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22 of 24 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A singular and rewarding history of opera
An important question to ask when selecting a history of opera to be purchased is, "How am I intending to read it?" (a sub-question may be, "Will I ever really read it?"). That is, will it primarily sit on a shelf and be consulted before some performances (i.e., used as a reference book), or will it be consumed as a single text, with an eye to a broader narrative,...
Published 18 months ago by GDP

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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Too popularized
Two excellent scholars try too hard to lower their intellectual intensity and sophistication for the popular market. Their previous work is clearly superior.
Published 5 months ago by DKO


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22 of 24 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A singular and rewarding history of opera, January 20, 2013
By 
GDP "GDP" (Northbrook, IL USA) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: A History of Opera (Hardcover)
An important question to ask when selecting a history of opera to be purchased is, "How am I intending to read it?" (a sub-question may be, "Will I ever really read it?"). That is, will it primarily sit on a shelf and be consulted before some performances (i.e., used as a reference book), or will it be consumed as a single text, with an eye to a broader narrative, including the underlying themes and fundamentals of opera, a complex art-form that rewards thoughtful study?

If the latter suits your purpose and you are willing to trade comprehensiveness for some outstanding insights, "A History of Opera" by Abbate and Parker is a solid recommendation. If you prefer breadth, or can afford both, then By Donald Grout - A Short History of Opera: 4th (fourth) Edition (ironically nearly 200 pages longer) by Grout and Williams is also recommended. Each has their own distinct strengths.

The distinctions between the two books are evident from their explicit purposes.

In their Introduction, one major issue that Abbate and Parker propose to investigate is the fate of opera, that is, in restatement, "Can contemporary opera balance the demands of an 'established' reportory while also producing new and relevant works?" They pursue that matter (and others) with their own style, one of an almost conversational quality, nearly shorn of references to musical scores, and focused upon the composers and works that most readers will have encountered (such as Handel, Glück, Mozart, Verdi, Wagner) while practically overlooking many others (for instance, there is only a passing reference to Vivaldi, and no mention of either of the Gershwin brothers, let alone Scott Joplin - all of whom receive comment by Grout et Williams).

In the Preface to the Fourth Edition, Williams recalls Grout's original intentions, and by extension his own, of writing a book "to offer a comprehensive report on the present state of knowledge about the history of opera" (xi). As such, it is focused upon scholarly research and has a tone more consistent with musicologists rather than accessible historians (this is not intended to denigrate the work of Grout and Williams - I would assign that book five stars, and it would be the first choice for many people seeking a reference text).

Examples of Abbate and Parker's conversational style:

"Opera can change us: physically, emotionally, intellectually. We want to explore why."(1),

"Minor works from the [18th century] that were unearthed belonged to history. Mozart's operas belong to 'us'."(36),

" ... Grand Opera in 1946 was not so much a genre as something you associate with a long-deceased great aunt, fondly recalling the ropes of pearls, the mink and the whiff of mothballs."(262), and

"Richard Strauss' 'Elektra' may have shrieked, raved and jumped up and down in dirty rags, struggling to make herself heard over an enormous, blaring orchestra; but never mind."(92).

In comparison, the Grout 'History' offers concise language and an academic, respectful tone.

With regard to Abbate and Parker's emphasis upon the most popular composers, the benefit is that their approach includes, in many cases, a more in-depth look at some works than is common for a history. For instance, in the Grout et Williams text, Rossini is given a five page overview (as well as many other references peppered throughout), including just these two short references to 'Guillaume Tell': "With 'Guillaume Tell', Rossini reached the climax of both his art and his fame."(389) and, "'Guillaume Tell' [is] one of the finest examples of grand opera in the early nineteenth century."(389). In Abbate et Parker, 'Guillaume Tell' alone receives three pages of discussion, including a focus upon the scene where Tell must shoot an apple atop his son's head. They write, "There is almost no music when Tell lifts his bow for the shot, only a single pitch from the tremolo strings, and that is significant."(269) The significance of the scene to grand opera is then explained. Other works that also feature a more intense look include Wagner's 'Tristan' and Musorgsky's 'Boris'. These digressions into particular works serve their narrative, and will not disappoint.

Conversely, Grout's discussion of Wagner's 'Meistersinger' is far more extensive and edifying than the entry in Abbate and Parkers text.

At times, the tone of Abbate and Parker's text seems to lack the solemn reverence of other histories of opera as when they remark upon Monteverdi's 'Orfeo' as being elevated to "the Ur-opera"(42) or the conventional tendency to, perhaps, over-inflate the role of philosophers and theorists in the birth of opera. In their account working composers deserve at least equal credit.

Maybe another question to ask oneself before purchasing: "Are you a proponent of opera being an elite art-form, the domain of musicologists as well as a few select others allowed into the guild, or is opera more a living art form, governed by the composers, artists, and a broader audience muddling about and finding the way?" Obviously some musicologists make great contributions to our understanding and appreciation of opera, but ultimately, isn't opera "about" artists entertaining audiences? Doesn't the fusion of text and music have a near universal appeal? Admittedly, part of opera's appeal is "digging in" and exploring its conventions (and its quirks), but its essence is the beautiful marriage of drama and music that appeals to both our senses and intellect.

In their words the authors refer to one contemporary perspective that "... has turned operatic performance into an activity policed by a reverence for the work as a well nigh sacred object - a reverence in almost all cases not present at the time it was created."(7).

For a reader willing to look at opera as an organic product of human expression that glorifies the voice with some peculiar conventions that evolve from time to time and then bounce across borders, this book is a very good read. Even if your great aunt might not have approved.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Bravissima!, April 21, 2013
By 
Anne Mills (New York, NY United States) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: A History of Opera (Hardcover)
An impressive and worthwhile overview, studded with precise insights and new perspectives. I was particularly struck with the authors' use of the movie "Diva". It includes a memorable aria from "La Wally": the authors use this to illustrate the power of song even divorced from any context. I also appreciated the fact that there are no musical quotes in the text (though a more musically sophisticated reader might be troubled by this), but that the operas are described well in words. Their treatment of Wagner is quite wonderful. My only complaint is the authors seemed to get tired at the end and dismissed many of the modern operas I have come to enjoy. This may be related to one of their key insights -- despite the spectacular growth of opera and opera houses and performances in recent years, most of what we hear is from the standard repertory and most new works are failures. Most, true, but as the authors grudgingly report, not all, especially not Britten or Adams or Ades. They dismiss "Einstein on the Beach": I thought this was one of the best new(ish) works I have seen. They generally ignore or dismiss the minimalists, but that's certainly not peculiar to these authors. And the book's overall value far outweighs any individual quibbles.
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6 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Understanding opera, March 12, 2013
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This review is from: A History of Opera (Hardcover)
I developed a love for opera only about 20 years ago and have gradually not only built up a list of favorites, but also am now able to enjoy operas that at earlier stages I found too difficult. This book tells me why. More, by showing me how the art form has evolved, and why, I now have a much better appreciation for what is happening in good opera. Particularly helpful for me was the way the authors explain in some detail, using arias and scenes from many well-known operas, how the cord changes, and musical themes and refrains tell the story as much or more than the libretti. I've wondered why there are so few contemporary operas that are successful or have any hope of entering into the repertory. This book discusses that issue in great detail in the final chapter - for me, worth the price of the book right there.
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3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Deepened My Understanding of Opera and Gave Me a Framwork for Thinking about New Questions, September 2, 2013
By 
Donald Mitchell "Jesus Loves You!" (Thanks for Providing My Reviews over 124,000 Helpful Votes Globally) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: A History of Opera (Hardcover)
"Sing praises to God, sing praises!" -- Psalm 47:6 (NKJV)

Having lived far from a major opera house for all of my life, I had a weird view of what opera was like based on the sorts of operas that can be staged in small venues with tiny budgets. I've seen Lulu so many times that I could recite the lyrics.

About ten years ago, I began making the effort to travel to the major houses where I could hear the standard repertory that opera buffs know and love, especially the Met in New York. The experience was transforming. I fell in love with opera, and I can't get enough.

Yet, hearing so many wonderful operas for the first time raised all kinds of questions in my mind about why the composers made the choices they did. I felt certain things were right ... and others didn't work very well ... but I didn't know how to describe my feelings. A History of Opera gave me a framework for my reactions.

Like many good books on a subject about which I would like to know more, this one raised more questions in my mind that it answered. I liked that. It will enrich my thinking for some time to come.

I feel very grateful for the book.

Its main shortcoming for me is that it doesn't say enough about the roles of the most effective modern performers and conductors, influences that strike me as worthy of more attention than I found here.

If you already know a lot about opera, I suspect the book will seem simplistic to you. If you are trying to learn, I think you'll like the book quite a bit.

As to the main thesis about opera being only about museum pieces, reasonable people can differ about that. I think the discussion could have been enriched by considering the somewhat parallel challenges that classical music has faced in this regard.
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5.0 out of 5 stars A History of Opera, April 17, 2014
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This review is from: A History of Opera (Hardcover)
This is a beautiful with wonderful pictures of opera scenes from the history of the opera. I have several very old history of the Opera books, but none as up to date as this and complete as this.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Very informative!, April 1, 2013
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This review is from: A History of Opera (Hardcover)
This book helped me fill in many gaps in my opera education, and enhanced my understanding of opera.Great book!!!

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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Book, April 24, 2013
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This review is from: A History of Opera (Hardcover)
Exceptional detail is taken to provide an accurate history of opera from the Florentine Camerata to the present day. Wonderful reference!
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Impressive, March 1, 2013
By 
james ward. lee (Fort Worth, TX USA) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: A History of Opera (Hardcover)
This history of opera tells me all the things that I have wondered about for years. It makes opera history make sense for me
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Too popularized, February 3, 2014
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This review is from: A History of Opera (Hardcover)
Two excellent scholars try too hard to lower their intellectual intensity and sophistication for the popular market. Their previous work is clearly superior.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars History of Opera, December 28, 2013
By 
Hazmatwillie (St. Petersburg, FL, USA) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: A History of Opera (Hardcover)
Book was purchased as birthday gift for opera-loving friend. I didn't read it, but he thoroughly enjoyed it and found it full of interesting information that he was heretofore unaware.
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A History of Opera
A History of Opera by Carolyn Abbate (Hardcover - November 26, 2012)
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