Kirkus Book Review

A former classical music and opera critic for the New York Times summarizes for general readers the evolution of opera and makes some predictions about its future.

In her debut, Schweitzer has several objectives: to explain what sometimes are very elementary aspects of music (the different ranges of human voices, a musical scale, and key terms), to describe, swiftly and chronologically, the careers and most notable works of the great composers, and to argue that opera is not moribund but is in fact thriving. Readers meet such iconic names as Monteverdi, Handel, Mozart, Bellini, Rossini, Wagner, and many others, including modern and contemporary composers like Philip Glass, Thomas Adès, and Missy Mazzoli. The author escorts us through the plots and musical aspects of some classics—e.g., Lucia di Lammermoor and Madama Butterfly—and points out connections to popular culture (Guillaume Tell and The Lone Ranger, for example). Schweitzer introduces newcomers, as well, and some of the enormous personalities—singers and otherwise—who have been involved: Callas, Pavarotti, Zeffirelli et al. She also discusses the differences between and among opera, operetta, and musical. She has a few cultural points (and complaints) to make, too: the dominance of male composers, the current insistence that singers look as well as sing their parts, color-blind casting, the current fondness for “graphic depictions of sexual violence,” which she abhors. The author looks at the latest technical innovations, including surtitles (projections of translated lyrics), digital streaming, and large-screen productions. What emerges clearly is Schweitzer’s profound passion for opera, her determination to explain the elements of the art so that others might embrace it, and her deep belief that opera is both flourishing now and certain to continue doing so.

Affection is the subterranean river that frequently bursts through the surface to splash readers and, perhaps, convince them to put down the money for tickets.

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