A superb new history of opera argues that revivals of classic works are keeping the genre from flourishing today. Not soby Wendy Lesser / December 27, 2012 / Leave a comment
A caricature by Gustave Doré from the 1860s: “People who sing opera generate huge acoustic forces”
A History of Opera: The Last 400 Years by Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker (Allen Lane, £30)
Opera must be one of the weirdest forms of entertainment on the planet. Its exaggerated characters bear little relation to living people, and its plots are often ludicrous. Yet it demands from its audiences real involvement, real sympathy, even real tears. Mothers constantly fail to recognise their sons, sisters their brothers, husbands their wives, but we, sitting at a distance of hundreds of metres, are expected to penetrate all the thin disguises. Women dress as men posing as women—mainly in order to make love to other women—and nobody turns a hair. And on top of all this, people sing all their lines: not in the way you or I might sing, in a lullaby-ish, folk song-ish mode, but inhumanly, extremely, with a visible awareness of their own remarkable achievement.
No rock musician miming sex with his instrument or destroying it on stage, no art installation that creepily mirrors its visitors or pummels them with senseless questions, is nearly as crazy as opera. And yet, because it has been around for so long, and because its devotees pay so much money for their seats and then sit passively in them for such inordinate lengths of time, nobody seems to notice. The formal rules disguise the strangeness. The unnatural is successfully passed off as routine.
It is to Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker’s credit that in their new book, A History of Opera: The Last 400 Years, they notice all this. Despite their evident love of their subject, they are willing to acknowledge up front that, “the whole business is in so many ways fundamentally unrealistic, and can’t be presented as a sensible model for leading one’s life or understanding human behaviour.”
After observing how physically extreme the act of opera-singing is—“people who sing opera generate… huge acoustic forces; if they turn their voices on you at close range, you have to retreat and cover your ears”—they genially ask us to perform a thought experiment. “Think for a moment about what it would be like to inhabit a world that is operatic,” they write. “A world in which everyday life takes place and ordinary time passes, but in…