Why I’m Reading a Book About Opera

It’s actually not a book about opera, but rather about operas. One hundred of them in fact.

Appropriately titled 100 Great Operas and Their Stories, it’s a book I picked up at good will for about a dollar earlier this year. Originally published in the 1950’s, this volume by Henry W. Simon is a famous collection of plot summaries for what at least the author considered great operas. Also included are brief histories and facts pertaining to the composition and performance debuts of each piece.

Like many people, I’m familiar with a few opera tunes that have over the years entered into the popular consciousness, even outside of the opera world. (I temporary hurt my throat while cleaning the house a few weeks ago trying to sing, far too loudly, Largo al Factotum. Drawing a blank? That’s the “Figaro! Figaro! Figaro!” song. (You know it now, don’t you?) I only know its actual title from this book. I never thought to look it up before then.

Truth be told, I don’t think about opera much. “Figaro!” and a handful of other songs and instrumentals represent most of my knowledge of the art form before I picked up this book. Though I’ve looked up the songs mentioned in this book to get a sense of the sound sometimes,  I’ve never listened to an entire opera, let alone attended one. (I did have to man the college radio station on Saturdays when a live feed of the Metropolitan Opera in New York was piped in, but I’d usually turn the sound down low and do homework in the booth.) That was the closest I’d come to opera knowledge until now.

And it’s mostly knowledge I’m seeking by reading this book. Concise knowledge. Familiarity with what the basics are of some of the top operas in the world. I imagine at some point in my life I will attend at least a short comic opera, but there are plenty of things I want to do before that. This isn’t a prelude to becoming an opera buff. I doubt I will ever be so. But as a performer myself, I thought at least a bare working knowledge of opera would be prudent, given that it would only cost me a dollar or so. I was unlikely to look up every individual opera online that I happen to hear something about, but with a book on my shelf, the knowledge is right there.

Believe it or not, though the summaries are short, I have, at around the halfway point of the book, detected some of the patterns and tendencies of opera plots. (At least those seemingly timeless ones from the 19th and 20th centuries.) Already I can say with the tiniest bit of authority that “it sounds like an opera twist.”

Plus, as a writer, I want to be open to story lines, characters and settings from all sources. Many operas are interpretations or re-imaginings of older stories, myths, plays, novels, even other operas. I’m never going to write the libretto of an opera, (and double-never will I compose the music for one.) But unlike studying one specific opera in great detail, this accessible volume of synopses introduces the reader to a wealth of story telling material. The arc of an opera is generally different than that of a novel, but exposure to at least the summaries of plots from enduring operas has already sparked the tiniest seed of an idea in my mind here and there for future work.

Operas borrow from novels, and there is no reason the reverse shouldn’t be true either. (In fact, I’m certain it already is, somewhere.) Be careful of copyright issues if you decide to mine this book, or opera in general, though most in this volume would be long in the public domain.

So for a buck or so I have a source not only for a basic non-opera guy’s crash education in opera, but a writer’s potential inspiration, 100 times.

Not a bad use of a little pocket change. If you ever see it in a used bookstore, pick up your own copy.




  1. I took a night class once: 6 Great Operas. One of the best music classes I’ve ever taken. Although “Nixon in China,” which streamed live from the Met at a local movie theatre, literally gave me a migraine that lasted for several hours. What a weird opera.

    I wonder when we’ll see your next book about an opera house? 🙂

  2. That’s not a bad idea…a book behind the scenes at an opera house. That would be a rich setting I’m sure. I’d need to do more research to get an accurate notion of it. (Or get cast in an opera in real life…which seems less likely.) =)

    Whatever the story would be, I’d hope it would be, shall we say, less…odd than Nixon in China the Opera.

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