The Birth of an Opera

I’m enjoying The Birth of an Opera, a fascinating book by Michael Rose.

My jaw dropped at the simplicity of the concept of the work, and now I’m thoroughly hooked by the smoothness of Rose’s execution.

Rose combines two very different flavours into an intoxicating cocktail.

  • As with Opera as Drama, or Literature as Opera, to name the first two examples of the type that come to mind, The Birth of an Opera takes us through the history of opera via a series of fifteen case studies of great works
  • As with Harper’s Index or books such as Debussy Remembered (I am sure there are many other such books), clearly derivative of Lewis Lapham’s de facto approach to journalism, the case studies in The Birth of an Opera create their stories from contemporary testimony

It’s very hard to put down.  Each of these case studies –from L’Incoronazione di Poppea to Wozzeck—has the urgency of an episode of CSI, minus the police or the body count.

When it’s Fidelio we’re reading Beethoven, the opera’s librettist Sonnliethner, the Viennese court librettist Treitschke, plus comments from reviewers at performances.   For Les Troyens we’re reading Rose + Berlioz, which isn’t as bad as it sounds, considering how well Berlioz could write.  For Tristan und Isolde we’re again mostly immersed in the words of the composer, but also Liszt and Robert von Hornstein, one of Wagner’s friends.

The book is constructed in a manner to remind me of opera.  Rose writes connective tissue that is like recitative between arias, to allow us to flow from one nugget to the next.  This hybrid discourse combining historical documents with Rose’s prose are as artificial as the operas themselves.

It’s the most exciting book about opera that I’ve encountered in a very long time.


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