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Fortissimo: Backstage at the Opera with Sacred Monsters and Young Singers Hardcover – September 13, 2005

4.5 out of 5 stars 12 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Murray, who eventually became a staff writer for the New Yorker and the author of some 30 books, including several racetrack-themed mysteries, initially had planned a career in opera (he died earlier this year at age 78). Writing this study of a year in the life of an entering class at Chicago's Lyric Opera Center, one of the world's top programs for training young opera talent, was both his way of experiencing his own "road not taken" and an opportunity to explore modern techniques of operatic training. Murray went to Chicago for the school's 2003–2004 season and sat in on everything—master classes, rehearsals, auditions and opening nights—talking with students, coaches and directors. Inevitably, some performance would remind him of an anecdote about one of opera's larger-than-life stars, its "sacred monsters." While hard-core opera aficionados may already know Murray's Pavarotti stories, and may even be able to trump his Zeffirelli tales, in the opera world, stories grow better the more they're told. This affectionate, appreciative tribute to the world of opera and its next generation of stars should please fans—and help their dates make better cocktail party conversation. 8-page b&w photo insert.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

About the Author

William Murray was a staff writer at The New Yorker for more than thirty years and authored more than twenty novels and works of nonfiction, including City of the Soul and The Last Italian. He died shortly after completing this book.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Crown (September 13, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400053609
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400053605
  • Product Dimensions: 8.5 x 1 x 5.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,881,030 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By L. Young VINE VOICE on October 13, 2005
Format: Hardcover
For the operaholics among us (I am one) "Fortissimo" is an entertaining and interesting look at what goes on backstage at the opera. Author Murray was given unprecedented access to Lyric Opera of Chicago's Opera Center for American Artists during the 2003-2004 season. This is Lyric Opera's training ground for young artists. Murray follows this group of twelve singers through coaching sessions, rehearsals, auditions and performances to give the reader a close-hand look at the rigorous intensity of this most glorious art form. Interspersed with this are chapthers which fill out the picture of what it takes to succeed in opera. There is a chapter devoted to the comprimario - singers who specialize in secondary characters. Another chapter is devoted to Pavarotti, a warning of what can happen when one achieves what Murray dubs 'sacred monster' status. A sacred monster, superstar, Pavarotti was undone at the end of his career by his enormous ego. This book is a wonderful gift for those opera lovers on your Christmas list this season.
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Format: Hardcover
Operalovers seem to love nothing more than trading stories about backstage happenings at the opera, and this book teems with them. William Murray, a long-time writer for The New Yorker and a one-time aspirant to a career as an operatic tenor, spent a year observing the goings-on at the Chicago Lyric Opera Center for American Artists, which takes twelve singers and puts them through one, two or sometimes three years of intensive training in order to polish them as operatic artists. Each of the singers is already a professional, but at the very beginning of their careers. We follow, with much detailing of coaching sessions, rehearsals, master classes, auditions and performances, these young singers and in the process learn a lot about what it takes to be an opera singer. He brings alive these twelve young people, as well as the coaches, administrators, musicians of the Center and along the way Murray shares his own almost sixty years of experience in many of the world's opera houses and we get anecdotes about some of the greatest singers of the twentieth century. Murray writes in a headlong style that impels the reader to keep going; I read the book in one day and had difficulty putting it down.

Murray died just after he finished the book and that perhaps accounts for some of the rare gaffes -- the garbling of mezzo Angelika Kirchschlager's name, the placing of the umlaut over the wrong vowel in Furtw'ängler's name, calling 'Fanfare' a British music magazine -- but in general he gets his facts straight and, best of all, relates them in invariably fascinating detail and graceful language.

I suspect that most true opera fans would like this book.

Scott Morrison
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Format: Hardcover
Basically, I agree with J. Scott Morrison. Murray, a former Gigli wannabe, knows his onions about singing technique and the ways singers can knot themselves up, all trying to do something "naturally." He also shows us something of how a great opera company (the Chicago Lyric Opera, in this case) continues -- and successfully -- in a country where the majority has no use for or love or knowledge of the form. Opera is a minority taste. In the age of the dumb-down, the minority may get even smaller.

Murray writes elegant, entertaining prose (he was a New Yorker staffer for a number of years), and each chapter takes on the tone and the depth of one of that magazine's "fact" pieces. His eye for detail is all you expect from his pedigree. For me, it's the details that make the book. The one quibble I have stems from the fact that Murray died soon after completing the manuscript. The editing job on the book could have been better. In addition to the flubs mentioned by Morrison, more irritating are the passages of pure repetition a zealous writer like Murray would have caught and excised.

For those who want more dirt, there are other books. Nevertheless, Murray doesn't gloss over the more fractious personalities. His mission was to report in depth on an opera program for young artists that seemed to work, and he found many reasons for its success. He is also clearly in love with great singing and great acting, and since he actually logged time on stage in his youth, he is cannier than most about what it takes to do something as difficult as singing opera. I think any young singer with ambitions in that direction ought to read this book to get some sense of the difficulties -- economic, physical, and emotional -- of trying to establish a career.
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I can only add my bravo's and vigorous hand clapping to the substantially articulated positive reviews this book received. It is clearly articulated in simple prose with a profound measure. Being an opera singer (or, for that matter, any serious worker in the art of creating music of a superior level) is hard work, whether one is of the few who attain great success, of the larger group who are successful, and of the majority who fall by the wayside or work at the less rewarding fringe of the profession. Among the most frightening aspects of having one's voice as his/her instrument is the constant fear that it will not respond as it should. Playing a trumpet, violin or piano has its risks as well....but, only occasionally does the instrument fail in circumstances where no remedy is readily available to fix it or find an alternative. With the voice, particularly with the enormous demands that an opera makes upon it, there is always a risk that, no matter one's level of mastery, it can falter or even fail, in the midst of playing the assigned role that day. This book, both a pleasure to read and a treasure of knowledge, mostly, but not entirely, about a group of singers in training, investigates what training at an excellent facility strives both to create the mastery....and also the confidence...to meet both the stress of performance but also the sometimes much greater stress, of finding professional venues in which to practice one's craft and earn a living thereby.
So, this is not only a book for opera lovers but one for anyone concerned with highly skilled crafts in which the supply of potential applicants is considerably greater than the availability of rewarding work.
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