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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Building an Opera Bookshelf

Five Opera Resources You Need.
Want to learn about opera? Read this blog daily. But in between posts, here's a quick guide to great, beginner books on the subject, as well as the two essential encyclopedias if you really want to learn about the genre.
Iron Maiden mascot Eddie reads up on opera.
Art by Derek Riggs © Iron Maiden.
The Magic Of Opera by J. Merrill Knapp
This is a good starting point and a sentimental favorite: it was my textbook when I started studying music in college. It presents opera in a historical context from its earliest days up until modern music at the time of its publication in 1985. Mr. Knapp is a detailed guide, explaining fine plot points and the developmental flow from Rossini to Verdi, to Puccini, Strauss and beyond.

Wagner Without Fear; Verdi With a Vengeance; Puccini Without Excuses by William Berger
These three excellent books by the redoubtable William Berger deal with single composers, but also assist the reader in learning the highlights of various works and how to better understand opera. The Wagner book goes blow-by-blow through the ten major operas and offers fascinating commentary on the man himself. The Verdi volume covers the good, the bad and the ridiculous in the vast Verdi canon. The Puccini volume is not just about opera, but it emphasizes critical thinking about the staying power of his music.

The Rest Is Noise by Alex Ross
Mr. Ross' focus is on music in general, particularly the 20th century. He opens with Strauss, Mahler and the premiere of Salome and proceeds to pull the reader along on a dizzying journey through a very dark century. Mr. Ross does not pull his punches when it comes to the Soviets and the Nazis and their chilling effect on the development of music, but he does see light at the end of the tunnel in the works of John Adams, Philip Glass and other modern masters.

The New Grove Book of Opera
Taken from the vast volumes of the New Grove Encyclopedia of Music and Musicians, this single hardback book offers analysis of all the major (and some of the minor) operas in alphabetical order from Aida to Die Zauberflöte. It also has cool black and white illustrations and color plates of scenes from some of the operas. Blow-by-blow explanations of music and plot are accompanied by interesting historical notes about the works. And it's cheaper and easier to carry around than the whole encyclopedia.

The Viking Opera Guide
(No, it's not about the Ring Cycle.)
Another excellent resource. One volume, this heavyweight hardback is even more comprehensive than the New Grove. It is organized by composer, and includes the major and minor works of almost everybody who has written for opera and/or musical theater in the last five centuries. The Viking Guide also includes recording recommendations and musical analysis. Although the size and weight of the book make it a little difficult to read the articles on Auber, Zemlinsky and Zimmermann.
Art © 1988 Iron Maiden Holdings/Derek Riggs

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats