an utter delight to re-read.”
Ellen Rosand
“An extended duet of intertwined voices, this inspiring book is at once a history of opera and a poetic meditation on the genre itself, its complexity, depth, and allure.”
Christopher Morris
“A revealing genealogy of a living tradition that will speak vividly to those who continue to fall for opera’s mad charms, and entice those who might be about to.”
Andrew Moravcsik
“Experts and beginners alike will enjoy what is sure to become a classic work.”
Library Journal
Abbate (In Search of Opera) and Parker (music, Kings College London; coeditor, Cambridge Opera Journal) are both distinguished musicologists who have made important contributions in the field of opera studies, so it is not surprising that this impressive volume contains profound insights at every turn. The writing, which is lively, witty, and accessible throughout, is deliberately pitched to the broader opera-loving public; there are no illustrative musical examples or passages rife with technical jargon. The book proceeds in chronological fashion, spanning the birth of opera through 20th-century landmark works such as Wozzeck and Peter Grimes. VERDICT The authors make no claims to exhaustive coverage and focus instead on the works of the major composers. The sections on Mozart, Rossini, Verdi, and Wagner are particularly illuminating. It is disappointing, however, that only five of the 567 pages are devoted to operas composed in the last 50 years, and the tone of this section seems both handwringing and dismissive. This caveat aside, the book is a valuable addition to the literature and should be part of all music collections.—Larry Lipkis, Moravian Coll., Bethlehem, PA
Kirkus Reviews
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.

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Product Details

Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
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5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.80(d)

Meet the Author

Carolyn Abbate, professor of music at Harvard University, is the author of Unsung Voices and In Search of Opera. She writes on film, philosophy, and opera and has also worked as a translator and dramaturge. She lives in Princeton, New Jersey.

Roger Parker, professor of music at King’s College London, writes on opera and music in London. He is the author of Leonora’s Last Act and Remaking the Song and was a founding coeditor of the Cambridge Opera Journal. He lives in Hampshire.

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