To an opera lover, a guided excursion through the mysterious world of the opera singer is irresistibly appealing. Are opera singers merely brainless, egotistical voices? Do voice teachers and vocal techniques make a difference? How much do opera singers worry about acting, about musical interpretation of roles? Helena Matheopoulos, author of Divo, is an enthusiastic, generally competent guide, and the tour she provides is fascinating.

The organization is by vocal ranges, which provides continuity between chapters: We discover, for example, why Faust is an easy role for Nicolai Gedda and difficult for Alfredo Kraus; why the Duke of Mantua is a young tenor’s role but Radames is dangerous for a young voice; why, of 32 B-flats Radames sings, only one is really difficult; why singing Parsifal could make a tenor lose the voice for Rodolfo.

Rather than simply transcribe interviews, Matheopoulos has written a narrative about each singer, combining biographical material with lengthy quotations from the subjects as well as observations from other members of the operatic world. I am delighted to report that this is not a gossipy book. Biographical details are reported only when they are relevant to the singers’ training and development.

Divo is not a “page turner” or even a “good read.” It must be read slowly. Balancing reading with listening would help make abstract and possibly esoteric topics like vocal color and tessitura much more immediate. The author’s turgid style does not make reading any easier. Often her clumsy sentences reflect fuzzy thinking. She would have been well served by a stringent copy editor, who could also have caught her occasional inexcusable errors in musical terminology.

Divo is graced by a small selection of excellent photographs, all but one showing the singers performing roles they discuss in the book. The one priceless exception is a photograph of Pavarotti dressed for a costume party as a sheik, with shades.

This is a serious, honest book about dedicated men at the top of their profession. They are clearly—sometimes surprisingly—intelligent and thoughtful, often highly articulate, and impressively hardworking. The book offers an admirable antidote to many old stereotypes (though a music lover serious enough to read this book already knows the stereotypes are false).

Divo will inevitably find its audience. Real opera fans will relish its revelations and forgive its flaws. General readers, if they can tolerate a certain amount of obscurity (chiefly unelaborated references to roles, operas, or composers) may be interested in this intimate view of genuine craftsmen at work. Excellence in almost any field exerts a fascination of its own.


[Divo: Great Tenors, Baritones, and Basses Discuss Their Roles, by Helena Matheopoulos (New York: Harper & Row) $25.00]