Many opera fans just want to enjoy opera, not study it. Fair enough, but I find that learning more about opera increases my enjoyment of it, and I look forward to discovering new books about opera. Personally, I have found that a good way to build an opera book library is by visiting used book sales. Still, there is something satisfying and even exciting about getting a new and current book as a gift. So, even though I have a stack of unread books awaiting me already, I have asked Santa for several new ones this year that caught my eye. I point these out below as well as mentioning a couple of opera reference books to consider and links to additional book suggestions in articles on the internet, in no particular order. One of the books below might be a treat for an opera fan on your gift list.
Current and Topical:
The Kirkus reviews I highlight are short and more descriptive than critical, to give you a better idea of the scope of the books.
“Mad Love: An Introduction to Opera” by Vivien Schweitzer; Basic Books, 2018, 288 pages – Ms. Schweitzer is a concert pianist and served as a classical music and opera critic for the NY Times from 2006-2016. She provides a light, easy-read tour of opera from its beginning, circa 1600, to present day that is targeted to opera newbies. Helpful for picking up the lingo and understanding how opera has evolved. *Kirkus Review
“Mad Scenes and Exit Arias: The Death of the New York Opera and the Future of Opera in America” by Heidi Waleson; Metropolitan Books, 2018, 281 pages – Ms. Waleson has reviewed opera for the Wall Street Journal for 25 years. Her book provides a deep dive into the history the illustrious New York City Opera which operated as the lower cost rival to the Metropolitan Opera from 1943 to 2013 and that came to be known as “the People’s Opera”; the company was revived in 2016. Ms. Waleson also examines the lessons from the company’s history for current opera companies. *Kirkus Review
“The Indispensable Composers: A Personal Guide” by Anthony Tommasini; Penguin Press, 2018, 496 pages – It was a very good year for books from New York music critics, . Mr. Tommasini is the Chief Classical Music Critic of the NY Times; he has authored two other books and has performed professionally as a pianist. He is most likely the author of any opera reviews you encounter in the NY Times. He has tackled the subject of greatness in this tome and I, for one, want to know what he has to say about it. He provides stories and insights about the great composers, including more recent ones. *Kirkus Review
“Toscanini: Musician of Conscience” by Harvey Sachs; Liveright, 2017, 944 pages – Mr. Sachs is on the faculty of the Curtis Institute of Music; he is the author of several books and a long list of articles for major U.S. periodicals. He has written an extensive biography of the great conductor, Arturo Toscanini, who had a major influence on classical music in the twentieth century and was an opponent of the rise of Fascism in Italy. It was recommended to me by a cardiologist who is an opera fan, so I assume it is good for your heart. He insists he could not put it down; I assume except for emergencies. The critical reviews uniformly call this book an outstanding biography. *Kirkus Reviews
“Sing for Your Life: A Story of Race, Music, and Family” by Daniel Bergner; Lee Boudreaux Books - Little, Brown and Company, 2016, 320 pages – Mr. Bergner is the author of several books, both fiction and non-fiction, and a frequent contributor to major U.S. publications. This is the story of Ryan Speedo Green who overcame a background of poverty, child abuse, and incarceration to become a singer (bass-baritone) performing on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera. It reveals how he overcame a brutal background and the challenges by opera singers of color today to rise above it all. *Kirkus Review
Reference Books –
“The New Penguin Opera Guide” edited by Amanda Holden; Penguin Books, 2001, 1168 pages – This is my personal favorite opera reference book; I’ve even written a blog report about it. Ms. Holden is a highly regarded author and translator in the field of opera. The Guide, arranged by composer, includes more than 100 contributors covering over 800 composers and 1500 operas (including operettas). It is usually the first place I check to read a synopsis of an opera I’m not familiar with and to get insights into why it is important. Like all reference books, it only covers contemporary works up to close to the time the book was written.
The Grove Book of Operas, Second Edition edited by Stanley Sadie and Laura Macy; Oxford University Press, 2005, 740 pages - I picked this one up recently at the Arlington County Library book sale for less than one-third of the going rate on Amazon, a good find. Similar in concept and types of information to the Penguin reference book, but using different contributors and arranged by opera in alphabetical order. Like all the books I’ve collected on opera, I find some new bits of information and insights not encountered in my other books.
“The New Pocket Kobbé’s Opera Book” by Earl of Harwood; Ebury Press, 2018, 544 pages – This just appeared in September and is on my Christmas wish list. It is based upon what many readers consider the essential opera reference, “The New Kobbé’s Opera Book” published in 1997. I haven’t been able to find a lot of information on this updated and likely shortened edition as a pocket version, so check it out carefully before buying; the 1997 edition may still be preferable. A British Earl writing an opera book? There might be a story here for a future blog report.
Selected Articles With More Book Suggestions –
I am familiar with most of the books on these lists. Some that I’ve found especially interesting and helpful beginning my opera journey include “Opera for Dummies” by David Pogue and Scott Speck (don’t laugh; this helped get me started, “Opera 101” by Fred Plotkin (still a good starting point for newbies), and “A History of Opera” by Carolyn Abbate (scholarly and interesting history). I selected the articles below because they mention books I either know or that seem like they might be worthwhile reads, at least worth checking out further.
I’m hoping the listings above will provide you with some gift ideas. If you know of any recent good opera books I’ve missed, let me know. There is still time for me to get in touch with Santa!