Vivien Schweitzer, the author of “Mad Love” certainly has the credentials to serve as an opera guide. First, she is a classical pianist with an intimate knowledge of music. Second, she worked as a classical music and opera critic for the New York Times between 2006 to 2016, an experience that immersed her in opera and the New York opera scene, providing her access to many opera performers and insiders. I recently took her book along on a vacation to Egypt. For several of our days traveling about we didn’t have internet access. To combat the anxiety borne of feeling disconnected, I used the time freed up to read. Imagine that; I was reading a book again, not some item pulled from the internet. In fact, I had been wanting to read Ms. Schweitzer’s book for a couple of months, but simply hadn’t found the time. Now, I know why I had not found the time. (Mental Note: screen time and book reading are inversely proportional).
Ms. Schweitzer has written a gentle, flowing narrative that provides an overview of the origination and evolution of opera to the present day. Amusing us with anecdotes about famous composers and performers, she leads us from room to room in the opera museum, commenting on specific operas, coupled with remarks how the changing times influenced those operas and other arts. However, as I began reading the book, two reservations arose, one that dissipated as I got deeper into the text. At first It seemed thin in substantive content, even for an introductory book. You can garner most of the knowledge in the first half of the book with a few years of attending opera and reading the reviews. The author has managed, however, to condense that knowledge into a relatively short volume and the cumulative impact of knowledge and insights to be gained pile up handsomely as you read more. She manages to touch on most of the major points useful for newbies; these points will likely fill in some missing pieces for more experienced opera fans. Plus, by moving fast, she makes it difficult to get bored. This leads to my second caution that came up from reading the book, the one that remains: I think you will get more out of the book if you have seen at least a few of the more popular operas so that you can compare your thoughts and feelings about an opera or two you have seen with hers.
Ms. Schweitzer’s comments on specific operas often includes insights into how the orchestration and individual instruments compliment or even control the mood of a scene. The stories she tells are often placed in the context of the political and cultural changes taking place in each era, including how societies have attempted to control opera. Most helpful to the opera newbie might be the explanation of opera terms such as bel canto and melismatic singing that arise with regularity throughout the text. Pacing, voice types, as well as updating operas are all covered. She also addresses topics often overlooked in opera guides, such as the role of the conductor and how his/her decisions influence the performance and how the translator’s skill in constructing translations of the librettos into English subtitles can affect how the performance is perceived. What she does cover in detail is contemporary opera works, such as operas composed by Britten, Adams, Glass, Heggie, and others. Her discussion provides an outstanding, easily digestible, introduction to modern opera. She calls out some operas for missing the mark while praising others – some serious food for thought in that. I’ve not seen anything similar; this section will likely even be of interest to the opera cognoscenti.
Here is a Mental Note for you, if you are a newbie – all opera performances are not all the same, even if they are performances of the same opera. Obviously, operas differ by composer and less obviously perhaps by the era in which they were written. Different performances of the same opera can be hugely different also, depending on who is conducting, who is singing, and who is directing. Much as a tour guide attempts to provide information needed to understand how the culture of a people developed, Ms. Schweitzer aims to provide her readers with “the fundamentals of the Western operatic tradition in a narrative context to show how composers have used different techniques and voices to create sung drama.” Her goal is to give her readers a sense of how opera has changed over time and a basis for understanding the potential effects and impact of the choices that today’s conductors, singers, and directors make in the performances they bring forward. She has largely succeeded, I think. I’ve been a fan of opera for about seven years now and I found the book insightful and informative, especially in discussing modern works and interpretations. The farther into “Mad Love” I got, the more pleased I felt at having taken the tour.
The Fan Experience: Ms. Schweitzer has established a Spotify Playlist to complement the text, called “Mad Love: An Introduction to Opera”. Also, “Mad Love” is an easy read of only 232 pages. An added benefit - when the tour is over, no tips are required; which, after returning from a guide-driven vacation, is much appreciated pecuniary relief.