Reading before a performance is the perfect way to expand your operatic horizons.
If you're dying to learn about opera, the best thing to do is go on a blind date with it-- get tickets and go to one. Opera-going is quite self-explanatory: show your ticket at the door, sit down, and an arresting drama unfolds in front of our eyes. You don't have to do anything. They even tell you what's happening in the supertitle translations.
But if you want to go above and beyond-- if you really want to delve into opera, perhaps even become an opera geek, you need to enhance your opera-going experience by bulking up on books. Below is a list of five recommendations. Each one is a shining doorway into a long and successful career as an operaholic. Be careful, once you pass through that door, there's no turning back.
1. Opera For Dummies by David Pogue and Scott Speck. Don't tell anyone, but this was the book I started with. I was too inexperienced to know I was supposed to be too snobby to buy it. But I'll stand up for it now. It's informative and witty. Pogue and Speck start from scratch: half the book explains how opera evolved and what to expect when you go to one, and the other half is a summary of opera plots. Be discreet if you bring it to the opera house, though. It'll give you away as a newbie.
2. The New Kobbe's Opera Book by C.W. Kobbe and the Earl of Harewood. Massive. Classic. This thing is more like a codex of arcane mysteries than a book. It goes into infinitely minute detail about any opera you could ever want to know about. It spends 157 pages on Verdi's operas alone. But it also features lesser-known operas, such as Dame Ethel Smyth's The Wreckers. I would call it the opera-lover's Bible, but that would be cliché.
3. The Dictionary of the Opera by Charles Osborne. This book has it all. It's impossible to look up only one thing because every page is packed with fascinating details. Before you know it, you'll be drawn into an odyssey that rivals even the most illuminating treks through Wikipedia. A quick glance at a random page shows an entry like: brindisi: From the Italian 'far brindisi' (to drink one's health), the term has come to mean a drinking song, or a song used as a toast.
4. Opera 101: A Complete Guide To Learning And Loving Opera by Fred Plotkin. I blazed through this one prior to a summer internship at a U.S. opera house, and boy, did it make me look smart.This book is aptly named -- it's your one-stop intro to everything opera. Recommended for beginners and black belts alike. No matter how much you think you know, you'll learn something reading this book. The best thing? It has all the information of a textbook, without the stuffy language.
5. A Night at the Opera: An Irreverent Guide to The Plots, The Singers, The Composers, The Recordings by Sir Denis Forman. This author thinks he's really stirring things up with his colloquial commentary, but it's not that shockingly 'irreverent'. His rambling, conversational tone is peppered with British slang that probably eludes even the Brits. You won’t roll with laughter. But you can't go wrong with it -- it's written by a knight of the realm, for goodness' sake. His pithy psychoanalysis is humorous and engaging, covering all the facts you need to become an instant expert.
Have some opera book recommendations of your own? Please leave them in the comments section.