As soon as Grand Opera: The Story of the Met by Charles and Mirella Jona Affron caught my eye, I knew I wanted to read it.
The "Met" in question, of course, is the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. It has been a cultural cornerstone for the city of New York since it premiered its first opera over 130 years ago. The Met is almost certainly the most important opera theater in the United States, and arguably the most important one outside of Europe.
My eagerness to read "Grand Opera," though, was not so much inspired by what the Met represents artistically as by the colorful cast of characters who have worked there over the years and who have helped the august opera house to claw its way to its venerated position. A lively collection of personalities – singers, directors, administrators, composers, and impresarios – star in this thoroughly entertaining history of the Met and its effect on opera as an artistic medium.
But let me interrupt to confess right here: I am an opera nut. There are many of us, and we're easy to spot at a performance. We're the ones enthusiastically explaining minor details about the production or composer to our seatmates who generally nod and smile politely while desperately wondering when the show's going to start.
To us, opera isn't just pretty music. Opera represents the good and bad of Western civilization; it presents the best of art, music, and theater without being afraid to confront personal, political, and artistic injustices. We see opera as a powerful force for social change and artistic enlightenment.
I know a fellow opera nut when I see one. And I'd be willing to bet my entire recording of all four operas in Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle that the Affrons are enthusiastic aficionados as well.
This is important because it places "Grand Opera" into a very specific niche: a genre of books about opera that revel in the idiosyncrasies of critics, directors, and performers. These sorts of books are full of humorous anecdotes and inside jokes, and have an tendency (unfortunately for outsiders) to be written by opera nuts, for opera nuts.
While "Grand Opera" definitely fits into the opera-book niche, it succeeds admirably in its effort to appeal to non-opera nuts as well. While opera nuts will probably love this book more than anyone else, "Grand Opera" is actually comprehensible and entertaining for those outside the opera community as well.
The authors, after all, are scholars. The Affrons are both professors who are trying, first and foremost, to write a history book. Their professionalism shines through the temptation to build the book on the kind of insider humor one encounters all too often in books about opera.
Still, if this is a serious history book, it's also an entertaining one.
The first half of the book, in fact, is entertaining to the point of hilarity. I found myself laughing aloud several times at particularly nasty critics decrying operas that have since become established as classics, chuckling over the all-out war between fans of German opera vs. fans of Italian opera in the late 19th century, and being thoroughly amused by accounts of early celebrity opera singers Geraldine Farrar and Enrico Caruso, who somehow managed to have careers in Hollywood in a time when movies were completely silent.
In its early days, the Met was trying to establish an American taste in opera, staging risky operas that led to soaring box-office hits and a few appalling failures. There is an almost Wild West feel to the first half of the book, which tells of the Met's establishment by Gilded Age millionaires, only to find their house increasingly taken over by the proverbial common man. The earlier chapters of the book are full of unexpected stars rising in unexpected situations, and power struggles between fans, singers, and management.
The first half of the book is more or less a coming-of-age story for the Met, chronicling its rise to artistic hegemony in the United States, against all the odds.
The second half loses a bit of the Wild West feel, however, and becomes a more conventional history. The details of the Met's financial difficulties during the postwar years and the more recent 2008 recession have less to offer in terms of the swashbuckling comedy of the early days.
This isn't to say that the second half is dull; far from it. Admittedly, this half may be of more interest to me and my fellow opera nuts, given our concern with the state of opera in America today, but I think anyone who becomes invested in the first half will want to find out what happens next to the Met, which becomes a character in itself.
The second half also provides an opportunity to examine the important issues facing opera in the United States today, in terms of radical stagings of classic works, the commissioning of new operas, and the impact of digital technology on the art form as a whole. The authors stay away from pronouncing judgment on these topics, but they do impress upon the reader the importance of the new directions the Met has gone in recent years, and how the opera company is ahead, behind, or on par with other companies.
As a whole, "Grand Opera" is an entertaining and serious contextualization of the state of the Metropolitan Opera today, as well as an emotionally and intellectually satisfying read.
I must, however, point out a bit of a caveat for non-opera nuts. There are countless references to singers, operas, and musical terms that someone with no operatic training may find challenging. While the authors handle quick explanations well, I might recommend being near an Internet source to look up definitions or find specific audio clips in order to better understand the overall flow of history.
That said, a basic knowledge of opera should more than suffice to enjoy "Grand Opera." Even if several references go over the reader's head, it doesn't take an aficionado to be fascinated by the various successes, failures, and epic artistic battles fought on the stage of one of the world's greatest opera houses.
As for my fellow opera nuts, I can recommend this book to them without reservation.
Weston Williams is a Monitor contributor.