Why does opera remain one of the most popular and enduring forms of classical music today? Why do some fans of opera travel the world to experience a new production of a work they may have seen a dozen times before? What hold does this art form have over us? What keeps us coming back for more? These questions are at the heart of Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker’s “A History of Opera” (W. W. Norton & Company), a fascinating exploration of opera’s entire 400 years of evolution. Abbate and Parker guide us on a riveting journey, starting with the origins of the art form in the 16th century through the seismic events of opera history up to the present day.
“A History of Opera” focuses largely on the most often performed composers of today’s repertory who have had the most influence on the course of operatic history: Verdi, Mozart, Puccini, Wagner, Rossini, Donizetti, Strauss, Bizet, and Handel. Abbate and Parker brilliantly examine how these composers from times and cultures so different from our own still entertain, move, and stimulate us. This history also examines why some once-famous composers and even entire genres, such as opera seria, have been largely forgotten or ignored.
Abbate and Parker draw attention to the power and fascination of the human voice, the center of the operatic experience. However, as this work demonstrates, the role and popularity of certain opera voice types have changed drastically over time. In the early 18th century, for example, the high voice for both male and female was in vogue. The male castrato was favored and even at times idolized until the 19th century, which saw the rise of the heroic tenor voice. The authors discuss whether the choices of voice type for certain characters are natural or based on the conventions of the time.
Abbate and Parker begin by uncovering the first operas, commissioned by Italian nobility and characterized by strong pastoral and mythic themes and ideals of theatrical catharsis and emotional directness. The authors chart the export of opera from Venice to the court of Louis XIV and bring to life the role of the court composer, who often paid homage in his work to the royal dynasty. After centuries of patronage from noble families, the revolutions of the late-18th and 19th centuries saw the demise of kings and princes as patrons of opera. Composers whose work survived the political upheaval sought to appeal to a new patron – the state – and, as in the case of Verdi, nationalism was the road to fame and success. Abbate and Parker follow several composers beyond the turn of the century, where in the wake of Wagner an undeniable pessimism toward new opera took root. These composers grappled with modernism, and many produced works of innovative beauty and stark poignancy.
“A History of Opera” is the long-awaited, definitive exploration of the fundamental nature of opera and its compelling historical evolution: authoritative, replete with original research, and written with a scholarship, passion, and style that does justice to an art form that has enchanted and transfixed audiences for centuries.