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OPERA AS OPERA: The State of the Art


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“Without question, the most important book ever written in English about opera in performance . . .a cri de coeur, documenting the devastation of a single precinct of Western high culture in modern and postmodern times. . . It is hardly an exaggeration to suggest that the fate of 21st-century opera partly hinges on the fate of the bristling insights delineated and pondered in this singular megabook.” - Joseph Horowitz in The Wall Street Journal


“With Opera as Opera: The State of the Art, Conrad L. Osborne, elder statesman among American critics, sounds a blast as shattering as Gabriel’s trumpet. He remains sharp-eared, sharp-eyed, demanding and responsive to a fault . . .the force of his argument lies in the universality of symptomatic details.” - Matthew Gurewitsch in Oper! Das Magazin (Berlin)


“This is not a book for those who look at opera as a friendly social event. It is a book for confirmed opera lovers, and recommended required reading for all who wish to strive for an opera singer’s life, or who engage with this art form in their life’s work.” - Der Merker (Vienna)


Opera, maintains the author of this comprehensive and provocative volume, finds itself in an artistic predicament that goes beyond previous generational disruptions and “is our own, and special.” Arguing that we cannot solve the problem unless we recognize and define it, and that we cannot hope to envision the artform’s future unless we first come to terms with its past, he examines all elements of recent operatic practice as revealed in performance—“Performance,” he declares, “is our text.” He asserts that with renewal of the repertory long at a virtual standstill, we have tried to substitute auteurial production methods and cultural revisionism in its place, with disastrous results.

Accordingly, Opera as Opera draws on performances encountered over an eighteen-year period to first analyze styles and techniques of production (direction and design), and then to trace, in copious detail, the developments in the performing disciplines of conducting, singing, and acting that have loosened our connection to the canon. “The masterworks,” it flatly states, “are not before us.” In a central section, it also surveys the more general cultural background of this situation, in particular the influence of modern and postmodern philosophy and literary criticism, and the turn away from the master narrative which in the author’s view was the principal generating force behind opera’s greatest era.

Whether the reader’s primary interest is musical or theatrical, whether it lies with intellectual and aesthetic matters or with into-the-weeds discussion of the work of the performers who bring opera to life, he or she will find much that will stimulate and challenge in this deeply informed, incisively written book.

About the Author 

In a critical career of nearly sixty year’s duration, Conrad L. Osborne has written hundreds of essays and reviews for High Fidelity/Musical America, Opera News, The New York Times, The Financial Times, The Musical Newsletter, Opus, Keynote,  and many other publications. He is the author of a novel, O Paradiso, and a contributor to The Metropolitan Opera Guide to Recorded Opera and Metropolitan Opera Guide to Opera on Video. He has performed extensively as actor and singer, and has taught singing technique and interpretation for many years. Mr. Osborne has also served in staff, board, and consultative positions for arts foundations and service organizations.  Married to actress Molly Regan, he lives and teaches in New York City. His bi-weekly blog, Osborne on Opera, has earned a large and devoted following.  

Additional Praise for Opera as Opera

"Opera as Opera - already just the title, but also the book - captures the hope and frustration felt by so many of us who are convinced of the form's present and future value, yet unconvinced by the currents of thought guiding it lately. Opera as opera is what we want: opera as its own thing, grasped whole, its constituent elements fused in shared purpose. These issues have never before been addressed by an author so competent in the history and practice of theater, yet able also to satisfy and inform readers competent in the history and practice of music. That alone makes CLO's book unique; his wide reading, often revelatory sense of historical connections, and passionately keen observations on live performance make it essential for every opera-lover who cares about "what comes next." That it is also frequently entertaining, even hilarious, doesn't hurt a bit. Can't remember ever learning so much from a book about my own field."              ---     WillCrutchfield, Artistic Director, Teatro Nuovo

"At last—a book on opera by one of the most informed and keenest minds ever to address the subject. There is virtually no aspect of this most complex and richly textured art form left unexplored and closely examined in Conrad L. Osborne's brilliantly written study. Osborne brings a scholar's knowledge of opera's 500-year history of changing styles and the intricately woven artistic disciplines that bring opera to life. He also speaks with a life-time of practical experience as a trained singer, actor, pedagogue, and hands-on music critic. Over all is a passionate belief in the integrity of the original creative vision that animates every opera...no one will come away without a deeper knowledge and more sharpened appreciation of how voices, music, theater, and human ingenuity can blend to make magic.”— Peter G. Davis, critic, The New York Times, New York Magazine. Author: The American Singer from 1835 to the Present. 

"Conrad L. Osborne's book could only have been written by Conrad L. Osborne. Nobody else has a prose style like this: learned, witty, challenging, fun, and conversational on a level we should be all so lucky to have conversations on. Beyond that is his knowledge, and the thing that makes his knowledge so charged with meaning for all of us, which is his passion. He puts us in touch with the fact that opera is much more than one of the most decorative of the things that can bejewel our lives. He puts us in touch with the thought that it's essential to us, with the ways in which our lives would be robbed of an essential richness if opera did not exist, and -- central to his concerns in this wonderful book -- if opera were allowed to wither in any way. I think anybody could enjoy, be entertained, and be moved by this book." -- Austin Pendleton, actor, director, playwright.

"This long, engrossing, and impressively lucid book . . . identifies more cogently than any other published work the ingredients that make 'opera as opera'  . . . an experience of unique and irresistible potency. Yet the book was conceived not as a straightforward celebration of a genre in  which the prime interpretative responsibility lies with the singer and in which the audience's response should be 'ear-led, eye-confirmed'  . . .  but as an attempt to defend those priorities in a world that has increasingly chosen to ignore them." - Stephen Hastings, Opera (London)
"Here is the greatest living opera critic . . . I must urge all opera lovers to read the book, which is extremely well written and endlessly fascinating . . .one of the joys of the book is very detailed descriptions and criticisms of a great many opera productions." - Donald Vroon, American Record Guide
"This is a book which ought truly to be in the library of all opera-lovers: it is a magnificent summation of a lifetime of opera-going and study. A must."  - Robert Matthew-Walker, Musical Opinion Quarterly (U.K.)

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  1. Essential book on opera! 5 Star Review

    Posted by on 8th Sep 2018

    This is a present I got for myself. As I've mentioned before, Conrad Osborne is one of the very best writers on opera and drama and his new book is truly the achievement of a lifetime. It's huge, but his incisive prose makes it all easy to read. Osborne's incredible knowledge of music,history, and performance combined with overwhelming love for opera and rage at those directors and academics who place their values above those of the creators (and audiences) make this book essential for anyone who still cares about this beleaguered artform. I'm thrilled that the Wall Street Journal, which has the best arts writing of any newspaper, gave "Opera as Opera" an important rave review. I look forward to many days of learning and pleasure in Osborne's company.

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