Loving opera is such a simple thing. And yet the conventional wisdom seems to strive to make it complicated. Opera, and classical music, are elitist and arcane: This view is held both by people who don’t care for them, and by many of those who do. How many fans have you heard using words like “passaggio,” “portamento,” “tessitura,” as if to signal their insider knowledge? Even an innocuous mention of “Beethoven’s Op. 111,” which seems like a perfectly reasonable way to refer to that composer’s final piano sonata, earned me a snort of suppressed laughter from a non-specialist friend the other week during a discussion of whether classical music can ever really rock.
So how do people actually become fans of such off-putting stuff? If you look through a bookstore, you can find an entire literature of classical-music introductions and “Opera 101s,” most of it at least tacitly based on the idea that you need to grasp this specialized knowledge to enjoy, or even to partake of, this refined fare. Well, you need specialized knowledge to watch a baseball game, too, but people don’t generally seek out books called “An Introduction to Baseball” to understand what they’re supposed to be getting out of a game.
Hang on to that sports analogy. It’s a lot more useful, when you’re talking about loving classical music, than all of this jargon stuff. Opera fans have a lot more in common with sports fans than they do with academics. And when they fall in love with opera, it’s not usually by reading high-falutin’ introductions. It’s by going to the opera.
Two diametrically opposed views of an introduction to opera have come out within the past year. One has impeccable credentials: a handsome volume in the Cambridge Introduction to Classical Music series, titled simply “Opera,” by an independent lecturer on opera named Robert Cannon, who stuffs his book full of information, knowledge, plot and score analyses, and endless tables. The other explodes stereotypes: “The Opera Fanatic: Ethnography of an Obsession,” by the sociologist Claudio Benzecry, follows a group of hard-core opera fans in Buenos Aires. It defies conventional wisdom about opera’s elitism and social decorum simply by observing and recording a group of largely blue-collar people whose passion for the form has little to do with intellect.
Cannon’s “Opera” has all the earmarks of a solid introduction. “Opera is a dramatic form whose primary language is music,” it opens, and having found this definition, returns to it from time to time in satisfaction at this pithy formulation. It follows the accepted timeline, from Greek drama to the origins of modern opera in the late 16th century, through to a good range of 20th-century opera. Commendably, it even goes beyond the historical narrative, with chapters (albeit brief ones) on such subjects as historically informed performance and stage direction, both key aspects of the opera-going experience today.
The question is whether such a guide — designed in part for laymen with some prior knowledge of opera, and in part as a college textbook — actually communicates anything salient to someone who simply loves opera, or wants to. One stumbling block is that the author, who is obviously a font of knowledge, is slightly challenged when it comes to imparting it, relying heavily on tables to convey his meaning in a way that amounts to a kind of academic PowerPoint lecture.