Recently in Books
Opera in the British Isles might seem a rather sparse subject in the period 1875 to 1918. Notoriously described as the land without music, even the revival of the native tradition of composers did not include a strong vein of opera.
Heldentenor Jay Hunter Morris tells us about the lean times when the phone did not ring, as well as those thrilling moments when companies entrusted him with the most important roles in opera.
Commonly viewed as a ‘second-rate’ composer — a European radical persecuted by the Nazis whose trans-Atlantic emigration represented a sell-out to an inferior American popular culture —
Although part of a series entitled Cambridge Introductions to Music, Robert Cannon’s wide-ranging, imaginative and thought-provoking survey of opera is certainly not a ‘beginners’ guide’.
Those of us of a certain age have fond memories of James Melton, who entertained our parents starting in the 1930s and the rest of us in the 1940s and beyond on recordings, the radio, and films.
An important new book on Italo Montemezzi sheds light on his opera Nave. The author/editor is David Chandler whose books on Alfredo Catalani have done so much to restore interest in the genre.
Assumptions about later Italian opera are dominated by Puccini, but Alfredo Catalani, born in the same town and almost at the same time, was highly regarded by their contemporaries. Two new books on Catalani could change our perceptions.
I was feeling cowed by Herr Engels. The four of us had retired from the Stravinsky performance to a Billy Wilder-themed bar in Berlin, the least horrible late-night option in the high end mediocrity of Potsdamer Platz.
This substantial book is one of the latest in the Ashgate series of
collected essays in opera studies and draws together articles from a disparate
group of scholarly journals and collected volumes, some recent, some now
difficult to locate.
Vincent Giroud’s valuable new French Opera, a Short History, is in hand and very welcome it is.
The noted operatic impresario and stage director, Lotfi Mansouri, with the professional help of writer Donald Arthur, has issued his memoirs under the title Lotfi Mansouri: An Operatic Journey.
Originally published in German as Herrin des Hügels, das Leben der Cosima Wagner (Siedler, 2007), this new book by Oliver Hilmes is an engaging portrait of one of the most important women in music during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Robert Stuart Thomson’s Italian language learning text, Operatic Italian, promises to become an invaluable textbook for aspiring operatic singers, voice teachers, coaches and conductors.
Ralph Locke’s recent book on Musical Exoticism is both an historical survey of aspects of the exotic in Western musical culture and a discussion of paradigms of the exotic and their relevance for musicological understanding.
Readers may recognize the author of this book, David J. Buch, a specialist on the origins of the libretto to Mozart’s Magic Flute.
Perhaps it will be enough to tell you that I wasn’t halfway through this book before I searched the web for a copy of Professor Ewans’s study of Wagner and Aeschylus’s Oresteia, and ordered it forthwith: It has to be good.
Chinese bass Hao Jiang Tian was 30, when he enrolled as an undergraduate at the University of Denver 1983.
Two excellent books on opera have come to hand, providing many hours of entertaining reading. I combine notice of them with a few thoughts about composer Paul Moravec’s CDs, and his forthcoming opera premiere at Santa Fe Opera in 2009.
Claudio Monteverdi. Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in patria. Edited by Rinaldo Alessandrini. Urtext. Kassel: Bärenreiter, 2007. BA 8791. A vocal score is available as 8791a.
Published in 2007, Riccardo primo, Re d’Inghilterra (HWV 23) and Tolomeo, Re d’Egitto (HWV 25) mark two of the latest installments of vocal-score editions of Handel’s operas based upon Bärenreiter’s Urtext editions.
06 Jul 2005
HURWITZ: Getting the Most Out of Mozart: The Vocal Works
The investment of money, not to mention time, to listen carefully to a complete opera can be intimidating for some uninitiated listeners. After all, operas can be quite long and — with all that strange singing in a foreign language — could be incomprehensible, and therefore less than enjoyable. Opera still carries the cachet in our culture of being the pastime of the wealthy, the educated, and the elite. References to opera in popular culture, such as ads or music videos, signify a different world of privilege and exclusion.
David Hurwitz, a prolific music critic and the executive editor of ClassicsToday www.classicstoday.com, attempts to bridge the gap between the opera novice and Mozart’s most popular vocal works with his volume, Getting the Most out of Mozart: The Vocal Works. Hurwitz’s goal with this volume, as well as his books on Mozart’s instrumental works, Mahler’s symphonies, and Dvořák’s music, is to offer the listener a “useful” and “practical” guide to particular pieces (see for example, the March 2005 interview with Hurwitz in Go Brooklyn: http://www.go-brooklyn.com/html/issues/_vol28/28_13/mahler.html). Furthermore, Hurwitz insists in several articles that the death knell that has been sounding for classical music is premature and miss-placed (see his articles at Classicstoday.com: “Finding Greatness in Strange Places” [http://www.classicstoday.com/features/f1_1103.asp], or “Fine Whine from Stormin’ Norman” [ http://www.classicstoday.com/features/f1_0104.asp]).
While some parts of this volume on Mozart’s opera are very appealing, several aspects of the book undermine Hurwitz’s own stated goal of making music accessible. Hurwitz’s book contains mostly descriptive information about each of the operas. He succinctly recounts information about the plot and each of the main characters for seven of Mozart’s mature operas. For better or for worse, Hurwitz wastes few words on their historical contexts and almost none on cultural circumstances surrounding 18th-century opera. There are six pages of color photographs from various Metropolitan Opera productions that display costumes and sets of several of the operas discussed.
The CD that accompanies the volume is a convenient feature containing several of the pieces Hurwitz describes with clear directions in the text about when to listen to each track. The pieces are drawn largely from Sir Charles Mackerras’ recordings on the Telarc label. Mackerras is a scholar of 17th- and 18th-century repertoire, and so has directed performances of very high quality. Unfortunately, the tracks are drawn directly from the original digital recordings, so there are some awkward starts and stops to some of the tracks, where in the originals there are smooth transitions between the numbers. The movements of the Requiem are taken from two recordings — Robert Shaw conducting the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus and Martin Pearlman directing Boston Baroque. These, too, are taken directly from previous Telarc releases.
Hurwitz’s prose is very casual and occasionally flippant about the potential symbolic layers of meaning in the works, which may serve to put some readers at ease with the subject matter. Unfortunately, his irreverence is combined with the references to operas that may seem obscure, if not entirely inscrutable, to the opera novice. Hurwitz’s frequent references to the plots, lengths, and characters of Wagner’s operas reinforces his status as an insider and could have the effect of making the reader acutely aware of her lack of knowledge. Furthermore, for a reader who may not know who Wagner was, when he lived, or anything about his operas or musical philosophy, comparisons between Mozart and Wagner are not very useful.
Moreover, the name of the series — Unlocking the Masters — also reinscribes 19th-century attitudes about canonicity and genius that are intricately connected with and inseparable from notions of gender, class, and race. Since the 1970s the use of the word “master” has been thoroughly problematized in light of feminist and post-colonialist scholarship. Hurwitz’s insistence on “mastery” and “greatness” is consistent with his dismissals of music scholarship in Getting the Most Out of Mozart.
As with his book on Mahler (see the article in Go Brooklyn cited above), Hurwitz’s goal is description, not analysis or biography. Unfortunately, I think that there is a lot more to Mozart than whether or not the clarinets are playing in a given aria. Hurwitz “dumbs down” Mozart far more than is necessary, reducing the operas to statistics about the length of “continuous music,” and orchestration. At the same time, more could be said about historical context and the role of opera in the 18th century. Surely, some historical context would not be beyond the reader’s grasp, and it might help to pique her interest.
Hurwitz’s attempt to make Mozart accessible to the uninitiated listener is admirable and will certainly reach some readers. However, his attempt to make Mozart less obscure without acknowledging the forces at work in our culture and in Mozart’s culture seems misguided. Hurwitz’s “insider” attitude — whether real or perceived — is counter to his goals.
Megan B. Jenkins
CUNY — The Graduate Center