First Nights at the Opera


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Thomas Forrest Kelly

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Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, opera was the grandest entertainment in Western culture. In First Nights at the Opera, the renowned music scholar Thomas Kelly narrates the social history of European opera during its golden age by taking us behind the scenes at the premiere performances of five extraordinary and influential operas: Handel’s Giulio Cesare (London, 1724), Mozart’s Don Giovanni (Prague, 1787), Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots (Paris, 1836), Wagner’s Das Rheingold (Bayreuth, 1876), and Verdi’s Otello (Milan, 1887).

What was it like to be there, to see and hear and perform these operas for the very first time? Kelly takes us behind the curtains to introduce us to the nervous composers, the anxious impresarios, and the performers who had never sung these words to an audience before. Members of the audience, eager with expectation, take to their seats and boxes: What will appear on stage? Will someone miss a line? Will it be a triumph or a humiliation for the composer?

Richly illustrated and briskly narrated, this glittering introduction to the world of opera will delight aficionados and neophytes alike.

Thomas Forrest Kelly is Morton B. Knafel Professor of Music at Harvard University.

“A well-organized, highly readable volume that is difficult to put down. . . . [Having all the information] in one volume is something any reasonably knowledgeable follower of opera, world and social history, and geography, among the numerous subjects covered, will think a fine thing indeed. . . . The many personalities represented . . . come across strongly. . . . Informative and entertaining.”—Michael Mark, American Record Guide

“Kelly did his homework for this interesting book. . . . This well-written and thoroughly documented volume will be valuable and enjoyable for readers at all levels. Essential.”—Choice

"The recounting of the plots is enlivened by the insertion of many interesting anecdotes and asides; numerous illustrations bring the texts to visual life. . . . This book is history from a unique perspective."—David L. Kirk, Fanfare

“This is instructive cultural history—and wonderful fun.”—Harvard Magazine

“This thoroughly enjoyable and informative book will delight all opera lovers; highly recommended.”—Library Journal

"The research is leavened by fascinating anecdotes and glorious first-hand accounts, and the five sections, each dealing with a single opera, are almost like novellas in themselves, peopled by temperamental prima donnas, sharkish entrepreneurs, stress-fuelled composers, wheedling critics and incredibly demanding audiences."—Ashutosh Khandekar, Music Teacher



"An absorbing tangle of minutiae about perfomring circumstances, personalities, conventions, expectations, critical responses, gossip. . . . This book is readable. Addictively."—Michael White, Opera Now

"Kelly's approach . . . is determinedly innovative."—Christopher Hatch, Opera Quarterly

“This remarkable detailed social history, written by a Harvard professor of music, is filled with the drama of opening nights, behind the scenes and in the audience, with sketches of the citys and the concert hall milieus, the impresarios, the composers and the conductors, and the singers charged with performing the music for the first time, followed by reports of the critical response, both popular and journalistic. The text is augmented by copious black-and-white illustrations, selections from relevant correspondence and a discography of recommended recordings.”—Linda Rosenkrantz, San Diego Union-Tribune

"First Nights at the Opera takes us into territory many of us enjoy exploring."—Theatre Notebook

"A rare and wonderful cultural history."—Philip Kennicott, Washington Post

"A book to keep going back to, it contains everything you ever wanted to know about the operas and much more besides.  By the end, you appreciate just what everyone involved in putting on each opera had gone through.  It's an addictive page-turner that will delight all opera-lovers."  - Richard Fawkes, Classical Music

"An important addition to the literature on operatic history. Kelly creates an appealing resource with a wealth of material. His painstaking work with numerous primary sources is commendable, and his efforts will increase our knowledge of these operas for years to come."—Keith E. Clifton, The Opera Journal

Chosen as an Outstanding Academic Title for 2006 by Choice Magazine
ISBN: 9780300100440
Publication Date: September 10, 2004
464 pages, 7 x 10
88 b/w illus.
First Nights

Five Musical Premieres

Thomas Forrest Kelly

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