Click here to visit


Jean-Jacques Nattiez, professor of musicology at the University of Montreal and author of Wagner Androgyne: A Study in Interpretation (Princeton, 1993).

The Angel's Cry: Beyond the Pleasure Principle in Opera by Michel Poizat (Cornell, 1992, trans. by Arthur Denner). Poizat, a Lacanian analyst, "tries to give a psychoanalytic hypothesis as to why operagoers travel from town to town or opera house to opera house, braving six-hour queues in search of the divine voice of the diva," says Nattiez. "He argues that both through voice and through dramatic context, female characters present a double image--the angelic mother and the figure of death--so that what people are seeking in the voices of sopranos is the opportunity for unconscious contact with two opposing images of woman--eros and thanatos, according to Freud's famous dichotomy."

Rodney Milnes, editor of Opera magazine.

Verdi at the Golden Gate by George Martin (California, 1993). "This is an excellent piece of social history about music and opera in San Francisco during the Gold Rush, and how a musically uneducated audience made an immediate connection to Verdi at a time when he was barely known in Europe," says Milnes. He calls the book "a work of great scholarship and enormous detail, full of maps of the city and its theaters. He shows how these probably not-very-good troupes of Italian singers came up the coast after touring South America and gave concerts--first in beer halls, among the drunks and sawdust, and then in rickety theaters that burned down quite regularly. At first there would be the odd aria as part of a music-hall bill, but they proved so popular that soon whole operas were being staged, while in the back of these music halls people were being killed in brawls."

Philip Gossett, Dean of Humanities at the University of Chicago and general editor of The Works of Giuseppe Verdi (Chicago, ongoing):

Verdi: A Biography by Mary Jane Phillips-Matz (Oxford, 1993). "Verdi cultivated a public persona which made him out to be a kind of Horatio Alger hero, a boy from a poor family who willed himself to the pinnacle of international cultural life as the consummate composer and patriot," says Gossett. "He did a great deal to keep his private life hidden from view. By examining documentary evidence no one's ever looked at before--about Verdi, his family, and the social organization of life in Busseto--Matz, a writer for Opera News, gives us a sense of what was behind this persona (he was never poor, for example) and what went on behind the closed doors of his life (such as his relations with other musicians)."

Susan McClary, professor of musicology at McGill University, and author of Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality (Minnesota, 1991) and The Queen's Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire by Wayne Koestenbaum (Poseidon, 1993). "This is a long-overdue study of the genre from the point of view of its most avid fans: the gay men who call themselves opera queens. It examines the pleasures of listening to and identifying with high voices, the phenomenon of diva cults, and includes--my favorite part--'A Pocket Guide to Queer Moments in Opera.' Although Koestenbaum approaches his task with impeccable theoretical credentials, he writes beautifully. In the end, he chases opera not only out of the closet but also out of the seminar room."

Samuel Weber, professor of English at UCLA and coeditor of Mass Mediauras: Form, Technics, Media (Stanford, 1996).

Musica Ficta (Figures of Wagner) by Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe (Stanford, 1994). French philosopher Lacoue-Labarthe takes a "new approach to opera in light of Heidegger, Nietzsche, and Derrida," says Weber--he uses it to look at "the relationship between theater, tragedy, and music during the modern period," and to explore "problems that in traditional spoken discourse have become hard to articulate." For instance, Lacoue-Labarthe takes on the question of tragedy "by examining it syntactically--through the structure of the music--rather than through the more conventional notion of conflicting obligations with regard to an individual subject." Lacoue-Labarthe also studies "how art can be practised so as to avoid the dangerous political implications of a Wagnerian aestheticism."

Carolyn Abbate, professsor of music at Princeton and author of Unsung Voices: Opera and Musical Narrative in the Nineteenth Century (Princeton, 1991).

Singers of Italian Opera: The History of a Profession by John Rosselli (Cambridge, 1992). "It's an absolutely fabulous cultural micro- history of the lives of different groups of Italian singers from the seventeenth to the twentieth century," says Abbate. Rosselli, an economic historian, eschews the "accounts of love affairs" that are the stuff of conventional singers' biographies to focus instead on the details of their daily lives: "What did they earn? What could they have bought with their earnings? Did castrati regret their enforced celibacy? How did singers find their managers?"

Opera Through Other Eyes, David Levin, ed. (Stanford, 1994). The contributors to this anthology all come to opera from other fields, says Abbate: "Their background is largely literary, so they are drawn to opera's narrative and poetic elements, but also to the aura." German psychoanalytic theorist Klaus Theweleit traces the evolution of the instrument of Orpheus's resurrection in Monteverdi's Orfee--during the Renaissance, the instrument was a lyre; in one recent production, it was a television set. And Germanicist Friedrich Kittler, writing on Wagner's media technology, argues that "Wagner's treatment of live instrumentation anticipates the modern acoustics of electric amplification," Abbate says, "and that his revolutionary innovation of darkening the theater during a production anticipates the experience of viewing film."

--Ariel Kaminer

Are there any great books you think we missed? Let us know.

Copyright © 1997 Lingua Franca,Inc. All rights reserved.