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The Story of Opera

The Story of Opera

James Parakilas

ISBN: 978-0-393-93555-4

*Norton agency titles

473 pages

Select type: Paperback

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Four centuries of opera through the stories they tell.

The Story of Opera explores the centuries-old tradition in which the emotional power of music is linked to the human issues that can be enacted as stories. The first part, “Going to the Opera,” introduces newcomers to every element of the operatic experience—venues, seating arrangements, dress and costumes, stage effects, orchestra, singers, and dancers—describing how each began and changed over the years, and how they have all combined to enthrall audiences for four centuries. The remaining parts explore operatic repertory from the 17th century to the present, providing insightful readings of plots, particular scenes, staging, and music.

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Part I: Experiencing Opera

Chapter 1: Going to the Opera House
Chapter 2: The Orchestra Plays
Chapter 3: The Cast Appears
Chapter 4: The Story Unfolds

Part II: Opera of the 17th Century

Chapter 5: Opera in Princely Courts: Florence and Mantua
     Monteverdi: Orfeo

Chapter 6: Opera in Commercial Opera Houses: Venice
     Cavalli: Giasone
     Monteverdi: L'incoronazione di Poppea

Chapter 7: National Opera: Paris and London
     Lully: Alceste, Atys, Armide
     Purcell: Dido and Aeneas

Part III: Opera of the 18th Century

Chapter 8: Opera on Classical Subjects
     Handel: Giulio Cesare in Egitto
     Rameau: Dardamus, Hippolyte et Aricie
     Gluck: Orfeo et Euridice, Alceste, the Iphigenia operas

Chapter 9: Opera on Comic Subjects
     The Beggar's Opera
     Pergolesi: La serva padrona
     Mozart: The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, Così fan tutte

Part IV: Opera of the 19th Century

Chapter 10: Opera on Themes of Political Conflict
     Grétry: Richard Coeur-de-Lion
     Beethoven: Fidelio
     Meyerbeer: Les Huguenots
     Bellini: Norma
     Verdi: Aida
     Musorgsky: Boris Godunov

Chapter 11: Opera on Themes of Domestic Conflict
     Bizet: Carmen
     Rossini: The Barber of Seville
     Donizetti: Lucia di Lammermoor
     Verdi: La Traviata, Otello
     Puccini: La bohème

Chapter 12: Opera on Legendary Themes
     Gounod: Faust
     Wagner: The Flying Dutchman, Lohengrin, Die Walküre
     Glinka: Ruslan and Lyudmila
     Rimsky-Korsakov: The Legend of Kitezh
     Dvorák: Rusalka

Part V: Opera of the 20th Century and Beyond

Chapter 13: Human-Interest Opera
     Janácek: Jenufa
     Berg: Wozzeck
     Gershwin: Porgy and Bess
     Britten: Peter Grimes
     Operas of Floyd and Heggie
     Shostakovich: The Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District
     Poulenc: Dialogues of the Carmelites
     Adams: The Death of Klinghoffer

Chapter 14: Operas of Dreaming
     Saariaho: L'Amour de loin
     Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande
     Strauss: Die Frau ohne Schatten
     Stravinsky: The Rake's Progress
     Messiaen: Saint Francis of Assisi
     Schoenberg: Moses and Aaron
     Operas of Thomson, Glass, and Davis
     Ligeti: Le Grand Macabre
     Ravel: L'Enfant et les Sortilèges

Works Cited

The Story of Opera introduces the world of opera in a way that requires no special knowledge: through stories. After an opening explanation of the elements of the operatic experience, the text is organized around story types that have preoccupied operatic creators and audiences in each century of operatic history—from ancient myths and legends to trials of married life, interracial relationships, and ordinary people caught up in great events.

The book examines opera in its original social and political climate, when audiences were gripped by certain powerful issues. Opera transported them to a unique world created by the librettist, composer, singers, and musicians, and students are invited into this same world, where they grapple with these same compelling issues. Musical descriptions, set within the context of the story, teach students what to listen for and how best to appreciate the composer’s artistry. Sidebars in each chapter illuminate different aspects of the operatic experience, both onstage and off.

An imaginative repertory, organized by theme, provides choice, breadth, and flexibility. Canonic works like Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro are covered alongside lesser-known works (Saariaho’s L’amour de loin), from the 17th century to the present. Repertory organized around story types rather than composers or national schools enables instructors to focus on the works that best suit their own interests and those of their students.

The musical analyses in this text are evocative and accessible; none require previous musical experience or a technical vocabulary. Brief examples, most including the words, illustrate important musical moments. Operatic conventions for each period are highlighted throughout to demonstrate how widely understood musical references can enhance meaning beyond the limitations of text.

The text illuminates the ways in which story and music combine to create unique masterworks. The thematic organization allows both depth and breadth, and offers a fresh, revelatory way to look at opera. In one compact survey, The Story of Opera covers both the whole history of opera and its core repertory.