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Bookmarks: Brief reviews of new and overlooked books

Opera has undergone numerous revisions throughout its history, indeed ever since its inception in the late Renaissance. Gallo reminds us, albeit at a breathtaking pace, that it opera hardly an unchanging art-form with an ageless essence.

Bookmarks: Brief reviews of new and overlooked books
[31 August 2006]


This week: Opera has undergone numerous revisions throughout its history, indeed ever since its inception in the late Renaissance. Gallo reminds us, albeit at a breathtaking pace, that it opera hardly an unchanging art-form with an ageless essence.

Opera: The Basics
by Denise Gallo
Routledge, November 2005, 207 pages, $16.95

As part of its The Basics series, Routledge has issued Opera: The Basics as a primer for newcomers, students, and well-worn enthusiasts who may still wonder about the issues, concepts, and history of the art-form. Written by Denise Gallo, Senior Music Specialist at the Library of Congress, this unorthodox little book does not approach its subject matter as if it were marching through the history of opera from Camerata onward through Monteverdi, Gluck, Mozart, Bellini, and Wagner, nor does it hone in on any particular cultural or sociological themes pertaining to its rituals. Its stated purpose is to offer an especially broad survey of what the author believes to be the groundwork necessary for pursuing deeper reading.

Given the wide array of topics the book tries to address, ranging from the origins of opera, to some of the technical terms employed by musicians, to the business of housing, promoting, and producing opera, to its cultural and social relevance onstage and off, and the various genres and national styles within the traditional repertories, the book moves at a brisk pace. Those eager to skip over college textbooks may be enticed by this cut-to-the-chase tactic.

And there is much here of value, like how the libretto is realized through music, or how composers, librettists, and directors go about making an opera, or why comic operas eventually lost out in popularity to more sentimental works. Indeed the strength of Gallo's book is found in its well-rounded appreciation of opera. The problem, however, is that while certainly useful and thought provoking, the chapters go by much too quickly, conveying just a wee-too-little about an awful lot. For example, after about a single page on Italian verismo, readers are thrown into Rameau and Gluck in France, which leads just four pages later into a fleeting paragraph or two on 20th century French opera only to be followed by Weber in Germany. At another point in the book, in the span of just two pages, we come across the names of Rossini, Pergolesi, and Joseph Stalin!

While limitations are obvious, the book does a good job nonetheless in indexing developments such as the advent of the da capo aria, the arrival of orchestral overtures, the demise of cabalette, the increasing significance of Directors and their urgent call for "updating" productions, the relevance of fachs, and the recent inclusion of electronic instruments into the orchestra. Gallo points out how even the performance space has varied from small halls large enough to accommodate small gatherings to conventional theaters capable of housing not just bigger ensembles and audiences but complicated stage-machinery and sets that make the experience of opera more spectacular. Noting further how theaters gradually dissolved their connection to the nobility by becoming the province of a growing middle class, Gallo maintains that the growth in size of productions eventually required "opera houses" complete with multiple tiers, private boxes, and orchestra pit. She assures us that "'live' opera continues to adapt to its surroundings" (99).

Opera is conventionally associated with the heroic and grand. Its unique status of being both "serious" and "frivolous" is well-deserved, not just through its rapturous music, loud singing, and histrionic gestures but to its immensity as an art-form, involving not merely music, acting, orchestral accompaniment, costumes, props, sets, as well as incredible amounts of preparation and huge financial costs. Pretentious prima donnas, formal evening attire, and a graying audience also come to mind. Yet, as Gallo reminds us, opera has also undergone numerous revisions throughout its history, indeed ever since its inception in the late Renaissance, should make us wary of attempts to characterize it as an unchanging art-form with an ageless essence -- especially today.

Perhaps the most glaring instance of opera's ability to rework itself and adapt to historical contingencies came when Richard Wagner insisted that his works were not operas at all but "music dramas", that is, a particular kind of performance art defined in marked contrast to the canonical hallmarks established by the Italians and French. Yet to say today that Wagner was not a composer of "opera" would be near ridiculous. In fact, there are scores of composers, musicians, and writers far less radical who have tried each in their own way to contribute something to this tradition, if not change it outright.

Indeed it is hard to think of a period when the boundaries of opera were not contested in some way. Not surprisingly, opera lore has its share of opening-night fiascoes eventually becoming successes, the most famous instances being two of the most luminary achievements of the standard repertory, Verdi's La Traviata and Puccini's Madama Butterfly.

Despite opera's historical nature, the dogged need to conjure "authenticity" remains an important one for the opera world. That Gallo, at one point, commits one of a very small number of gaffes when distinguishing incorrectly between musical theater and opera based on the latter's renunciation of the use of microphones shows that even she is not immune from the intricacies of identifying an art-form's complexity. As many today wonder whether the problems facing opera are due to some shortcoming in the art form itself or to the lack of imagination of those at its institutional, financial, and artistic reins, it is important to consider how the ways a tradition understands and copes with otherness often provides hints as to how it thinks about itself. Gallo's book should be a helpful guide in that respect.

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