Opera, by Charles Hamm
Opera, by Charles Hamm. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1966. xii, 245 pp.
Charles Hamm begins his preface with the words, "This is a book about opera, not operas." He lists, of course, the two books which come immediately to mind: Grout's A Short History of Opera and Kerman's Opera as Drama. He distinguishes between his work and theirs in two respects. Firstly, a historian "by belief and profession," he has not written a history of opera, since his goal is to lead "the nonprofessional to maximum enjoyment and understanding of those works he is likely to encounter in stage performance." Secondly, aesthetics is dealt with only "in incidental fashion," since its study must be preceded by "some grasp of the basis structures, techniques, and nature of opera." He thus addresses "those persons, with or without training in music, . . . who would like to be able to attend an operatic performance and respond to what they see and hear in an intelligent and critical fashion."
The organization of the book is dictated by the attempt "to explain the structure and mechanics of opera in as simple a way as possible." This is done in eleven chapters, and each chapter except the last one is concluded with an excellent summary or conclusion. The chapter headings are: I. The Singers; II. Words and Music: Concepts and Definitions; III. Recitative and Aria; IV. Duet, Trio, Quartet, Quintet; V. Finale and Introduction; VI. The Chorus; VII. The Orchestra and its Use; VIII. Prelude and Overture; IX. Dance and Pantomime; X. Opera and Music Drama; XI. Summation: Opera as Music and Drama. The goal of the author makes this arrangement not only possible, but highly desirable. It permits, for example, a discussion of the recitative, or the aria, or the finale, or the chorus, in different historical periods. This "nonhistorical way" was chosen "in an attempt to show that even though external details of musical and dramatic style have changes, many of the basic concepts and structures of opera have carried through various periods of music history" (p. 217). Only the chapter on the orchestra is presented in a historical sequence, since "There has been more change in the orchestra—its size, personnel, and function—than in any other aspect of opera, and since these changes have followed a clear chronological pattern" (p. 125). A considerable number of works is not only mentioned, but discussed in the eleven chapters, and most of them are illustrated by musical examples. A sufficiently detailed index of composers, works, and subjects is of great help. There is no bibliography.
Sometimes a surprisingly large amount of space is devoted to description and analysis. This is justifiable on the basis of the author's remark that his book "will be most effective if sections from the various operas discussed are listened to immediately." One wonders, however, how much the "non-professional" can gain from the listing, for example, of the musical forms, keys, meters, and tempo indications of the various sections of the finale to the second act of The Marriage of Figaro.
The choice of the works discussed is generally good. In a few cases, however, the reader will have very little chance "to encounter in stage performance" the works cited. The characterization and classification of the examples can sometimes be questioned. This writer, for example, cannot agree with the statement about the first scene of Bizet's Carmen: "The musical and dramatic effect of the scene would be the same if the sections sung by the chorus were eliminated, or sung by Carmen" (p. 110). Equally questionable is the characterization of the role of the chorus in the judgment scene of Verdi's Aida. This writer also believes that the remark that Metastasio's name "is encountered in books devoted to the general history of music only in footnotes, if at all, and recent histories of opera pay little more attention to him" (p. 45) can hardly be substantiated. In Grout's A History of Western Music Metastasio's name is listed three times (not in footnotes), and in the same author's Short History of Opera, more than twenty times.
But these shortcomings are not the rule. In general, the reader will find a sensitive approach towards both the musical and the dramatic aspects. The characterization of the American opera-goer, supposedly not able to comprehend opera as a musical-dramatic form, is, in this writer's opinion, too pessimistic. As Richard Strauss once jokingly said, nobody would go to Tannhäuser if there were no "Song to the Evening Star." The opera-goer will, however, be thankful for the concise presentation of the structures and techniques of opera which could not be assembled without a considerable knowledge in this field.