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An important question to ask when selecting a history of opera to be purchased is, "How am I intending to read it?" (a sub-question may be, "Will I ever really read it?"). That is, will it primarily sit on a shelf and be consulted before some performances (i.e., used as a reference book), or will it be consumed as a single text, with an eye to a broader narrative, including the underlying themes and fundamentals of opera, a complex art-form that rewards thoughtful study?
If the latter suits your purpose and you are willing to trade comprehensiveness for some outstanding insights, "A History of Opera" by Abbate and Parker is a solid recommendation. If you prefer breadth, or can afford both, then By Donald Grout - A Short History of Opera: 4th (fourth) Edition (ironically nearly 200 pages longer) by Grout and Williams is also recommended. Each has their own distinct strengths.
The distinctions between the two books are evident from their explicit purposes.
In their Introduction, one major issue that Abbate and Parker propose to investigate is the fate of opera, that is, in restatement, "Can contemporary opera balance the demands of an 'established' reportory while also producing new and relevant works?" They pursue that matter (and others) with their own style, one of an almost conversational quality, nearly shorn of references to musical scores, and focused upon the composers and works that most readers will have encountered (such as Handel, Glück, Mozart, Verdi, Wagner) while practically overlooking many others (for instance, there is only a passing reference to Vivaldi, and no mention of either of the Gershwin brothers, let alone Scott Joplin - all of whom receive comment by Grout et Williams).
In the Preface to the Fourth Edition, Williams recalls Grout's original intentions, and by extension his own, of writing a book "to offer a comprehensive report on the present state of knowledge about the history of opera" (xi). As such, it is focused upon scholarly research and has a tone more consistent with musicologists rather than accessible historians (this is not intended to denigrate the work of Grout and Williams - I would assign that book five stars, and it would be the first choice for many people seeking a reference text).
Examples of Abbate and Parker's conversational style:
"Opera can change us: physically, emotionally, intellectually. We want to explore why."(1),
"Minor works from the [18th century] that were unearthed belonged to history. Mozart's operas belong to 'us'."(36),
" ... Grand Opera in 1946 was not so much a genre as something you associate with a long-deceased great aunt, fondly recalling the ropes of pearls, the mink and the whiff of mothballs."(262), and
"Richard Strauss' 'Elektra' may have shrieked, raved and jumped up and down in dirty rags, struggling to make herself heard over an enormous, blaring orchestra; but never mind."(92).
In comparison, the Grout 'History' offers concise language and an academic, respectful tone.
With regard to Abbate and Parker's emphasis upon the most popular composers, the benefit is that their approach includes, in many cases, a more in-depth look at some works than is common for a history. For instance, in the Grout et Williams text, Rossini is given a five page overview (as well as many other references peppered throughout), including just these two short references to 'Guillaume Tell': "With 'Guillaume Tell', Rossini reached the climax of both his art and his fame."(389) and, "'Guillaume Tell' [is] one of the finest examples of grand opera in the early nineteenth century."(389). In Abbate et Parker, 'Guillaume Tell' alone receives three pages of discussion, including a focus upon the scene where Tell must shoot an apple atop his son's head. They write, "There is almost no music when Tell lifts his bow for the shot, only a single pitch from the tremolo strings, and that is significant."(269) The significance of the scene to grand opera is then explained. Other works that also feature a more intense look include Wagner's 'Tristan' and Musorgsky's 'Boris'. These digressions into particular works serve their narrative, and will not disappoint.
Conversely, Grout's discussion of Wagner's 'Meistersinger' is far more extensive and edifying than the entry in Abbate and Parkers text.
At times, the tone of Abbate and Parker's text seems to lack the solemn reverence of other histories of opera as when they remark upon Monteverdi's 'Orfeo' as being elevated to "the Ur-opera"(42) or the conventional tendency to, perhaps, over-inflate the role of philosophers and theorists in the birth of opera. In their account working composers deserve at least equal credit.
Maybe another question to ask oneself before purchasing: "Are you a proponent of opera being an elite art-form, the domain of musicologists as well as a few select others allowed into the guild, or is opera more a living art form, governed by the composers, artists, and a broader audience muddling about and finding the way?" Obviously some musicologists make great contributions to our understanding and appreciation of opera, but ultimately, isn't opera "about" artists entertaining audiences? Doesn't the fusion of text and music have a near universal appeal? Admittedly, part of opera's appeal is "digging in" and exploring its conventions (and its quirks), but its essence is the beautiful marriage of drama and music that appeals to both our senses and intellect.
In their words the authors refer to one contemporary perspective that "... has turned operatic performance into an activity policed by a reverence for the work as a well nigh sacred object - a reverence in almost all cases not present at the time it was created."(7).
For a reader willing to look at opera as an organic product of human expression that glorifies the voice with some peculiar conventions that evolve from time to time and then bounce across borders, this book is a very good read. Even if your great aunt might not have approved.