Books about opera often have an insiders-only feel, or they are written, sometimes explicitly, for dummies. So there’s reason to applaud a new volume like Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker’s “History of Opera,” in which vast scholarly authority is put to the service of a narrative both lucid and sweeping. As the authors note on the very first page, opera is a highly artificial art form (everyone sings!), it has always been exorbitantly expensive to produce, and its main repertoire is chiefly a product “of a distant European past.” And yet, it still holds sway over legions of fans, whether they are crossing the ocean to catch a “Ring” cycle, or crossing the shopping mall to catch a simulcast.
Parker and Abbate set out to tell us why we are so moved — as they put it, “physically, emotionally, intellectually” — and their 600 sharply argued pages map the evolution of the art, debunk myths, dive into reception history, and spin the present off of the past in canny ways. They delight in pointing out how mutable and porous the form remained for centuries after its invention. Even if you disagree, as I do, with the authors’ pessimistic assessment of the prospects for operas written today, there’s a lot here for both certified opera buffs and literate skeptics, who never quite got what all the fuss was about.