May 31

Who’s Afraid of Opera: A highly opinionated, informative, and entertaining guide to appreciating opera, by Michael Walsh ★★★★★

I recently read and reviewed another book by Michael Walsh (Last Stands), and thoroughly enjoyed his writing style and conservative outlook on the arts, politics, and life. I didn’t think that a Time Magazine writer could possibly be a conservative. Walsh wrote a previous book titled Who’s Afraid of Classical Music, and which is supposed to be read first. Amazon just happened to mail me this book first, and since I’m between historical tomes and desired some lighter reading before setting out to hike more of the PCT. So, it’s this book, Walsh’s book on classical music, and a few other short historical texts.

I loved this book. I admit that I do NOT have a similar taste in music to Michael Walsh, but that doesn’t distract from the general points he is trying to make. I love many of the operas of the bel canto era, and he does not. None of the operas of Bellini, Donizetti, or Rossini were seriously discussed. Walsh liked many of the newer operas available, including some 12 tone works, serial works, and minimalist works. I have not found minimalist works as compelling, or interesting, or even expressive. Like Walsh, I’m not ready to throw out modern pieces. I’ll give Phillip Glass a chance, as I didn’t object too strongly to his classical works. Walsh minimized the work of Händel, which I also concur with. Sadly, Walsh did not mention the obscure operas of Bach, the most notable being the Coffee Cantata, which is really an opera disguised as a cantata to escape the radar of the Lutheran critics of his music. Walsh also misses out on the creative forms of music found in the background of movies. Indeed, Shostakovich wrote many film music scores, many of which are classical works of art in their own right. Wagner, more than anybody, set the stage for the background music for films for which we can be grateful. We have abundant examples of highly creative film scores, ranging from Ennio Morricone to John Williams. One cannot go to the concert hall to listen to the music of The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, yet it is most brilliant and creative, which in part makes the film as much as Clint Eastwood makes the film.

Walsh offers a capable defense for opera. He starts by trying to define “opera” while admitting that opera can be challenging to define. As an example later in the book, he would define most of the Broadway Musicals and A. L. Webber productions (like Phantom of the Opera) as actually opera productions. He is probably correct in doing so. Walsh discusses how to listen to an opera, and specifically what it is like to go to an opera. Naturally, one MUST do their homework before entering the opera hall, having a clue as to what the opera is about, rather than trying to discover that at the time of the performance. Walsh gives a listing of some of his favorite operas, many of which I agree with. There are gems that he totally misses out on, such as Wagner’s Parsifal, and the mid-career operas of Verdi (La Traviata, Il Trovatore, Rigoletto), which he aren’t as bad as Walsh suggests them to be. Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischütz was given only a passing mention, even though it was most influential in affecting the operas of both Verdi and Wagner, as well as everybody after Verdi and Wagner. And, it’s a delightful opera with lots of great music. Walsh shares many anecdotes that he had while acting as the Time Magazine music critic, meeting influential musicians and opera stars, and encountering the vagarities of an art medium in flux. Walsh mentions the personal hell that each opera star must go through in a performance schedule. Indeed, he is correct that opera has got to be the most challenging and demanding of all the possible art forms existent today. He was most humorous and provided several nights’ worth of delightful reading. I will be looking forward to reading his text on classical music (which should have been read first!).

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