Opera: The Definitive Illustrated Story
by Leslie Dunton-Downer and Alan Riding
DK Publishing, 2022
No single book could ever encapsulate opera’s entire history in a short 350 pages, authors Alan Riding and Leslie Dunton-Downer explain in the introduction to Opera: The Definitive Illustrated Story, so they have instead chosen to highlight 180 of the most famous compositions by musicians from the 17th century to the present.
Each opera includes a legend describing the principal roles that helps readers navigate operas with complex stories or many characters, as well as fun facts that keep the book entertaining. The chronological format also allows the reader to trace the trajectory of opera—from myth-based plots and traditional forms to historical stories with experimental formats—without it being directly spelled out.
The real highlight of the book is the myriad of visuals that enliven the reading experience, capturing some of the magic of these hour-long musical journeys.
But there’s a certain discordance that arises from this mixture of text and visuals; the modern nature of the photographs is often not paired with modern descriptions or analyses of the operas. The book briefly discusses Jean-Philippe Rameau’s 18th-century opera The Amorous Indies and its colonialist Eurocentric perspective, but it doesn’t show how modern renditions address the topic now, if at all—or why it’s still important to present in the first place.
This becomes more noticeable once the book reaches prolific opera composer and known anti-Semite Richard Wagner. More than five per cent of the book pores over the magnificence of his work and his Gesamtkunstwerk (“total work”) method, but only two sentences address his infamous “Judaism in Music” essay. Musicologists’ debates about the potential Jewish stereotypes in the Ring cycle or The Mastersingers of Nuremberg are not mentioned.
There’s also a distinct lack of Chinese opera. There are four pages at the end of the book about Chinese-American composer Tan Dun and the Beijing National Centre for the Performing Arts, yet Chinese musicians have spent two centuries developing over 300 forms of opera that could be explored in greater detail.
Opera: The Definitive Illustrated Story certainly lives up to its promise of illustrated visuals and a comprehensible story, but its account of operatic history is far from definitive.