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Book Details

  • Paperback
  • Bookstore's Wholesale Price: $57.00
  • September 2012
  • ISBN: 978-0-393-93555-4
  • 528 pages
  • Territory Rights: Worldwide

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The Story of Opera


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James Parakilas (Author, Bates College)


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.


The history of opera told through its stories

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.  

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Opera in context

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.  

Flexible options for listening and viewing

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.  

Vivid musical analyses

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.  

Balanced coverage and up-to-date scholarship

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.  

    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