Nothing can substitute for actually attending an operatic performance. Quoting Peter Conrad, who wrote one of my favorite books on opera, A Song of Love and Death: The Meaning of Opera (Graywolf Rediscovery), "Opera is a mystery. This cumbrous, expensive relic of the past, so absurd in its conventional demand that people should sing when offering each other a whiskey or lamenting that they have dropped their door key, refuses to fade away. Instead it acquires new converts every year; and converts is what it demands, for like a religion it changes the lives of those it wins over, transforming them into acolytes and partisans who will queue all night in a blizzard to buy tickets or cross continents for a performance---who think, talk, read and dream about the art that is their avocation."
Once you have been drawn into the mystery-religion of opera, and have knocked a few performances under your belt, you will want to be able to discuss the Queen of Music intelligently with your fellow acolytes. These books will educate and entertain you and draw you deeper into the sacred mystery:
A Night at the Opera: An Irreverent Guide to The Plots, The Singers, The Composers, The Recordings (Modern Library Paperbacks), Suppose you had an eccentric, British uncle (Sir Denis Forman, the author of this book) who was absolutely nuts about opera. You're a tyro yourself, so whenever you go CD shopping or attend a live performance, he entertains you with a humorous summary of the libretto (not too hard to do with an opera if it's not "Wozzeck"), tells you which bits to really listen for, and provides a critique of singers. He's an expert---after all he was the deputy chairman of one of England's great opera houses---but he's not a snob. Listen to what he has to say about death in the mystic land of Oprania:
"Death is extremely common and has an almost universal characteristic unknown in our world, namely a period of Imminence during which the doomed person suffers a compulsion to sing. There are few known cases in Oprania where death has occurred without an aria, or at least a cavatina, being delivered during Imminence. The period of Imminence for long deaths can last for up to a whole act. Not even decapitation can ensure an aria-free death..."
If you think bursting into song at death's door is highly unlikely, listen to what the author--I mean your uncle--has to say about Valentin's death (he was stabbed by Faust with the help of the devil) in Gounod's "Faust:"
"Valentin is found dying in the street by a respectful and horrified chorus. He makes the customary brave gestures of a soldier in the face of death and turns on Marguerite [his sister who is Faust's lover] rather nastily (first in recitative and then in a short aria) saying that the only course open to her now is to become a hooker for the rest of her life."
Valentin curses his sister and dies, and for all his musical effort is only awarded one star (out of a possible three) by Sir Denis. "Faust" itself is rated a 'beta' (on a scale where 'alpha-plus' is reserved for truly great operas such as "The Marriage of Figaro", and 'gamma or less' for truly forgettable operas such as "La Rondine").
The eighty-three operas that were chosen to appear in this book all had three or more versions listed in the "Gramophone" CD catalogue of December 1992, from Cilea's "Adriana Lecouvreur" to Berg's "Wozzeck." Each opera's libretto is lovingly (and somewhat whackily) described. There is a "Look Out For" section that describes and rates the opera's arias, preludes, choruses, intermezzos, etc. with one to three stars.
I loved "A Night at the Opera" and you will too, even if you only have a sneaking fondness for the 'Queen of Music'.
Hugh Vickers' Great Operatic Disasters. As Peter Ustinov puts it in his introduction to this book, "There is no art form which attempts the sublime while defying the ridiculous with quite the foolhardiness of opera." This book is packed with those moments where the sublime, like Rigoletto's hump, momentarily descended into the ridiculous. All of the great stories are here: not one, but two Lohengrins who had to cope with vanishing swans; Rigoletto's sliding hump (I actually attended a performance where Rigoletto took off his coat and threw it on the Duke's throne--and the hump went with it. The not-so-hunchbacked hunchback sang the rest of his aria, then showed up in the following scene at the inn with his hump reattached), Tosca and the trampoline, and Tosca and the clueless firing squad.
Skeletons from the Opera Closet: An Irreverent Appreciation is an extremely funny, editorialized history of opera, even though it leaves most of Opera's favorite sight gags (e.g. Tosca and the trampoline)to Vickers' "Operatic Disasters" and "More Operatic Disasters". My favorite chapter is, "Having an Acts to Grind" where the authors discuss their least favorite acts in some very well known operas. The cover art is by Edward Gorey--a perfect choice for this odd-ball frolic through the grand halls of opera.
Opera and its Symbols: The Unity of Words, Music and Staging According to musicologist, Robert Donington, if an operatic producer unravels a single thread of the original composer's unity of words, music, and staging (almost always it is the staging that is tugged and twisted), then the opera's symbolic center will not hold. Opera also demands commitment from audiences who wish to enter its world of symbols and metaphor, and this book is a key to that unique world.
The Bel Canto Operas: A Guide to the Operas of Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti are my favorites and this is the ideal handbook for fans like me. Knowledgeable and filled with great anecdotes--supposedly Rossini composed "Maometto secondo" "with the index and little fingers of his left hand extended to form the sign of the devil's horns..." because his librettist, Cesare della Valle, Duke of Ventignano was reputed to possess the 'mal occhio' or evil eye.
The Experience of Opera (Norton Library, N706) is an informed introduction to operatic history and literature, through the immediate reactions of a working reviewer. All of the major composers are discussed from Gluck to Stravinsky.
Opera-Dead or Alive: Production, Performance and Enjoyment of Musical Theatre "This book about lyric drama is intended...for that large and important group of people who constitute the bulk of audiences for opera, operetta, and musical comedy." The author shares his personal observations from both sides of the curtain, and he will help you become a much better critic of both good and bad performances.
Opera News is a must for American opera fans who want to keep up-to-date about their favorite singers and opera productions. You get a yearly subscription to the magazine with a Metropolitan Opera Guild membership, which in turn provides support to the Metropolitan Opera. Another good magazine not sold at this website is "The Opera Quarterly," published by the Duke University Press. As you might guess, it is a more scholarly, historical look at the Queen of Music.
Handel, Revised Edition Christopher Hogwood composed this biography from many original sources: letters; contemporaneous biographies; press clippings; court proceedings; paintings; and even a rather rude cartoon. He gently admonishes earlier Handel biographers for their errors, and presents both Handel, the genius, and Handel, the pig-headed Saxon bully, who once attempted to defenestrate a recalcitrant soprano.
Verdi (The Man and his Music) was published as part of the Metropolitan Opera Guild Composer Series, which presents concise introductions to major opera composers. It also happens to be part of the loot I won when one of my questions was accepted for the Metropolitan Opera Quiz radio broadcast. It can be read comfortably in an afternoon as it only runs to 173 pages, and is padded out with over 100 photographs and illustrations, and rounded out with one- or two-page summaries of all of Verdi's operas.
Wagner: The Terrible Man and His Truthful Art The three essays that make up this book were written to be given during the 1998 Larkin-Stuart lectures at the University of Toronto. These lectures are devoted to religious and ethical concerns, and Father Lee took the opportunity to examine the relationship of the artist, Wagner to his art. Can we acknowledge this hateful, wounded man and still be pierced by the beauty of his music? The author quotes Leonard Bernstein's article in the 'New York Times,' entitled "Wagner's Music isn't Racist: "...And if Wagner wrote great music, as I think he did, why should we not embrace it fully and be nourished by it?"
Gioacchino Rossini: The Reluctant Hero began as an adolescent prodigy who composed comic operas, culminating with the Barber of Seville (1816). His dramatic operas were the grandest of all, and well-received, yet by age 36, Rossini had largely stopped composing. A fascinating biography of a 'reluctant' composer.
The Life & Death of Mozart reads like a dramatic opera. You don't need to be a musicologist to read this elegant biography. Mozart lovers, have a hanky ready.
As far as operatic autobiographies go, the worst ones are written by the singers. The story line goes something like this: "I came here. I sang this role. I got great reviews." One exception to this blah-blah is Marilyn Horne's feisty Marilyn Horne: The Song Continues (Great Voices 8). Marilyn didn't get her nickname, 'General Horne' just from the military trouser-roles she played. Her biography refers to her as "one of the few singers ever who could be both charmingly unaffected and magisterial."
Divo: Great Tenors, Baritones and Basses Discuss Their Roles is not by any means a book of gossipy operatic anecdotes (although there are some light moments). It is a book that "explores the relationship between each singer and some of the roles with which he is identified." I suggest starting this book by checking out the interviews of your favorite singers. Then work your way through the interviews in favorite categories of singers, rather than reading "Divo" front to back. I started with Sam Ramey's interview, worked my way through the rest of the basses (Kurt Moll, Nicolai Ghiaurov, and Paata Burchuladze), the bass-baritones, the baritones, and so on up the `fach' through the tenors.
DEMENTED Ethan Mordden culls the merely competent sopranos (and the occasional mezzo) from the operatic flock, and concentrates his energy, wit, and impressive learning on the greatest of the prima donnas. These are the ladies who could take to the stage and hold it against Hurricane Katrina. They have the voice, the musicianship, the temperament, and the commitment to their roles that keep audiences not merely entertained, but enthralled.
Samuel Ramey American Bass (Great Voices) Jane Scovell also ghosted Marilyn Horne's biography, and does a pretty good job with Sam. The CD that comes with this book has some Gershwin, Ives, and Copeland songs that aren't on any of his other CDs, plus a large collection of photos, including the famous 'Attila the Hunk' cover shot.
Full Circle: An Autobiographical Journal Dame Janet Baker comes across as a real human being in this book, which is a diary of her last year (1981) on the operatic stage. While it is true that she doesn't have anything bad to say about anyone, and makes full use of adjectives like 'unbelievable, 'beautiful,' 'superb,' 'glowing,' and 'marvellous,' her last three operas deserved every one of those descriptors. In this book, she sings the title roles in Gluck's "Alceste" at Covent Garden, Donizetti's "Mary Stuart" with the English National Opera at the London Coliseum, and Gluck's "Orfeo" at Glyndebourne, the stage where she had appeared in her first opera.
La Scala I've never had an opportunity to visit La Scala, so this book by Giorgio Lotti (photographs) and Paul Radice (text) will have to serve as a substitute. It contains over 353 illustrations with 135 in color, so readers are introduced to sections of the opera house and performances that they otherwise might not have seen even if they were life-long residents of Milan.
Chinese Opera: Stories and Images could be classified as a 'coffee-table' book with its beautiful photographs of Chinese opera productions, but it is also a stunning introduction to the several dramatic traditions of Chinese opera. Many of the most popular operas such as "The Hibiscus Fairy" and "Judge Bao's Apology" are summarized in photographs and text.