The fat lady sings

A history of opera for young people already listening

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Continuing her series of young person's guides (others include ballet, orchestra, and Shakespeare), Anita Ganeri has co-written with Nicola Barber a valuable new introduction to the opera. Recommended for ages 8 and up, the book also includes a CD of famous excerpts that gives readers the immediate musical experience of some of the operas discussed.

The book is valuable in that it fills a hole - there is precious little written about opera that a child would find palatable and engaging.

"The Young Person's Guide to the Opera" is informative, colorfully laid out with appealing graphics and a wide range of photographs, and occasionally charmingly anecdotal.

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Yellow "Did You Know" boxes sprinkled throughout feature intriguing stories about the opera world. (Did you know that Maria Callas's wig once caught fire onstage during an aria? She didn't miss a note!)

In general, however, the guide is a bit slapdash. The introduction sounds weak, self-congratulatory, and obsequious. The first chapter, "What is Opera?" is sketchy in defining and describing the elements of the art form and its importance in cultural history.

Though the research is solid, the organization of chapters leaves some basic and compelling information (such as the relationship between words and music, the basic set-up of different voices, the extramusical facets) to the end. It also buries pertinent reference material, making it difficult for a youngster to use the book as a research tool.

However, the guide does include some ancillary material that children might find interesting, such as information on costumes, props, and set design. And the bulk of the guide covers the history of opera effectively, tracing its development through the centuries solidly and informatively. But it never captures the excitement, power, and pageantry that opera can generate.

So while "The Young Person's Guide to the Opera" is a terrific book to have on hand for any child already interested in opera, it won't necessarily entice a youngster to go experience the art form firsthand.

Karen Campbell is a freelance writer in Boston.

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