A List of Books on the Operas Announced for Production at the Boston Opera House During the Season of MCMXI-MCMXII in the Public Library of the City of Boston, by the Boston Public Library
I enjoy quirky books, and saw this as a particularly promising quirky book with the appeal that it looked at what operas were being performed in Boston just before World War I. What was on the mind and in the conversation of cultured Bostonians just before the world fell into a conflict that led to the complicated last century we have experienced around the world? As someone who does not read many opera books, I found this book to be most of interest because it showed a light into the thinking and behavior of the early 1900’s, a time I like to return to in my reading . To be sure, it was an unconventional book, of the sort that one would not expect to see printed today, but it was a reminder for those of us who like to read a lot that writing books about books in order to encourage others is something that was once respected and well-regarded and may be yet again or in certain specific niches.
The contents of the book are given in a very organized way. The book begins with some opera dictionaries, many of them in foreign languages as might be expected given the content and language of many operas. After this there is a collection of works about the history and criticism of opera that were in the Boston Public library in the early 1900s, some of which appear to be at least mildly interesting. After this some interesting stories of the operas are included, quite a few of which look like they would be enjoyable to read. Following this comes the scores to the operas, and here one sees familiar works like Aida, The Barber of Seville, La Bohème, Carmen, Cavelleria Rusticana, The Prodigal Son, The Girl of the Golden West, Faust, Germania, La Habanera, Hansel And Gretel, Lucia de Lammermoor, Madame Butterfly, Manon, Manon Lescaut, Mephistopheles, Othello, Pagliacci, Pellèas et Melisande, Rigoletto, The Sacrifice, Samson and Delilah, Suzanne’s Secret, Thais, Tosca, La Traviata, Tristan and Isolde, Il Trovatore, and Werther. After this comes biographies of the various composers responsible for these operas, namely still well-known names like Bizet, Debussy, Puccini, Rossini, Saint-Saens, Verdi, Wagner, along with many more forgotten and obscure ones. After this comes memoirs and books by and about various opera impresarios and opera singers. The book closes with an Addenda showing the libretto for the scores performed in the Boston Opera House during 1911-1912.
Obviously, you are going to like this book best if you like opera. Even as someone who is only a slight fan of opera, many of the works discussed here are ones I am familiar with, and it is striking just how quickly many operatic works became standard repertoire works. The operas shown here were written only a few decades at most before their performance here, and one of them had just been debuted the year before. These were not venerated old works but rather works that achieved instant classic status, which is all the more striking. Also striking is the way that most of these operas have remained part of the opera canon, showing a remarkable stability in repertoire. Perhaps the most notable change we can see from this is the way that a lot of German opera fell from grace after the troubles of the twentieth century–no one thought to revive Germania after the horrors of World War I and World War II in which that nation was largely to blame. All in all, this is a worthwhile book and like many a good book it encourages one to read other good books, and to step outside one’s house once in a while and go see some opera because one might enjoy it. It is a shame such good opera can be so hard to find.
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