Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Opera 101 by Frederick Plotkin

Opera 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Opera by Frederick Plotkin (with an introduction by Placido Dominingo) is either an ambitious bit of hubris--for how could anyone presume to write a complete guide to opera in a mere 500+ pages?--or it is a resource meant to be a starting place for those new to opera and trying to gain an appreciative ear for the art form.

I’m assuming it is the latter, a textbook meant to cover a broad subject in the same way that most 101 courses in colleges do–picking and choosing, trying to find one piece that reflects a certain era or period, recommending and ignoring others.  It’s simply impossible to consider this in any other way.

Plotkin does a fine job of first explaining the history of opera, how it evolved and changed as music standards did, as political and social ideas also influenced art, and the drama of how opera itself grew from one century to the next, how it moved with the times, is fascinating.  The author offers a discography for the book, a list of recommended recordings for each opera.  This is where the book shines and also falls a bit flat.  If you do not have access to these recordings and cannot afford to buy them then you have a problem because the bulk of the book focuses not only on an individual opera but on the specific recording.  Plotkin walks the reader through how to read the booklet that comes with the recording, remarks on the essay, explains his choice of opera, and then goes scene by scene and act by act through the opera itself.

You can, of course, struggle through with what you have.  If you have a different recording than the one to which he is referring then you are almost on your own because not every cd is divided the same and the author will refer to a track specifically, the numbering of which may be different from your own.  And there is little pleasure derived from reading the chapters about the operas when you can’t listen to them at all.  (My library didn’t have several operas at all, not even the alternates that were recommended.)

Many of the expected operas are given their own chapters: Rigoletto, Tosca, Don Giovanni, etc.  Others are offered as alternates or only listed towards the end: La Boheme, Carmen, La Traviata, et al.  The list in Appendix B is impressive, with many of the operas most people have never heard of or seen listed.

Plotkin offers no apologies for his preferences in choosing which specific opera and which particular recording he chooses for each chapter.  He pulls no punches, either, going so far as to point out the weaknesses in some of his choices.  It doesn’t take long to realize that it is virtually impossible to find a perfect recording of any opera.

It is an ambitious work, really, and even if the reader doesn’t walk away loving opera, it would be hard not to appreciate some of the magic that is created through the music.  This book is truly for the novice, not meant to add to an appreciation that already exists.  If you know nothing or little about opera, you will find this book very helpful.  If you already know a lot about music history and opera in particular, you may find some of the hints and tips tedious.  I personally didn’t feel it necessary for Plotkin to tell me at precisely which point in the recording I would hear a particular lyrical moment.  If I am listening, I’ll hear it and certainly don’t need to know the exact minute, down to the second, the moment will occur.  He does seem to either pander to the reader or condescend, depending on your response.  Personally, I think it was his intention to just hold your hand and try to make opera accessible without denying its complexity.

But I reiterate, without access to a lot of the recommended recordings and/or the finances to invest in them, the book is pretty useless once you get past the introductory part.

As for me, I have been to the opera a few times and enjoyed watching a few operas on PBS.  (Le Nozzi di Figaro is one in particular I recall watching with my friend Pia and we both loved it.)  I am not fond of the pseudo opera of Andew Lloyd Webber, yet I delight in the light opera of Gilbert and Sullivan.

I don’t own any operas on cd, mostly because I can’t sing along to them.  How is that for a rather facile reason for limiting my music collection?  

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