The Birth of an Opera: Fifteen Masterpieces from Poppea to Wozzeck

The Birth of an Opera: Fifteen Masterpieces from Poppea to Wozzeck

by Michael Rose

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The Birth of an Opera offers illuminating insight into how operas are written and the personalities, incidents, and musical circumstances that have shaped their composition.
Through a deft compilation of primary sources—letters, memoirs, and personal accounts from composers, librettists, and performers—Michael Rose re-creates for his readers the

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The Birth of an Opera offers illuminating insight into how operas are written and the personalities, incidents, and musical circumstances that have shaped their composition.
Through a deft compilation of primary sources—letters, memoirs, and personal accounts from composers, librettists, and performers—Michael Rose re-creates for his readers the circumstances that gave rise to fifteen operatic milestones. From Monteverdi and Mozart to Puccini and Berg, each chapter focuses on a well-known opera and tells the story that lies behind its creation.
Rather than retreading familiar ground with pages of historical and musical analysis, Rose places each opera firmly in the context of the composer’s life and provides an engaging text in which the varied and colorful personalities involved are seen to discuss, comment, and contribute in one way or another to the progress of its composition. The reader will find Mozart with a new and flamboyant librettist tackling the risky enterprise of Le Nozze di Figaro; Wagner confessing his hidden love for the woman who inspires him as he creates the passionate drama of Tristan und Isolde; Verdi deep in Shakespearian discussion with Boito as they remodel the tragedy of Otello; and Debussy coming almost literally to blows with Maeterlinck over the soprano to take the leading role in Pelléas et Mélisande.Throughout, Rose offers his readers the most direct possible link to events that have often become twisted or obscured by operatic myth, and in so doing he captures the bizarre interactions of chance, genius, practical necessity, and dogged determination that accompanied the making of some of opera’s most enduring masterpieces.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Drawing on letters, memoirs, and personal accounts by composers, librettists, performers, and producers, music historian Rose (Berlioz Remembered) allows these primary sources to chronicle the contexts, controversies, failures, and triumphs of 15 popular operas. Far from a staid history of opera, Rose's reflections—which originated over 50 years ago as a series of radio programs on the BBC—illustrate the human forces, including the contention between composers and librettists and the contention between audience and actors, that comprise the backgrounds of these operas. For example, in Monteverdi's 17th century L'incoronazione di Poppea, the librettist Busenello, recognizing opera as entertainment for the middle-classes rather than simply a spectacle performed solely for the king and his court, "wove into the historical core of his drama the popular elements that Venetian audiences demanded." Rose observes that Monteverdi's opera is the first opera in which composer and librettist "create a musical drama in which human ambition, human instincts, and human frailty are allowed to run their natural course to an end that accepts, for good or ill, the overwhelming power of Love." Bizet's Carmen was a disaster, Rose says, for hostile audiences found the music completely void of melody. Rose's entertaining book reveals new aspects of favorite operas for opera buffs and provides a nice introduction to opera for new listeners. (Mar.)
John Warrack
“Here are chapters of delight, elegantly and evocatively written by Rose, conjuring up the process of creation so as to make one eagerly turn or return to the music—and do so with heightened admiration and enjoyment.”
Hugh Macdonald
“In the world of opera the voices of librettists and composers, critics and witnesses, have never been so vividly or so ably assembled as in Michael Rose’s The Birth of an Opera, which takes the reader into the heart of the process by which great operas are made. These essays bring the composers’ partners, friends, enemies, and deepest thoughts to life. It is hard to imagine opera goers who would not be absorbed by the origins and background of their favorite operas, faithfully and lovingly set out as they are here.”
Gerard McBurney
“This is a delightful book! Michael Rose writes with grace and charm, his prose light as a feather and entirely accessible to someone approaching this art form for the first time. And yet what passion, what thought and experience lie behind his words, his astonishing quotations, and the subtle but always loyal judgments he delivers. Each of his fifteen chapters reads like a short story, sometimes funny, sometimes filled with twists and turns. But the cumulative effect is to place composers where they should be—at the very centre. For Rose, the musician is the dramatist.”
Alexa B. Antopol - Opera America
“Rather than retreading familiar ground with historical analysis and musical commentary, Rose produces an engaging script in which the individuals most closely concerned with each opera are seen to comment, debate and compromise. In this way Rose offers his readers a direct link to events that are otherwise beyond their reach, and he captures the often bizarre interactions of chance, genius, practical necessity and dogged determination that heralded the creation of opera’s most enduring and compelling masterpieces.”
John Check - The Wall Street Journal
“An appealing invitation to lovers of opera to discover—or learn anew—how 15 imperishable works of genius came into being.”
Library Journal
Rose (Berlioz Remembered) draws from a series of BBC radio programs he co-created with Hanns Hammelmann, which aired from 1955 to 1971 and focused on the genesis of 15 operas from the 17th to the 20th centuries. He excerpts contemporary sources such as letters from composers to librettists, as well as the views of conductors, opera house managers, critics, and other luminaries, while filling in the historical context. Many of the operas chosen are milestones in the genre such as Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, and while certain choices might surprise the reader (Wolfgang Mozart's Idomeneo?), the supporting documentation shows why they are all of interest. Accompanying engravings and photographs are illuminating and the bibliography is a useful blend of historic and recent titles. Unfortunately, musical examples are absent—these would have enhanced the work. VERDICT While the book's origins in radio means it flows like a traditional history, it still provides readers with fascinating background on the operas included and the creative processes behind them. A worthy complement to such earlier books as Thomas Kelly's First Nights at the Opera.—Barry Zaslow, Miami Univ. Libs., Oxford, Ohio
Kirkus Reviews
Full-scale portrait of an art form compiled from thumbnail sketches across four centuries. This close-up approach turns out to be an excellent way to spotlight key moments in the history of opera, although music writer Rose (Berlioz Remembered, 2001, etc.) modestly aspires only "to re-create as nearly as possible the circumstances in which fifteen individual masterpieces have been put together." Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea, created in the early days of a new genre, "achieved for the first time in history the fusion of drama, text and music that was always to be at the heart of opera." Gluck's Alceste restored the balance in that fusion by taming the vocal excesses of Italian opera, paving the way for later masterpieces like Berlioz's Les Troyens. The radical harmonic and thematic structure of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde "led progressively but inexorably" to Schoenberg's atonalism and to challenging 20th-century works like Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande. The personal stories are marvelous: music publisher Giulio Ricordi scheming to put together an aging, cranky Verdi with Young Turk Arrigo Boito to create Otello; the horrified manager in Paris, confronted with Bizet's groundbreaking Carmen, declaring, "Death at the Opéra-Comique!...such a thing has never happened…do you hear, never!" When Rose writes, "There is no more human opera than The Marriage of Figaro," he is identifying the characteristic that for him defines opera even more than great orchestrations or spectacular vocalizing: the creation of great characters whose inner lives and connections to our common emotions are made palpable in music. Based on a series of radio programs that originally aired on the BBC, these renderings let us hear the unmediated voices of the composers, librettists and others by drawing on letters, memoirs and other primary documents to bring to vivid life the process of making art. Intelligent and entertaining--a treat for opera aficionados and newcomers alike.

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Product Details

Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
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6.40(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.80(d)

Meet the Author

Michael Rose is a musician and writer living in London. He is the author of Berlioz Remembered and the coauthor of Words about Music with John Amis. He wrote the commentary for Erich Auerbach’s Images of Music, has been a contributor to numerous publications including The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians and The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, and was for sixteen years the joint author with the late Hanns Hammelmann of the BBC radio series The Birth of an Opera.

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