A Mad Love: An Introduction to Opera, by Vivien Schweit-zer (New York: Basic Books; 288 pp., $27.00). I need to be fair to this book, because the author, a concert pianist and writer who worked for a decade as a classical-music critic for the New York Times, certainly knows her stuff so far as opera goes. And she can write, too. So my response to A Mad Love resembles William Faulkner’s to a manuscript sent him by an aspiring writer: “It’s not how I would have done it, honey, but you go right ahead, you go right ahead.” (I should leave out “honey,” of course.) Encouraging people of all ages to understand and appreciate opera is surely a worthy endeavor in this day and age. My objection is to Schweitzer’s pedagogical approach, which is the modern one of establishing a rapport at his own level with the student setting out to confront a supposedly antiquated art by assuring him that, really, it has its own kind of cool; and besides, cool people today are making cool contributions to it. The technique is supposedly facilitated by starting on a slightly apologetic note, whose purpose is to demonstrate a sympathetic understanding for whoever might bring a degree of doubt, or even hostility, to the subject. And so Schweitzer, on page 2, allows that, “It’s often noted that opera, with its fantastical stories, requires a suspension of disbelief.” Writing not as a critic or teacher but as a semiprofessional singer for whom the opera has been one of the several great passions of his life, my private feeling is that this art form—not the modern stuff but the real thing in full bloom, written in an era when “grand” opera was a form of popular entertainment as well as a cultivated taste appreciated by connoisseurs—is so remote from, even antithetical to, the modern and postmodern temper that the most effective way to convince the horse to drink the water is to push him into the lake, where he is certain to swallow at least a little of it. While he’s thrashing around there, encouraging observations that “Carmen drives Don Jose nuts” is really beside the point, and so is explaining that the opéra comique “offered . . . lighthearted works, with morally sound stories that ended happily after the bad guys were vanquished.”
The best chapters in this book deal with bel canto, Wagner, and Verdi (though not enough is said about the national roots of their rivalry as composers of Italian opera versus the Gesamtkunstwerk) and verismo in the 19th century, opera’s siècle glorieux. And Schweitzer’s summary of the Ring cycle is useful for the novice, and even for aficionados who have spent so much time concentrating on the scores that they have forgot the broad outline of the composer’s libretto. Anyway, given the author’s purpose in writing, this book is fit for a certain purpose, whether Don Jose is driven nuts and the bad guys lose, or not.
Skepticism and American Faith: From the Revolution to the Civil War, by Christopher Grasso (New York: Oxford University Press; 664 pp., $34.95). Professor Grasso concludes the Introduction to his enormous book (the tight interior design holds the text to 509 pages, minus End Notes, an Index, and an enormous Bibliography at the expense of making it seem even denser than it is) with a statement followed by a question.
In the frontier West, organizing churches was a reassuring sign that civilization was being reestablished [sic]. But in what so many called a Christian nation, was there enough content to the common faith? There was no national church, no instituted national creed, no developed rituals in any “civil religion” that could prevent disunion. One could swear an oath on the Bible but could not go into too much detail about what that Bible said and still keep all the Christian patriots in the politician’s big tent. The mystic cords tying Americans together in a sacred Union were revealed to be a collection of vaporous sentiments about the virtues of a Christian citizenry and God’s love for America. When tested by the greatest moral challenge of the age—slavery—Christians interpreted their Bibles differently, snapped the bonds of fellowship, and conscientiously marched off to slaughter one another.
What is false here is the assertion that the War Between the States was fought over slavery. It was not; it was fought over states’ rights and their territorial integrity within the “sacred” Union. What is accurate and true is Grasso’s characterization of the nature and place of Christianity in the United States from her founding down to the present day. Between the Revolution and the so-called “Civil” War, he argues, religious skepticism was a significant presence in American society; while the real debate in this country has never been between faith and atheism but rather, skepticism and faith. To document and illustrate this thesis, Grasso worked his way through a voluminous collection of mainly primary documents—diaries, letters, etc.—publications, and other secondary sources showing how “ordinary” people wrestled personally with the apparent contradiction between belief and reason. He concludes, “There was no simple arc toward a more religious or more secular American future. In our world, the continued dialogue of skepticism and faith, like death and politics, may be a certainty, too.”
One fascinating detail of the story has to do with John R. Kelso, a Methodist minister in Missouri who renounced his faith to fight Confederate guerillas against slavery and on behalf of the sacred Union. At the end of his life, he thought differently.
How blindly, how piously, how patriotically inhuman even the best of us are capable of being made by superstition, whether with regard to those mythical monsters, called gods, or those equally mythical monsters called governments.