Great Courses: How To Listen To And Understand Opera: Part 4, instructed by Professor Robert Greenberg
This particular six hours or so of lecture time in eight cds finishes the collection by the professor that introduces the listener to the repertoire of opera. And while I agree with the instructor that this course is only the barest introduction and most superficial discussion of the opera repertoire, I cannot help but wonder whether the choices made in this particular book to spend so much time on Wagner and Puccini was in fact worthwhile, not least because it led the author to entirely neglect English-language opera, including American opera. While there are trade-offs that need to be made, I have to say that I was not very impressed with what I heard of either Wagner or Puccini, and I think I would be more likely to appreciate opera in my own language, at least when it is taken into account that the libretto of operas tends to be less spectacular when one understands what is being said. Even so, I have to admit that these lectures did make me want to seek out some Russian operas, particular the obscure but excellent Boris Godunov if I can find that opera performed near me, and that is reason enough to appreciate this particular course.
The final eight lectures, each of them 45 minutes apiece, cover three main topics. The first lecture contains a discussion of German opera and how it came of age in the 19th century (a fairly late bloomer as far as opera cultures go) with the rise of the romantic movement and the work of Mozart and others to provide opera in a form that resonated with the German language and with the native tradition of songspiel (25). After that the professor spends two lectures on Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (26, 27), which appears a tad bit melodramatic for my tastes, even if it is possible to appreciate the leitmotifs and the way his particular understanding of that concept has influenced even those unfamiliar with his operas in particular or even opera in general, as well as one lecture on Straus, Salome, and late romantic German opera (28). After this there are two lectures on Russian opera (29, 30), where the author talks about the late development of Russian opera based on its own native folk traditions and gives an introduction to the fantastic Boris Godunov opera which is one I want to know much better. Finally, the course concludes with a discussion of Verismo and Puccini’s Tosca (31, 32), which struck me as far too decadent of an opera to wish to support myself.
In looking at this series as a whole, it is obvious that since the 17th century opera has been able to provide multimedia entertainment in multiple languages that has managed to have both elite and occasionally popular support. Operas have been written and successfully released in multiple languages (most notably Italian, French, German, Russian, and English, but not only these languages) and in a variety of different styles and has proven itself to be flexible in being able to relate to the native gifts of languages as well as the cultural treasures of the languages that the operas are being written in. Operas represent not only a certain high culture approach to the world but also trends in religion and culture in general, and that which is considered to be acceptable or unacceptable in opera relates as a lot to what one finds to be of interest or acceptable within larger cultural confines. The cultural decline of the West has, unsurprisingly, made it hard to write good operas anymore in any western tradition. And that is a great shame, but at least we have some good ones from the past to listen to and watch.