Author Thomson Smillie is no stranger to the Louisville arts scene. For 16 years, he was the General Director of Kentucky Opera and worked in similar capacities for the Opera Company of Boston, the Scottish Opera and the Wexford Festival in Ireland. Smillie's love for opera as an art form runs deep, and his book, How to Listen, Learn, Love Opera, is an engaging and heartfelt effort to share that love with others.
Opera has always occupied a rather elite sphere in the arts world, especially in the minds of Americans. Velvet evening gowns and top hats might have gone out with the Gilded Age, but that kind of formality and perceived stuffiness is often associated with it. Add to that foreign languages and a high sticker price for a ticket, and suddenly, eating a corn dog at the ballpark seems like a much more attractive pastime. (Not that you can't love both corn dogs and opera – I, myself, being evidence of that.) And yet, as Smillie points out in his book, we are unexpectedly charmed when Pretty Woman's Julia Roberts gets all misty-eyed at the opera or a beautiful aria strikes the prisoners silent at Shawshank Prison. (Popular movies have perhaps done the most for bringing the highlights of opera to the masses.) We might even have fits of nostalgia over Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd engaged in a Wagnerian duet. At those moments, we feel that, even if we don't completely understand it, opera has power, and some curiosity begins to stir about what it's all about.
That is where this excellent guidebook comes in. Smillie's target is the fledgling fan, someone who has some interest in opera, but might be a bit timid because of her lack of knowledge or – and this is not unimportant – a lack of funds. Not only does he give you a sort of Cliff's Notes guide to the most famous operas from the greatest composers, he also directs you on the penny-pincher's path to finding music, DVDs, and other resources to learn about opera on your own and at your own pace before committing hard-earned cash to an expensive seat at a live performance. Smillie is an unabashed fan of YouTube for finding clips from great singers – past and present – and he will also tell you who, in particular, to look for and in what productions.
Smillie's book is loosely arranged to highlight the "greatest hits" in the canon – describing their plots, significant musical moments, and general stature in the opera world. He's got your Bizet, Puccini, Verdi, Mozart, and Wagner all mapped out for you. The book is liberally sprinkled with lively anecdotes about the quirky lives of composers and performers, as well as a little historical background and relevant personal asides, drawn from his own extensive experience.
Smillie's style is easy-going and encouraging, not academic. The following excerpts are good examples of his approach to familiarizing an opera for the novice, and it just so happens that his subject is the second offering in Kentucky Opera's 2011-2012 Season – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, opening next Friday, November 18, at the Brown Theatre:
I have a favorite Intel recording because it stars Rene Pape, currently the world's greatest bass, as a menacing Figaro….If you prefer your Mozart pretty, there are Salzburg, MET, and Covent Garden DVDs to choose from. Take it easy. Listen to Act I with one bottle of wine, and if you really like it – and I'm guessing you will – play it again. Act I ends with an aria known to all opera lovers as Non piu andrai…. Finish the bottle and retire to bed tipsy from the wine and the exhilaration of Mozart's amazing melodic creativity….
…Mozart's special genius was to look deep into the soul of a discarded wife, of a betrayed lover, of a randy teenager, or an aging cynic and depict in music of ineffable grace that melancholy which lies at the heart of the human condition.
As a guide for the novice, Smillie's book provides a smooth path to a better appreciation of opera, and more seasoned fans will appreciate his congenial style and wealth of recommendations for ferreting out some of the best singers and productions that you might have missed.