Cher Public

Del primer pianto

Classical music writer and opera critic Robert Levine has written a very pleasant new book, Weep, Shudder, Die, A Guide to Loving Opera, published by HarperCollins Books.  Levine sets up the book’s premise early in his introduction: “Could singing… make one, as the composer Vincenzo Bellini said, ‘weep, shudder, die’ and at the same time entertain, warm, and fill with joy?”  

While the book claims to be a “guide to the grand art of opera for both new and longtime fans”, it is clearly aimed at those new to opera or those with an early budding interest.  It is these groups that will find pleasure in Levine’s work; however, those with lots of opera experience will find few new insights here. 

Taken as a whole, Weep, Shudder, Die is a reader-friendly, breezily written primer to the world of opera.  Levine’s greatest strength is his palpable passion and enthusiasm for opera and, in fact, all forms of singing.  His love and delight in the form is infectious.  In the book’s charming Introduction, Levine tells of his slowly developing childhood interest in opera, starting with pop music (The Platters, Anka, Holly, Orbison), then moving to Miss America contestants singing arias, followed by a sudden love for the voice of Mario Lanza.

Finally introduced to recordings of Bjorling in Pagliacci and Callas in Lucia, young Levine was hooked.  It’s a familiar journey for many opera lovers of his generation.  Here is an almost ecstatic statement that ends the Introduction:

I have, since then, been loyally obsessed with the operatic voice.  There’s something so freakishly glorious about it, from bass to high soprano, that it demands a visceral reaction—anger, sadness, empathy, elation—and instant metaphor: dark, light, velvety, silvery, bell-like, chocolate, warm, golden, icy, laserlike, smooth…To this day, I cannot understand why people don’t sing—opera and otherwise—all the time.

This statement is operatic in itself.

Levine then sets about to demystify the world of opera, dismissing those who find it stuffy or remote.  The breezy tone continues through a brief précis on the history of opera from Monteverdi to YouTube and a discussion of why people still shy away from opera with headings such as “Everybody sings all the time and that’s not the way life is” through “The Plot Does Not Really Matter, Parts I, II, and III.” After touching on Regietheatre and the need to have libretto in hand when listening to CD’s, we arrive at the meat of the book: a brief précis of 50 major operas.

There is no in-depth analysis to be found here.  Each opera is given a short paragraph or two about the composer, a “Who’s Who” of the major characters, a “What’s Happening” section with a very brief synopsis, and Levine’s choices of “To Die For Moments” in the score.

There are sections on German Opera, Mozart’s Operas, Opera in English, Italian Opera, French Opera, and Russian Opera and, while some of Levine’s choices might be a bit questionable, he covers all the standard repertoire.  While the writing remains light and sometimes humorous, Levine begins inserting some strong and questionable opinions in this section, and makes several odd factual errors.

An example of an opinion presented as fact which many (including this reviewer) would object to can be found on page 84: “Though some operas by even the greatest composers—Verdi, Puccini, Wagner—can afford to be cut a bit here and there, Mozart’s operas are so perfect that each note counts.”  Many an opera lover would be inclined to do a “spit-take” after reading that statement.  Sometimes, the synopses are absurdly abbreviated—Act Two of Rigoletto gets one sentence: “Rigoletto realizes what has happened and swears revenge.” (I could swear that Gilda has some involvement here!)

There are several highly questionable statements as well.  In the synopsis of the last act of Trovatore, Levine states “…and when Leonora enters and is accused by Manrico of giving in to the count’s dirty advances, she poisons herself.” Well, not really, and this is corrected on the following page!

Act II of Traviata: “Even though she knows she suffers from consumption and that leaving Alfredo will only make her worse, she returns to Paris and takes up with Douphol.” (takes up with him??)

Aida: “Act III opens on a secluded bank of the Nile, where Aida waits to fret and whine with Radames.” (???)

About Otello: “Eliminating the Bard’s entire first act, the action begins and ends in Cyprus; Desdemona’s father, the duke, and Brabantio are also excised.” (But Mr. Levine, Desdemona’s father is Brabantio!)

And finally, the end of La Gioconda: “Barnaba arrives to have his way with Gioconda, and she manages to sing girlish coloratura around him before she drops dead. Priceless.”  (No mention of the fact that she stabs herself before “dropping dead.”)

Some of this may have been worded to make humorous points, but I found these and other statements rather grating.  The book’s primary audience of newcomers will likely not notice any of these odd moments, however.  On the whole, Levine writes with real humanity, grace and charm.  I would recommend this book as a gift for anyone’s opera newbie friends.  It’s an easy read.

  • Camille

    “Groan, puke and moan”.

    I always enjoy reading about the “average” person’s “average” introduction to opera. It makes me light up with delight.

    Mine was not average nor anything I could turn a quick buck upon. Too bad that I can’t be “average” and have my addiction but still fill into the profile of the norm.

    Happy is he who has his cake and eats it,too….

  • “Though some operas by even the greatest composers—Verdi, Puccini, Wagner—can afford to be cut a bit here and there, Mozart’s operas are so perfect that each note counts.”

    W, T, F.

  • Will

    I HATE the kind of book that condescends to and subtly apologizes for opera while attempting to make it palatable for the uninformed. The truth isn’t any harder to swallow and is much more likely to engender some real interest and desire to explore further.

  • pasavant

    I always thought that Act 3 of Aida opens on the banks of the Suez Canal.

    • A. Poggia Turra

      Yes, Aida might be said to be in denial….

  • Camille

    “Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer”, by Wesley Stace and published, stateside, by Picador Books, is, after persevering a bit and plowing through the cowpats of the first 100 pages or so, quite a fine tale, and I recommend it to those whose interests include British music, specifically the Edwardian period, and perhaps, fanciers of the Carlo Gesualdo legend. The book has, I hope not to spoil, quite a shocking volte-face after one has been comfortably settled down for quite some time into one tale…and well, then, it turns out that the tale told is as life itself; never what you were expecting in the first place.

    Cheers! And as today I have been Caterina la Chiacchierante, I’ll now close.
    Pax et Bonum

    • Camille

      Ohime, I have to emend another egregious error. The action of the book specifically begins the day AFTER King Edward’s funeral. it should have read ‘Post-Edwardan’. My apologies to King George and his loyal subjects.

  • Clita del Toro

    Why would anyone want to “demystify” opera. It’s the mystery and wonder of it that hooks us (at least me), not a silly “textbook”.

  • Are spoiler alerts needed if the spoilers are wrong?

    Also --

    “The book’s primary audience of newcomers will likely not notice any of these odd moments, however.”

    Yes, but isn’t it then even MORE wrong to feed these unsuspecting newbies such falsities which will probably cause confusion and embarrassment for them down the line? Anyway, it’s so easy to fact check nowadays this really seems inexcusable…

    PS --

    For accurate humorous points in an opera plot description -- Thomas Forrest Kelly has HILARIOUS summary chart of Giulio Cesare in “First Nights at the Opera.”

  • veal seduttore

    The book is for those who are already part way to opera and love the human voice. Writer is not an “average” listener -- he’s been wring well about opera for twenty-five years -- and his sense of irony is matched by his adoration of the art form. Little plot errors and omissions aside (the least important part of the book), it’s great fun, informative and unique in its refusal to either condescend or attempt to be fancy-shmancy.