Book Review: The History of Opera for Beginners

Book Review: The History of Opera for Beginners by Ron David

Opera is one of the great art forms, blending theater and music into a powerful emotional experience.  But it also has a stereotype of being incomprehensible melodrama that boring rich people drag their unwilling spouses to.  And many of the books about opera are written by scholars who got their Doctor of Musicology degrees in the subject and expect you to follow along.

The History of Opera for Beginners

This volume is by an interested layman who presumes that you have very little knowledge on the subject and want a good place to start.   It begins with the roots of opera in older forms of musical theater, then moves on to Italy in the Sixteenth Century, where the opera as such was invented.  It covers the spread of opera across Europe and the major composers that created the most popular or influential pieces.

Then there’s a section on the part of opera that’s most accessible to the casual fan, the singers.  It talks about what castrati were, and the historical performers we know about because the audience wrote about them.  There’s rather more material about singers who have been recorded, starting with Enrico Caruso (who should probably replace Columbus as the official Italian-American holiday celebration.)

This is followed by a selection of the “best” operas with plot descriptions (most fit in a single page as opera tends to very thin plotlines.)

The book winds up with the author’s thoughts on where to proceed if you’re interested in more scholarly approaches to opera, a bibliography, and a guide to his favorite Youtube clips.

The general tone is snarky humor, enhanced by comedic art from Sara Woolley.

Recommended primarily for casual music fans, bright teenagers who want to know more about opera, and as a gag gift for opera lovers.

Speaking of Youtube, let’s all enjoy Luciano Pavarotti singing “Nessun Dorma” (“None Shall Sleep”).

Manga Review: Dream Fossil

Manga Review: Dream Fossil by Satoshi Kon

Satoshi Kon (1963-2010) was an acclaimed anime director, making a handful of movies (including Paprika) and one television series, Paranoia Agent.   His themes of confusion of dreams and reality, and madness lying just below the surface of society, made his works fascinating.  He also spent some time as a manga creator, creating several stories in the 1980s before going into anime full time as an assistant to Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira).  This volume collects his short works.

Dream Fossil

The lead story is “Carve.”  After a war polluted the old places of habitation, most of humanity moved to “The City”, a haven of high technology.  However, when a minority of humans started developing psychic powers, they were kicked out of The City, and scrape by in the now less toxic old cities.  Sculptor Kei and his female friend/model Ann notice that Specials are starting to disappear from their neighborhood.  Are The City people up to something?

The fifteen stories cover a range of genres.  There’s a couple of baseball stories, some slice of life, a samurai thriller, and some more speculative fiction.  The characters tend towards the realistic, even if the circumstances are often bizarre.

One standout is “Kidnappers”, about a car thief who discovers that he has a small child in the back seat.  He wants to get the kid back to the parents, but doesn’t want to go to jail for swiping the vehicle–and the actual kidnapper is after him too.  The main character is well drawn as a bad person, but one that doesn’t want to be that bad.

There’s also  “Waira”, the samurai thriller I mentioned.  A feudal warlord has been betrayed by his vassal/brother-in-law, his troops massacred, and now he and a handful of surviving followers are fleeing through a mountain forest in the middle of the night.  The brother-in-law and his troops pursue, but their guides warn them that the mountain is haunted by a murderous creature named “Waira.”  Who will survive?  The nature of Waira comes as a bit of a surprise–it’s so out of place that it might as well be supernatural.

I can really spot the Otomo influence in several of these stories.  The art and writing are decent, but Kon doesn’t sparkle here the way he does in his animation work.  A couple of the stories are photocopied from magazine appearances as the original art is lost; this affects the print quality.

The last story in the volume is Kon’s debut work, a two-parter titled “Toriko” (prisoner).  It’s very YA dystopia.  Yuichi, a teenager, lives in a future society ruled by implacable robot police, and in which you must have your identity card ready at all times for any transactions or even just walking down the street at the wrong time.  When he and his friends break curfew, they are remanded to The Center for “rehab” to become “productive citizens.”  Good thing Yuichi managed to snag a weapon!  Downer ending, depending on your point of view.

In addition to a few color pages, there’s also an interview with Susumu Hirawara, a composer who worked with Satoshi Kon on musical scores for the anime projects.  (One last film, Dreaming Machine, is being slowly finished.)

The intended audience varies, a couple would be suitable for young readers, but overall this anthology seems to be seinen (young men’s.)  Several of the stories have lethal violence, there’s some nudity, underaged drinking and smoking, and one story has an attempted rape.

Fans of Satoshi Kon’s other work will want to own this anthology; others will be better served by checking it out via library loan.

Book Review: The Partnership

Book Review: The Partnership by Pamela Katz

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  This copy was a bound galley, and changes have been made in the published edition (most notably, a proper index.)

The Partnership

The Weimar Republic, Germany after World War One and before the rise of the Nazis, was a time of great change.  The Kaiser had been dethroned, militarism had been discredited with large sections of the population, and social movement was greater than ever before.  But at the same time, the economy was dreadful, many in Germany felt they could have won the war if they weren’t “betrayed”, and political extremists rioted in the streets.  This was the crucible in which the partnership of playwright Berthold Brecht and composer Kurt Weill was born.

The two men, brilliant on their own, inspired each other to greatness in their two most famous collaborations, The Threepenny Opera and The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, as well as a handful of lesser works.  This volume concentrates on the years of their partnership and how it was facilitated by three important women, actors Lotte Lenya and Helene Weigel, and writer Elisabeth Hauptmann.

The partnership only lasted a few years, with brief reprises necessitated by their joint ownership of their plays.  While there were many factors involved in the breakup (political differences, diverging artistic aims, Weill becoming independently successful in America), the author posits that the main reason the team splintered was that neither man could stand not being in charge.  They hadn’t quite realized this during their initial creative period, but as the political climate changed, and each had his own goals in mind, it became obvious.

Brecht comes across as a deeply unpleasant person, the type of man who has three children by three different women before he even had a proper career.   It feels like the biographer bends over backwards to excuse Brecht’s behavior towards his wives and mistresses (especially as he hypocritically expected them to be faithful to him.)  He seems to have believed that his superior creativity and artistic vision gave him license to run roughshod over anyone in his path.  It didn’t go over so well in America, where no one was impressed by his European reputation and he didn’t speak the language.

Weill, by contrast, though he had his flaws, seems to have known how to adapt his desire for creative control to the demands of Broadway, working with many excellent writers.

The book goes into great detail about the production of Threepenny; rehearsals were disastrous, entire parts had to be cut at the last minute, and it took several scenes in before the audience figured out which play they were watching.  The song “Mack the Knife” was written and scored in 24 hours as a simultaneous concession to and dig at the actor playing MacHeath, as he’d demanded a song about how awesome his character was.

There’s also quite a bit of focus on the women; Lenya and Weigel brought their husbands’ work to life on the stage, and after they became widows truly kept the legacies alive as well as coming into their own careers.  Hauptmann is a bit harder to read; as the translator who brought Brecht many of the works he freely adapted, and probably much more involved in his writing than was ever acknowledged by either of them, she’s a shadowy figure.  The Weimar Republic gave women new freedom, but it was still in relation to powerful or creative men.

The book skimps on the parts of Brecht and Weill’s careers that did not involve each other; you’ll need to read their separate biographies for those. The writing gets a bit pompous at times, and there’s some use of gratuitous mind-reading, along the lines of “Weill would have enjoyed the breezes.”

There are extensive end-notes with bits that didn’t fit into the main text, and a good bibliography.  I’d recommend this book to fans of Brecht, Weill and theater in general.

And if somehow you haven’t heard it before, here’s Lotte Lenya singing “Pirate Jenny” for the BBC.

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