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Denise Gallo: Opera — The Basics
05 Mar 2006

GALLO: Opera — The Basics

Is it possible to say something new and fresh about opera? While many books have been written about the artform, it is rare to find an introductory text that serves its subject well.

Denise Gallo: Opera — The Basics

New York and London: Routledge (an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group), 2006. xv + 207 pp.

ISBN: 0-415-97072-5 | 978-0-415-972072-3

$16.95  Click to buy

In Opera: The Basics Denise Gallo accomplishes that goal by approaching opera with intelligence and style. In fact, it is part of Routledge’s new series of preparatory texts on various aspects of music. The expressed intention of the series is, as the author states, to “introduce broad subject areas, defining terminology and discussing important concepts to prepare readers for more in-depth studies” (p. xiii). Such texts are appropriate to various audiences, and Gallo singles out for this volume university students, singers, adult learners, and opera enthusiasts, and Opera: The Basics fills a need for a text that can make such a multi-leveled topic as opera approachable and inviting.

To approach the various dimensions of opera, Gallo has organized her ideas in exemplary fashion. The book is divided into two parts, with the first devoted to the various elements of opera. After establishing a context for opera through a brief history of its origins, Gallo uses the first seven chapters to explore the terminology involved with the artform; the relationships between text and music; professions involved with the production of opera; singers and voice types; “opera onstage and off”; and opera “as a mirror of society.” Such a taxonomic approach to the subject is useful in establishing a basic understanding of the concepts that she takes forward in the second part, which involves “Genres, Styles and Scores.” In the latter part of the book Gallo treats opera from a formal standpoint with chapters devoted to serious and semi-serious opera, comic opera and operetta, and vernacular opera, that is, works in English and other languages outside the Italian and French traditions. The final chapter concerns scores and editions, with the entire book complemented by a section entitled “resources,” which includes a select bibliography, worklist, and discography/videography.

In a sense, this is an ambitious book, but it succeeds because of the solid approach the author has taken to present ideas clearly, with examples taken from the repertory at hand. Not relying on definitions to exist in the abstract, Gallo cites works to illustrate her points so that those interested will have a firm grasp on the concepts. Likewise, the formalist approach that Gallo has taken to discuss the various forms of opera departs from the customary way that others have used in presenting the subject. This is, perhaps, a more sensible way to discuss opera, since it avoids unnecessary distinctions and qualifying them against broader considerations of style periods. Opera seria, for example, spans the eighteenth century and encompasses works by composers whose works can be discussed as either Baroque or Classic, and the resulting continuity is an important aspect of artform. Likewise, some of the more regional explorations of opera, as occurs with zarzuela and other Spanish forms related to the genre, do not easily fit into conventional periodization of music history and can be treated without the artificial limitations that draw lines of demarcation across the turn of the twentieth century.

Through the approach that Gallo takes it is possible to gain of sense of opera on its own terms in a book that meets or exceeds the intentions of the author. Her authorial voice is always balanced and even, without being arch or forcing an issue. Such a perspective is evidence of the solid expertise Gallo conveys to her audience in a book that those who already know opera can recommend to those with less familiarity. This is a book that should find a comfortable niche in various kinds of courses and which should be subject to regular updates, as the author refines the bibliography and web references in future years.

The chapter on musical terminology is concise without being superficial. The clear definitions bear careful reading for the nuances Gallo brings to the discussion. This section forms a sort of glossary that those learning about opera can use for reference from time to time, along with the chapter in which Gallo reviews the various voice types. The latter section benefits from some fine distinctions about voices that involves the terminology in Italian, French and German. Those interested in opera personnel other than singers should consult the chapter devoted to the various professions that enter into the preparation and execution of opera. That section offers a fine perspective on the various levels of production staff who make opera come alive in performance.

While most of the chapters are relatively short, that should be no means suggest superficiality. Again, Gallo’s thoughtful writing deserves a similar level of attention, since the details help to illustrate a text that is, by necessity, devoted to a large number of concepts. To add some perspective on the text, the author has included additional information in sidebars that intersperse the text. Those sidebars not only break up the text visually but also allow the author to use the presentation to convey various side comments.

All in all, in presenting an introductory text on opera, Gallo has had to make some choices about her subject. It is not a book about absolutely every aspect of the genre – no text geared to this audience can. In giving the text a focus, the author also works in certain self-imposed limitations. Thus, those who are enthusiastic about Russian opera will find references to specific works in this, but not necessarily extensive discussions of the national style. Puccini is presented in the context of his time and is not treated as the sole representative of verismo. At the same time early opera is presented well, with the accomplishments of Rameau and Gluck expressed in terms of the evolution of the artform as a synthesis that by necessity involves strong music and prominent drama.

Opera: The Basics is a welcome volume that many will find useful for their own study or as a text to use in their work. Those who teach courses on opera may want to adopt this book for their classes in order to have a reliable text to share with their students. Gallo’s perspective is constructive, with the depth of her knowledge evident in a subtle and nuanced book. It has much to recommend to those interested in opera at any level, and should serve as a fine introduction to the subject at a time when the growing audiences for the genre can benefit from such a text.

James L. Zychowicz
Madison, Wisconsin

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