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For Opera Lovers

I was 10 years old when I first heard opera. Sitting with my brother and our parents high in the balcony of Radio City Music Hall — we were on a family trip from Texas and had come to see the Rockettes — we joined a sellout crowd to watch not just the dancers but “The Great Caruso,” MGM’s hugely successful film starring Mario Lanza, then 30, with matinee idol looks, a smile as bright as Broadway, and a natural, little-trained tenor voice that wrapped you in its incomparable richness. So I was delighted that Robert Levine cites Lanza as a favorite in the author’s note that begins his often charming book “Weep, Shudder, Die – A Guide to Loving Opera.” Levine, who will talk about his book at Salisbury’s Scoville Library on Sunday, March 25, at 4 p.m., is a longtime writer on music; but opera is his first love.(He is a regular panel member on the Metropolitan Opera’s Saturday radio quiz.) While “Weep” may be simplistic for opera snobs, I think it is a down-to-earth reminder of how the form began in the early 17th century and quickly became the popular European pastime for rich and poor alike. Hundreds of opera houses sprang up across Western Europe, and people remembered and sang the main “tunes” everywhere. (So quickly did tunes spread that Giuseppe Verdi refused to give the tenor and orchestra the music for “La donna e mobile,” the duke’s famous tenor aria in “Rigoletto,” until the last minute before its première. And he was right: All Venice was singing it the next day.) After a concise, lucid introduction, Levine recaps 50 operas divided into genres: German, Mozart, English, Italian, French and Russian, with short synopses and key musical moments. Even for longtime opera fans, these can be helpful, especially for seldom-performed works. For neophytes, especially in these days of live HD broadcasts at the Mahaiwe, and in Millerton next season, the book would be a friendly companion. Indeed some of Levine’s Salisbury presentation will cover the Met’s final HD broadcast of the season, “La Traviata” on April 14 (encore April 22.) Verdi himself declared the story “a modern subject,” and famous German director Willy Decker’s production — which replaced an aging, egregiously opulent Franco Zeffirelli travesty — sets the work in stark settings and follows the libretto closely, something Zeffirelli never bothered to do. This is a production for and of the 20th century — it was the hottest ticket at the Salzburg Festival in 2005, but did not come to the Met until January 2011. Levine’s comments and insights should be penetrating. Robert Levine will speak in the Scoville Library’s Wardell Room, March 25, at 4 p.m.

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