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The best books on Opera

recommended by Nikola Matisic

The Scandinavian tenor argues Verdi is the greatest. Also, "the opera house in itself is an instrument. You play on the space between the audience and the stage"

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Your first book is the autobiography of the famous opera singer Birgit Nilsson, La Nilsson.

Yes, she was one of the most important singers of the 1900s. She was a Swedish dramatic soprano and sang all the Wagner and Strauss lead roles. She takes the reader through her professional and personal life. She comes across as down-to-earth and humorous and also very frank about what the profession is all about, which a lot of singers aren’t. And I think that is because she came from the Calvinistic/Lutheran tradition in Sweden which taught her not to think of herself as above others.

So she was no diva!

No, no the opposite. She came from a rural background where she worked on the farm. She was a very physical person. She was also quite simple in many ways – not in the sense that she was stupid, just that she was straightforward in her outlook on life.

What kind of insights does her book give us into the world of opera?

She worked with the greatest and the most legendary artists, composers and singers of our time. Her book is full of funny stories about how she communicated with these people that are so full of themselves because they are legends in their own lifetime. But she was able to get through to them in a way many others weren’t because she was unpretentious and this appealed to them. So she was able to puncture the balloon that they often had around them.

I have heard you liken people like La Nilsson to fighter pilots. What do you think makes someone a great opera singer?

The main thing you need is patience and that is required due to the vast amount of training that you need to go through. The training takes many years. You have to have the ability to concentrate on many different things, just as a fighter pilot does.

You have to train very small muscles in your throat, your lungs and your rib cage to do things on a complex level, contrary in dynamic to the rest of your body. You are usually doing at least two very different things while you are pretending to act normally. It takes many years to develop that technical skill. And then at the same time you have to be an artistic musician. You need to understand the composer’s meaning of the lines and the words. You have to be an actor, today even more so than before. And you have to be a linguist, so you have to be able to handle all the different vocal expressions and underlying meanings of each language. And finally you have to study the special types of movement that are done on stage. Nowadays you have to be able to fight and dance and lie down on the floor while you are singing. Essentially, you are screaming at the top of your lungs but it has to be controlled. The energy is the same, so imagine doing that while walking very carefully with a candle or a lantern! And at the same time you have to watch what the conductor is doing and relate to fellow singers on stage.

I’m exhausted just listening to that list. Talk about multi-tasking! Let’s hear about your next book, Culture and Sacrifice: Ritual Death in Literature and Opera by Derek Hughes.

I am always interested in synergetic ways of thoughts. This book basically interlocks different types of culture into the art of opera. So, essentially, the art of opera becomes a litmus paper for what the rest of society is expressing at that point in time and, of course, that differs in different decades and centuries. This book goes through European history from the Renaissance right through to our time exploring this idea. It looks at how the rituals in life take away our self-awareness and sense of who we are and allows us to become more of a collective. That tells us where we are in society and who we are. If you look at the rituals of death you can see that they have differed a lot throughout history to reflect the society at the time.

Is there a particularly interesting time in the book that appealed to you?

I think the Classical period from 1750 to 1820 was particularly interesting. It came right before the Romantic period and was when people like Mozart and Beethoven were about. For me this era was very similar to our time and that makes it easy to relate to. Society is like a wave that undulates back and forth between Romanticism and the Classical period and when we get too far into the Romantic era of self-indulgence and focusing on the individual and the ego there is a backlash towards a more precise definition of what humanity is. And that is what I think we are seeing today as well as back then.

Tell me about David P Schroder’s Cinema’s Illusions, Opera’s Allure: The Operatic Impulse in Film.

Let’s take the Italian film director Sergio Leone who made films like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. He based all his dramatic structure on opera. You can hear that in the music in the movies and also in the way the drama was built up and the way the characters were introduced. It is all following in the dramatic line of Verdi and others that came before him. But, especially, Verdi honed this structure of storytelling through music and stagecraft that goes so fantastically into the early movies. Sergio was also an assistant director to famous operatic directors before he got into film-making.

Some people think of opera as removed from popular culture, even though as we are discussing it as influencing film-making. You are the founder of Operalabb which is trying to connect the two – how do you go about that?

That is a huge subject. First of all, I think that opera is the most advanced art form that ever came out of Europe . In the history of Europe opera is the most complex and difficult art form. That is something that people often forget. It is similar to martial arts in Asia in terms of the dedication and training and tradition that goes into the art. But in Europe we celebrate martial art in a different way to operatic art because of the way we approach it.

We approach it less and less from a grassroots type of mentality and I think that is where the problem starts. I am worried that people are going to try to focus more on big opera houses and less on the grassroots. The big danger is that when young people stop criticising or stop idealising and being naively optimistic about the arts, when they stop having any opinion, that is when the decline begins. And that is because they don’t feel that they have anything to do with it.

I am introducing young people to the whole map of the operatic world immediately. I don’t do easy introductions or glamorise it or try to make it hip. I think that is the worst tactic. I want to show the complexity and the depth and the variety of it. So many people at the age of 12 or 13 are already interested in anything that is complicated and deep and profound and those kinds of people are those that continue an art form, whether as practitioners or as an audience, and they are the people I want to show the real world of opera.

But do you think opera is elitist?

If you take something like pop music versus classical music or a pop singer versus an operatic singer… I object to the fact that all things are equal in terms of sophistication and essential value – just because all humans have the same rights it doesn’t mean all humans are equally qualified for complex tasks.

A Formula One car is more expensive than an Audi TT because of the technology, effect, research and design that goes into the machine; there are definite differences in quality and function. In today’s society we find that individuals with immense wealth and physical beauty are somehow innately qualified to be adored and worshipped, but when someone attains skill or/and intellectual superiority from study and practice, this most often is disregarded or looked upon with suspicion – as something less valuable than expression of the ‘self’, that is ‘innate talent’. The direct expression of the ego is more important than the skill that somehow makes us more than normal individuals.

What you have from birth is somehow, in our culture, more valuable in this context than the toil and work that goes into raising your skill way above that which is attainable by sheer intuition. My take on that is that we are all tempted to give animistic values to all kinds of entities and skills, as if a spirit of music entered our bodies at birth and gave us the talent to play and practise – thus allowing the rest of us who didn’t practise countless hours the alibi ‘we never were gifted to start with’, and therefore there wasn’t any point.

In fact, it’s the other way around: to be able to practise countless hours you need a huge supporting system around you, you need the cultural surrounding for accepting this very anti-social behaviour, the acceptance from friends and family to sacrifice normal spontaneous life at an early age and the guiding ‘elitist’ idea that it’s important to improve all the time instead of accepting incorrect and imprecise expression. Also, only when you really master an art form can you be really free to express your humanity through the art – and then it sounds like or looks like ‘no effort’ – well, the effort is in the decades of training beforehand.

That leads in well to your next book, The Inner Game of Music by Barry Green and Timothy Gallwey, which looks at the importance of training.

Yes, this book is relevant to anyone who wants to specialise in anything that is complicated and hard. His method of guiding you through the way of focusing on your training and how you practise is basically a guide on the craft of training. And that takes away the myth that talent has much to do with anything. I think that is helpful to anyone who wants to get better. I used his book The Inner Game of Tennis for my training, which is very similar but broader because it puts the aspect of sports into music.

For you being a great opera singer seems to be more about hard graft than innate talent.

Yes, there was a study done at the Royal Academy of Arts in Stockholm which looked at the connection between talent and training. They compared three different levels of artists when they had graduated. Those that were fantastic and soloist material, those that were mediocre and those that were sort of in between. There was nothing in terms of talent that linked them together. All of these three groups had equal numbers of talented and non-talented when they started. The only thing that was equal among the best when they had graduated was that they had practised the most. They had at least 10,000 hours of practice and in the worst group there were just as many talented in the beginning of the study but they hadn’t put in the time.

So hard graft pays off. Let’s finish with The Complete Operas of Verdi by Charles Osborne.

If you talk about opera as a complete art form in terms of storytelling and emotional expression, Verdi is the greatest in terms of the combination of all aspects of opera. He understood the voice the best, the house and the art form. The opera house in itself is an instrument. You play on the space between the audience and the stage. He was also very good at structuring a drama in terms of wording and pace, silent parts, chorus parts and ballet parts. He has a mastery of all of these different aspects.

When you read this book you understand his political ideas, his ideas regarding art and how he lived in his time as a complete member of society. He was engaged in social issues such as gender equality and things like how the church shouldn’t be so powerful.

This comes back to your point about opera having many layers. It seems that Verdi was such a success because he was fully rounded. 

Yes, absolutely. He was so aware of everything that was going on – he used his opera to comment on life. He was very much the Shakespeare of the operatic world, so much so that he even put to music some of his plays.

October 22, 2010

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Nikola Matisic

Nikola Matisic

Nikola Matisic is an internationally acclaimed tenor. He is also the founder of Operalabb, an organisation that educates younger generations of artists, including singers, pianists and composers. Matisic is a member of the European Cultural Parliament.

Nikola Matisic

Nikola Matisic

Nikola Matisic is an internationally acclaimed tenor. He is also the founder of Operalabb, an organisation that educates younger generations of artists, including singers, pianists and composers. Matisic is a member of the European Cultural Parliament.