Opera: the Autobiography of the Western World

Opera: the Autobiography of the Western World

28 Jul 2022

Since the first performance of the first surviving opera in 1600, operas have been telling stories from myth and history - often in music of captivating beauty.

Illustrated with 266 paintings and photographs, most in colour, this book is a chronology of myth & history as they have been told through the music of opera. The first chapter begins with the Creation, and the final chapter ends in the present day.

Part 1 explores opera composers' changing responses to the Old Testament, Greek myth, Ancient Egypt, Ancient Rome and the Christian saints. Part 2 explores the West's changing attitudes to Islam, the Crusades, the establishment of the European nation states, early republican movements, the Papacy, the decline of Venice and the first decades of European colonialism. Part 3 traverses 16th century monarchs as recreated by Schiller, Victor Hugo and Sir Walter Scott; Russia and the Romanovs; the French Revolution and Napoleon. Shifting views about war, history, the home and the role of the artist in society are explored through famous operas from the past 400 years. A chapter looks at the presentation of the outsider: the poor, the isolated and the disenfranchised. Another traces how the uncertainties and instabilities of the modern world inspired a sequence of works - ballets as well as operas - that express acute nostalgia for the lost glories of absolutist monarchies. Other chapters chart the modern West turning against empire building, patriarchal sexism and atrocities committed in the name of God.

Why did particular myths and historical events attract opera composers at certain times? Why were the same myths and historical events told in radically different ways? In seeking answers to these questions, this book charts seismic changes in the West's relationship with its past. In 18th century opera, the past is often a gallery of personality types where powerful people from the ancient world learn how to become enlightened rulers. In 19th century operas, stories based on the works of Goethe, Schiller, Pushkin and Victor Hugo ask more searching questions of the past, with a new focus on the rights of the individual. From the late 19th century, opera composers explore with sometimes shocking honesty the lives of impoverished and excluded communities.

Unlike anything previously published, this is a book for lovers of history and the arts, and for anyone interested in how the modern world came into being. By exploring a bewitchingly beautiful art form, it narrates a series of extraordinary transformations: the political, religious and social revolutions that created the modern West.

Book cover design by Jack Wedgbury at Troubador

Cover painting by Max Brückner, based on his set design for Wagner’s 'Götterdämmerung' at Bayreuth c1894 (Alamy). 


ISBN: 9781803131955
Available in the following formats:
  • Paperback
  • Hardback
  • eBook