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QUOTES ABOUT opera range from ”Bravi tutti!” to “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds.” A new book reviewed in The New York Times Book Review offers a goodly number of others, many from operatic composers themselves. This in turn got me thinking of yet other views on this grandest and most elaborate of the theatrical arts.

A Mad Love: An Introduction to Opera, by Vivien Schweitzer, Basic Books, 2018.

A Mad Love is one of the books reviewed in Edward Sobel’s “High Notes,” in The New York Times Book Review, December 2, 2018. Sobel is a caricaturist as well as an opera fanatic, and he supplies the art for his review too.

Illustration by Edward Sobel for The New York Times Book Review, December 2, 2018.

At the Beginning. Author Vivien Schweitzer, a pianist and former music critic for The New York Times, begins with the year 1607 and its premiere of Claudio Monteverde’s Orpheus, in which the first-ever aria was sung. Given that Holy Mother the Church had forbad women from the stage, castrati sang the soprano and mezzo roles.

Tradeoffs, tradeoffs.

Virtuous Tenors/Evil Baritones or Vice Versa? Sobel notes, “Schweitzer points out that in the 18th century Mozart gave boring nice-guy roles to the tenor and the macho arias to the baritone.” For instance, in Don Giovanni, the wimpy Don Octavio is a tenor; Giovanni and his sidekick Leporello are baritone and bass, respectively.

Don Giovanni, as portrayed by baritone Francisco d’Andrade, 1912. Portrait by Max Slevogt.

By the next century, Sobel observes, “Rossini, Donizetti, and others always gave the dashing romantic lead to the tenor and the role of villain to the baritone. (This caused George Bernard Shaw to define opera as ‘when a tenor and soprano want to make love, but are prevented from doing so by a baritone.’) ”

Opera Verismo or What? The Italian term ”opera verismo,” realistic opera, describes the post-Romantic tradition of naturalism, where operatic characters were flesh and blood, not mythical beings. Yet Schweitzer cites Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky writing in his diary that he had “never encountered anything more false and foolish than the effort to get truth into opera. In opera everything is based on non-truth.”

Point, Game, and Match for Wagner? Tchaikovsky’s opinion would seem to support the epic world of Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle. How else to explain its mythology, magic, murder, infidelity, incest, and other godly cavorting?

Wilhelm Richard Wagner, 1813-1883, German composer, theater director, polemicist. Postcard image from

By the way, hitherto I had attributed the line about Wagner’s music being “better than it sounds” to Mark Twain. Researching this further, I find that Twain was recycling Edgar Wilson “Bill” Nye, a fellow humorist of Twain’s era, not to be confused with Bill Nye, the Science Guy, or Bill Nighy, the actor.

Or Maybe Verdi Wins? Differing opinions have raged over the relative merits of Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi.

Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi, 1813-1901, Italian opera composer extraordinaire.

I’ve already cited the entertaining video produced by the Bayerische Staatsoper in 2013 celebrating the 200th anniversary of both composers’ birth.

Wagner/Verdi Punchup, Munich, 2013.

Another celebration of this 200th anniversary was a performance by stage director Carlus Padrissa and Catalan theatrical group La Fura dels Baus. This 37-minute multimedia documentary has giant puppets of Verdi and Wagner parading through the streets of Munich, together with competing bands playing the composers’ works. Here’s a video excerpt. A subscription to Premium offers the full version.

Wagner/Verdi documentary by Padrissa and La Fura dels Baus, Munich, 2013.

It ain’t over ’til the giant puppets sing. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2019

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