Weep Shudder Die: A Guide to Loving Opera

  • Robert Levine
  • It Books
  • 256 pp.

Easing into the art of "drama by means of music."

Reviewed by Tom Glenn

Vincenzo Bellini, bel canto composer, said about opera, “Through singing, [it] must make you weep,  shudder, die.” Hence the title of Robert Levine’s light-fingered survey of opera’s 50 greatest hits. The choice of Bellini’s words for the title is revealing in that it touches upon only one of opera’s components —  the thrill of the human voice. Granted, anyone who has heard recordings of the Callas’s “Vissi d’arte” from Tosca or Domingo’s “Esultate” from Otello will recognize the gut reaction Levine celebrates. And my sense of Levine, a writer on travel and music, best known for his Maria Callas: A Musical Biography, is that he loves opera because of his admitted obsession with the operatic voice: “There’s something so freakishly glorious about it.” Unfortunately, that approach leaves aside the multiple aspects of opera that, taken together, make it an art form unparalleled in its insights into the human condition.

Levine,  in his Author’s Note and Introduction, offers the reader a breezy rundown of his first acquaintance with opera (Miss America Pageant and Mario Lanza), the nature of opera (“sung drama”) and its history. He points out that the digital age has brought a whole new audience to opera — in 2009, in the United States alone, more than a million people bought tickets to the Metropolitan Opera’s HD Live close-circuit telecasts shown throughout the country. Next, he devotes chapters to French, Italian, German and Russian operas and adds one chapter each for Mozart and “Opera in English” (Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas and Britten’s Peter Grimes).  He ends the book refuting the notion that opera is a dying art form,  popular only with grey heads. He quotes a Time online article that the median age for opera goers is 48.

A critic could quibble with Levine’s selection of the 50 operas to examine, but none of the war horses is overlooked. I question the inclusion of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin and neglect of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, but to some degree, that’s a matter of personal taste. For each of the chosen operas, the reader is given a page or so of background information, a cast of characters, a plot synopsis and a listing of highlights. The brevity of each discussion makes the book feel rushed. Don Giovanni, perhaps the greatest opera ever written, is dispatched in four and a half pages.

I applaud Levine’s setting aside Mozart from the principal operatic traditions shaped by language, not because Mozart wrote opera in German,  Italian and French but because he created his own tradition. On the other hand, excluding an analysis of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess from his opera-in-English discussion struck me as a significant omission.

Weep, Shudder, Die is intended “to make listening [to] and understanding opera an easier and less Byzantine experience.” Levine’s insouciant style avoids the convolution sometimes found in books about opera but offers little depth and fails to distinguish Puccini’s pathos, say, from Gounod’s transcendence, or Massenet’s elegance from Verdi’s raw energy. The author’s chatty syntax and vocabulary combined with his pithiness (most of the plot synopses are a half page or less) may be the cause of occasional errors in the text. For example, he refers to Mozart’s 40 symphonies — Mozart wrote 41. In Trovatore,  Leonora offers herself to the count not to gain permission to see Manrico again but to save Manrico’s life. In Gioconda, the heroine does not take poison. In Don Carlo, it is heretics, not Flemish Protestants, that are to be burned at the stake. In Carmen, in Act 1 Carmen tosses a flower at José before the brawl, not after it. And so on.

Levine,  of course, faces the dilemma of all who write about music: we have no words that capture what music does or why it does it. The problem is compounded in opera — where music creates the drama. Even resorting to technical language (e.g., the breathtaking sadness of the Neapolitan sixth or the uncertainty suggested by a theme which can’t decide what key it’s in) doesn’t convey the experience. Only after a listener has heard the music does the explanation have meaning. That said, other writers about opera have succeeded in shedding light on the operatic experience — Michele Girardi, Ernest Newman, Charles Osborne and Joseph Kerman come to mind. These and others like them tell us what to listen for, thereby enhancing our perception. When Levine tips us off in this way, he opens our ears. He alerts us, for example, that in the gambling scene of The Girl of the Golden West, the participants barely sing against a background of pizzicato double basses. Mostly, though, he provides descriptions that tell us little (“an enticing song,” “a high-flying aria,” “two of the most beautiful tenor arias ever composed”).

The book’s greatest deficiency lies in ignoring the mix of elements that makes opera so compelling. The startling effect of the human voice is certainly one. The inherent challenge of opera is another; the form is so difficult that there never has been and never will be a perfect performance. Then there’s the athletic excitement of the physical demands a singer faces — Rosa Ponselle, arguably the greatest dramatic soprano of the early 20th century, once remarked on the sheer strength it takes to sing a single note loud enough to be heard throughout an opera house.

But these are the low-level appeals. Dramma per musica, the name originally given to opera, means “drama by means of music.” A Herculean task if there ever was one. To write a phrase, a melody, a harmonic progression that instantly communicates the drama is a gift given to few. And that’s just the first step in fashioning an evening’s worth of music drama. A telling fact is that of all composers, only Mozart is equally revered for his pure music and his operas. Peter Shaffer, author of Amadeus, considered him the greatest musical genius who ever lived. I would argue that Bach was greater, but Bach never attempted opera.

Weep, Shudder, Die leaves aside these issues. The book could be useful to someone who has never heard opera as an introduction to an unknown art. To one modestly familiar with the art form, the book offers little that’s new. And to the afficionado, Levine comes across as cursory.

Writer Tom Glenn, with a B.A. in music from the University of California, regularly lectures on opera. His web site (http://tom-tells-tales.org) includes both his published fiction and essays on opera.

comments powered by Disqus