4 Opera Books To Shake Up Your Playlist

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Anna Gooding-Call

Staff Writer

Anna Gooding-Call is a librarian and writer originally from rural central New York. She got her BA in the city that inspired "The Twilight Zone" and confirms that the hitchhikers really are weird there. Today, she lives in Massachusetts with her wife and two cats.

If you don’t love opera, then get thee over the the Met’s free daily opera stream tout suite! You’re about to discover a wonderful and wild world of over-the-top magnificent music, often terrible acting, lavish sets and costumes, tears for days, and plots that are usually just straight-up trash. I happen to adore opera because I am a big geek nerd. Some people (me) happen to love ridiculous fun things like Figaro singing a song entirely about himself and how awesome he is. If you’d care to join me, consider these four books to get you into opera. Might as well appreciate that free Met stream, right?

Black Opera: History, Power, Engagement by Naomi André

Opera is transformative, subversive, and emotional. For a long time, the role of Black musicians and artists in western opera has gone overlooked, but that doesn’t mean that it hasn’t been there. For example, did you know that Scott Joplin wrote an opera? That’s right, the Maple Leaf Rag guy wrote a freaking opera, and it’s really good! This book reveals and examines the entire hidden history of race in opera and presents us with a vision of the art form as an inherently powerful and liberating cultural force. This is a power punch of a book and not to be missed. It’s not just an introduction; it’ll suck you into a whole new artistic landscape that will change how you look at opera (and opera books) in general. You won’t be sorry.

Chinese Opera: Images and Stories by Siu Wang-Ngai and Peter Lovrick

I’m going to assume that most English speakers who are new to opera are also new to Chinese opera. This Asian cultural cornerstone is not to be missed, and this book is a great introduction. Not only does it display Chinese opera’s legendary stylistic elements (seriously: between the costumes, the makeup, and the acrobatics, it’s a big deal) but it relates the stories that play out so compellingly on the stage, many of which will be new to western audiences.

If you have a chance to see some Chinese opera, don’t miss it, but if you’re not culturally Chinese, definitely have a gander at this work first so that you have some context. There are a lot of opera books that focus on Chinese theater, but many of them are actually written and published only in Chinese. If you don’t read the language yourself, this work is a bit of a gem.

Deviant Opera: Sex, Power, and Perversion on Stage by Axel Englund

And you thought opera was dry! The gorgeous thing about opera is that it’s really just music and a libretto with some general notes about location and context. The stage manager can do whatever they’d like outside of those loose boundaries. If they want to stage an opera where a Mozart heroine performs bondage on her fiancé because he’s jealous of another guy and she has to convince him she’s into him unto truly freaky levels, then they can.

In fact, BDSM has become a little bit of a trend in edgier opera houses recently. This book takes a great crack at examining how modern theater pros are stretching the boundaries of a “traditional” art form. Of all the opera books in print, this is probably the one you most want to have out on your coffee table when Aunt Hilda comes over to badger you about having no cultural taste.

A Mad Love: An Introduction to Opera by Vivien Schweitzer

Oh, I’m sorry, you wanted an all-around, basic intro to opera? Something that covers the history of opera, its highs and lows, its drama on and off the stage, and where it stands at present? Then look no further! This book starts with western opera’s humble beginnings in 1607 (yes, it’s that new!) and goes on to describe exactly why people are still so crazy about it today. This is a soup to nuts, head to tail, thorough coverage of what opera is, where it comes from, and all the reasons that it’s so lovable. Although it comes at the end of this list, you might consider it a good first stop if you really want to nurture your burgeoning inner opera fan.

Have you already listened to La Traviata 15 times? Does your playlist crave fresh tunes? Time to hook you into yet another new genre! We have 50 more books on music right this way.