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The Ultimate Art: Essays Around and About Opera Paperback – June 8, 1994


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: University of California Press (June 8, 1994)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0520076095
  • ISBN-13: 978-0520076099
  • Product Dimensions: 6.9 x 0.6 x 10 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,890,903 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Critic-novelist Littlejohn, who teaches at the Graduate School of Journalism at UC-Berkeley, is on such easy terms with history, art, literature and architecture, as well as music, and writes such compelling, expressive prose that this collection of 16 essays, reprinted from San Francisco Opera magazine, is a great pleasure to read. His hope of being "sufficiently engaging to lead readers to listen more carefully to the music" is immoderately modest given the scope of erudite opinion and factual material here, especially his 78-page introduction surveying the major and secondary opera houses worldwide and repertories past and present. Opposed to canon, Littlejohn's judgments about specific works are never "altogether closed" and he "potentially likes" most of the operas in the standard repertory. His formula for a "satisfactory" opera experience comprises these elements: the right opera, the right production and the right spectator. Opera buffastet itals/eed , for example, can be turned into "silver (if not gold) given the right production"; at the same time, Littlejohn does not countenance "directorial conceit alien to the score" as in Peter Sellers's stagings of the Mozart-da Ponte operas. New readings, though, are welcomed, for, after all, "The Ring is ours now, not Wagner's." Photos.
Copyright 1992 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

Most of these pieces originally appeared as background essays in the program book of the San Francisco Opera. They deal with specific issues, such as a survey of 20th-century operas based on Shakespeare. While some of these topics may seem a bit recondite for the average reader, the introductory essay more than justifies purchase of the book. It sets forth a down-to-earth aesthetics of opera based on a consideration of what goes into an ideal performance: "the right opera, the right production and the right spectator." The "Suggestions for Further Reading" section is a delight. Littlejohn has written opera reviews for the London Times and the Wall Street Journal , and possesses a sanguine and broadminded sensibility. His writing is a pleasure to read and reread. Highly recommended for serious music collections.
- E. Gaub, Villa Maria Coll., Buffalo, N.Y.
Copyright 1992 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

More About the Author

I was born in San Francisco, as were my parents and grandparents. My grandfather's grandfather came to California in 1850, along with a lot of other people. My children and grandchildren still live here. I've come to regard this state as a unique and explosively creative culture of its own, and have crafted my life so as to be able to live, work and write here--as often as not, writing about California.

I went to Berkeley to study architecture (it was nearby, and it was cheap). By my junior year, I discovered that I was a better writer than I was an architect. (I still travel to see and write about as many interesting buildings and cities as I can.) During those years, I also discovered what an exciting, tolerant, worldly place Berkeley was, and vowed to make it my home. I only went east to graduate school in order to get a position on the faculty at Cal--a dream job that I held for 35 years.

The English Department (where I started), and even more the Graduate School of Journalism (where I moved after six years), encouraged me to keep up my own writing. I had begun writing book reviews and articles for national magazines to pay graduate school bills. Back in Berkeley, I expanded my field to writing criticism of all the arts--I love good criticism, as much as I hate bad criticism--which led to ten years of television programs on KQED and the PBS network (268 programs) as their "Critic at Large." At the same time, the university's generous provisions for sabbatical and research leaves enabled me and my family to spend extended periods in England , France and Italy--I can handle French and Italian, and am working on Russian. During these leaves, and the long summer breaks, I was able to write most of my 14 books, eleven of them (including two novels) for commercial publishers, the other three privately printed.

One of the great things about teaching in Berkeley's journalism school was that I was able to combine, as Robert Frost once wrote, my vocation with my avocation. As a writer, I was writing critical reviews, crafting interviews and profiles of artists and art institutions (from jazz clubs to opera companies), and trying to turn my nonfiction reporting into something like literature, in the Dickens-to-Didion tradition. At the same time, I was paid to teach courses in The Critical Review, Reporting on Cultural Events, and Reporting as Literature. Trying to turn good writers into better writers for 35 years was not only a rewarding challenge in itself. It also forced me to be more careful, honest and conscientious as a writer myself. I also learned to love collaboration. My late wife Sheila (who was English) took all the great pictures for our book on English country houses. My last (and best) graduate seminar wrote all of the chapter/essays for our book on Las Vegas: my job was just to whip them along, edit edit edit, and write the bookending intro and afterword. Both these projects ended up as books published by Oxford University Press.

I'm now retired from teaching--35 years was enough, and my physical strength was giving out--but not from writing. I still try to do my more-or-less monthly "reports from California" for the Wall Street Journal (I admire their reporters' industry and integrity, and the arts editor's high standards--if not their editorial-page politics), write articles and introductions when asked by good friends, and have finished two (as yet unpublished) books since my retirement.

For me, writing is like breathing. When you stop it, you die. I broke my neck diving in a lake in the Sierra at 14, and had to walk around the world on crutches after that. Nerves and muscles took another dip later in life, and I've been using a wheelchair for the past ten years. There may be a book in that story also, if I ever achieve sufficient detachment to tell it straight.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on August 3, 1998
Format: Paperback
This is a very well-written and highly engaging work which covers many facets of opera, from performance histories and traditions, to singing and staging techniques- a little of everything. The author is obviously a devoted and knowledgeable opera lover of many years' experience. In the excellent introduction, which is longer than most of the subsequent chapters, Littlejohn makes generally successful attempts to codify such elusive concepts as "good" versus "bad" opera. If there is any fault whatsoever, it is the fact that, in his enthusiastic discussions of a subject he obviously loves, the author contradicts himself at times. He declares himself willing to place his faith in the hands of stage directors to enliven and re-invigorate the tired old classics through ingenious staging concepts, yet he condemns the likes of Peter Sellars and other directors who attempt to do the exact thing Littlejohn was urging just a few pages before. If he considers i! t incumbent upon these directors to do something new with opera's classic works, he must also accept the results, however misguided. But he is an unusually open-minded critic, and can even include some (mostly) impartial analysis of Richard Strauss' "Elektra" in a chapter on Greek-derived operas, for example, despite the fact that he acknowledges disliking the work tremendously. A lesser critic might have ignored "Elektra" altogether, but as it is one of the most prominent and successful operas based on a Greek source, Littlejohn dutifully includes it and gives the opera much sharp analysis. His tastes are quite broad, and while I do not personally care much at all for the likes of Handelian opera, to take one example, I found every essay thoroughly readable and enjoyable, and learned much that I did not previously know. This is probably the most wide-ranging single book on opera on my bookshelf, and any opera fan will find much to enjoy within its pages.
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