The Opera Singer’s Summer Reading List
By Caitlin Vincent
When I was in middle school, I was forced to endure a rite of passage known as “Summer Reading.” It was always just a few days before the end of the school year when my teacher would cheerfully pass out the dreaded list of books that would be required reading for the summer. “And yes, there will be a test on this material in the fall.” Thus, my hopes for a carefree summer were dashed.
Looking back, I realize that the summer reading requirement was not (as I theorized at age 12) a system of torture created by a sadistic school administrator, but rather a tool to encourage thinking and development during the summer months. And let’s face it, reading The Giver and The Outsiders was hardly a chore.
Now, with three months of summer ahead of me, I can’t help feeling some nostalgia for that straightforward list. The life of an opera singer is anything but straightforward, and it can be difficult to know what steps we need to take to get to the next level. Yet, it’s important to remember that singing is largely a mental process, and developing our craft depends on thinking and questioning just as much as those hours spent in the practice room. What better way to refine that craft than by curling up on a hammock with a good book?
With that in mind, I present Opera Pulse’s “Summer Reading” list, with ten selections ranging from operatic beach reads to scholarly criticism. So, whether you’re studying at a program or juggling a summer job with learning new repertoire, take a page from middle school and crack open your musical summer reading.
And yes, there will be a test on this material in the fall.
1. The Inner Voice: The Making of a Singer
By Renée Fleming
An account of Fleming’s rise to stardom in her own words, beginning with her early training. Unlike many diva autobiographers, Fleming avoids merely listing her accomplishments and offers some words of wisdom for emerging artists.
2. Mozart’s Women: His Family, His Friends, His Music
By Jane Glover
Glover focuses on the women who influenced Mozart throughout his life, including his mother Maria Anne, his sister Nennerl, and his wife Constanze. It’s a fascinating read, especially when Glover considers the female roles in Mozart’s operas and the real-life women that inspired them.
3. The King and I: The Uncensored Tale of Luciano Pavarotti’s Rise to Fame by his Manager, Friend, and sometime Adversary
By Herbert Breslin and Anne Midgette
An entertaining account of Herbert Breslin’s 36-year stint as Pavarotti’s manager and publicist. Breslin is bluntly outspoken in parts, but it’s still a fascinating glimpse into both men’s careers and their manager-client relationship.
4. The Figaro Plays
By Pierre Beaumarchais
The comic trilogy that created an uproar in pre-Revolutionary France and inspired both “Il barbiere di Siviglia” and “Le nozze di Figaro.” Read it in the original French if you’re feeling ambitious; otherwise, stick to John Wells’ translation.
5. Singing in Imagination: A Human Approach to a Great Musical Tradition
By Thomas Hemsley
Renowned English baritone Thomas Hemsley considers the importance of interpretation and expression in vocal technique. Rather than focusing on anatomy and physiology, Hemsley argues that all singing should stem from the imagination. If you still need convincing, check out Dame Janet Baker’s review on www.thomashemsley.org.
6. Master Class
By Terrance McNally
McNally’s Tony Award-wining ode to Maria Callas, inspired by master classes given by Callas at Juilliard in 1971 and 1972. There are some comedic moments (at one point, Callas describes Joan Sutherland as “a 12-foot Lucia di Lammermoor”), but the primary focus is the drama and heartbreak of Callas’ career and life.
7. Death on the High C’s
By Robert Barnard
Barnard spoofs the opera world in this witty murder mystery about a provincial opera company and the death of its prima donna. Superintendent (and opera buff) Nichols is assigned to investigate the shenanigans.
8. Opera as Drama
By Joseph Kerman
A staple of operatic criticism. Kerman argues in favor of opera’s potential as drama and considers such standards as Monteverdi’s Orfeo, Verdi’s Otello, Mozart’s Don Giovanni, and Berg’s Wozzeck.
9. Fortissimo: Backstage at the Opera with Sacred Monsters and Young Singers
By William Murray
In 2003, Murray shadowed twelve young singers as they participated in the young artist training program at Chicago Lyric Opera. Murray intersperses observations of auditions, rehearsals, and performances with anecdotes about operatic superstars and what it takes to find success.
10. Opera Antics and Anecdotes
By Stephen B. Tanner
An amusing collection of stories about the opera world, including onstage bloopers and backstage sabotage. As Tanner reminds us, “Every theatre is a nuthouse, but an opera theatre is the ward for the incurables.”