Classical Beach Reading: Robert Levine's "Weep, Shudder, Die"

 

If there is one quote from Weep, Shudder, Die: A Guide to Loving Opera that sums up Robert Levine’s case for opera as popular entertainment it’s this:

Opera is all around us — hundreds of hours’ worth on YouTube alone — and there is no excuse not to take part in it. Much like the dozen or so theaters in eighteenth-centure Venice (and then all over Europe), opera has again become familiar, popular entertainment, and it has unleashed its weird power. It still requires some commitment to knowledge and it rarely has a beat, but there’s just so much of Lady Gaga a human being can enjoy/tolerate without needing to be touched in a slightly deeper place.

The aim of this book is to get people to try opera by pointing out how available it is today (with the Met’s HD broadcasts, Opera in Cinema, DVD/Blu-Rays in the hundreds) and by demonstrating opera’s similarities as well as differences to more widely accessible genres. This comes with a little mythbusting in the bit where he anticipates and shoots down some common “Philistine” objections like the unnatural sound produced by operatic technique. Nobody objects to Gospel singers taking their voices as high as they’ll go because we recognize religious ecstasy as a justification for all that intensity. Stipulate that opera functions on a similar level of heightened discourse and its “inauthenticity” stops being a distraction. It becomes the entire point. Levine wants people to fall in love with the trained, unamplified human voice.

Another goal is to make it easier to get into opera. In chapters devoted to the top national traditions in opera, Levine covers the greatest hits with brief composer bios and historical/stylistic background, then homes in on selected facts the newbie might find most helpful and entertaining. The tone is quite chatty and there’s a liberal helping backstage gossip. Excellent beach reading.

Levine introduces his book at the Wall Street Journal: Why Opera Isn’t Just For Divas.