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Angels & Monsters: Male and Female Sopranos in the Story of Opera

Opera is our most dramatic art form, and the most dramatic people within that art form are, arguably, sopranos. 


Angels & Monsters covers the soprano from her operatic inception in the late 1590s to about 1900, giving the reader an overview of every major operatic period from the 16th to the 20th centuries, as well as brief biographies of the biggest players on the stage and how their relationships with the key composers of their eras. Handel, Mozart, Donizetti, Bellini, Beethoven, Massenet, Rossini, Verdi, Wagner, and Puccini are all covered, as well as many more, and all within about 300 pages.

My primary knowledge concerning singers of the 19th century prior to this book came from a passing knowledge of some of their names, as well as information gleaned from a biography of Maria Malibran that intimated that opera singers were the rock stars of their time. "Their time" implying, I am aware, that that time is not now, proof of which I believe is evidenced in this Onion article

Opera is essentially the Olympics of the human voice -- how far can it go and to what limits can we push it (although don't say "push" when you're talking to a singer about their voice). Every operatic era has tested this in various ways. The 17th into the 18th century was all about trills and embellishments and how fast and how high could you go.  

Also you got to dress like this

The 18th century I absolutely cannot remember right now, so let's skip to the late 18th into the 19th century and romanticism and bel canto, which was less about conveying human emotion precisely and much more about singing beautifully. 

That began to fade with composers like Verdi (he wrote the operas La traviata and Aida), who was all about the DRAMA of it all. It sounds apocryphal, but it is apparently not, that the first soprano to sing the consumptive Violetta in Traviata was a little too stout, and so in her final scene when she's supposed to be wasting away from her illness, the audience, instead of being moved to tears through catharsis, started laughing. Which I assume made Verdi throw his hat on the floor and start stomping on it, because that is how I conceive of his devotion to DRAMA.

Verdi, I assume, all the time

After this, there was Wagner and his Ring Cycle, Puccini and his Very Emotional Characters, and then everything got weird right after the book ended (i.e. 20th century composers decided to just kind of try whatever and see if it worked, with predictably mixed results).

I realize I've only talked about the composers and not at all about the actual sopranos, but to be honest, the sopranos did not stick with me as much as the composers. Mainly because we cannot hear 99% of the sopranos, whereas the composers wrote the works we still perform and love. My favorite part of this book was the partnership it had for me with Spotify. "Oh, there was a 17th century female opera composer named Francesca Caccini and she wrote an opera called La liberazione di Ruggeriero dall'isola d'Alcina? And there's a recording of it on Spotify? Why yes I will listen to that right now."

There are so many works that almost never get performed, but which enjoyed tremendous popularity in their own day, and thanks to current technology, we can hear them with the easiest of ease. Martín y Soler's Una cosa rara? Done. Sarti's Giulio Sabino? Yeah, I'll listen to that. The aria "D'Oreste" from Mozart's Idomeneo that was apparently really really big with the 18th century crowd? Sure.

It's a great overview of three centuries of castrati and female sopranos (well, more like just one century of castrati), and while I wouldn't recommend it if you don't already like opera, if you do, you should definitely check it out. Although who wouldn't like opera? What else has this:

Gossip, back-stabbing, and internal politics were an integral part...and the singers were as responsible as anyone for making sure it was so. You rooted for your favorite singers, you made snide remarks about your least favorite. And there were gods--divas and divos--each with their own fanatical following. These were the great singers of bel canto, and the Théâtre Italien was the place Parisians went to worship them.
And by the way:

I'm just saying.


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