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.
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”).