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Divas and Scholars

Performing Italian Opera

Winner of the 2007 Otto Kinkeldey Award from the American Musicological Society and the 2007 Deems Taylor Award from the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers.

Divas and Scholars is a dazzling and beguiling account of how opera comes to the stage, filled with Philip Gossett’s personal experiences of triumphant—and even failed—performances and suffused with his towering and tonic passion for music. Writing as a fan, a musician, and a scholar, Gossett, the world’s leading authority on the performance of Italian opera, brings colorfully to life the problems, and occasionally the scandals, that attend the production of some of our most favorite operas. 

Gossett begins by tracing the social history of nineteenth-century Italian theaters in order to explain the nature of the musical scores from which performers have long worked. He then illuminates the often hidden but crucial negotiations opera scholars and opera conductors and performers: What does it mean to talk about performing from a critical edition? How does one determine what music to perform when multiple versions of an opera exist? What are the implications of omitting passages from an opera in a performance? In addition to vexing questions such as these, Gossett also tackles issues of ornamentation and transposition in vocal style, the matters of translation and adaptation, and even aspects of stage direction and set design. 

Throughout this extensive and passionate work, Gossett enlivens his history with reports from his own experiences with major opera companies at venues ranging from the Metropolitan and Santa Fe operas to the Rossini Opera Festival at Pesaro. The result is a book that will enthrall both aficionados of Italian opera and newcomers seeking a reliable introduction to it—in all its incomparable grandeur and timeless allure.

Read an excerpt.

704 pages | 92 musical examples | 6 x 9 | © 2006

Music: General Music


“I knew Philip Gossett was a great scholar. Now I find out that he is also a tremendous storyteller. Divas and Scholars is not only erudite: it’s as entertaining and charming as a novel. Singers, conductors, directors, musicologists, real or ideal characters are portrayed here with the right irony (and self-irony). And what a mine of information: for a professional musician such as myself, part two of this book (Performing the Opera) was a welcome benefit, an indispensable guidebook. In my youth I was a pupil of and assistant to Tullio Serafin. Now in my later years I’ve found in Philip Gossett my prophet.”

Bruno Bartoletti

“Philip Gossett has made a tremendous contribution to the performance practice of Italian operatic repertoire from Bel Canto to Verdi. His research and dedication to the task have enabled him to provide us, the performers, with a depth and breadth of knowledge about how to approach the specific stylistic challenges of this music. In addition to his scholarly integrity, he is also a fine musician who can implement his own research by creating appropriate ornamentation for singers. I would never dream of approaching this repertoire without first consulting and coaching with him. Fortunately, this book provides a reference so now all musicians can benefit from his work.”

Renée Fleming

“This is the book that is indispensable for opera performers, scholars, and lovers. I am thrilled to have mine.”

Marilyn Horne

“To call this book ‘a labor of love’ is simply to confirm expectations: Philip Gossett’s capacity for labor is legendary in every corner of the operatic profession, and his love for ottocento opera informs every sentence of his extensive writing about it and every bar of his meticulous editions. When some future historian has to describe in a few words the artistic renewal this repertory has enjoyed, I suspect two names will be culled from the hundreds who have contributed: Maria Callas for convincing the public that it was worth taking seriously, and Gossett for showing us all what it would mean to do so. The result has been nothing less than a re-birth for what was once the most popular music in the world, and this book is a wide-ranging and constantly stimulating illumination of the adventure of bringing that about.”

Will Crutchfield

"To my knowledge, there is no other book like it. No one else has treated an important genre of half a century in its social and political setting, its stylistic development, together with a detailed history of dissemination and performance over a century and a half. . . . All of this is accomplished by a prose style sensible, often original, provocative, learned, technical but lucid, and always entertaining—and, most remarkably, in only 603 succinct pages. . . . Gossett shows a tolerance and a largeness of spirit rare in those scholars who have so much passion." —Charles Rosen, New York Review of Books

Charles Rosen | New York Review of Books

"Mr. Gossett writes graceful, often bracing prose. His common sense cuts through quantities of ill-reasoned argument; sometimes a well-placed ’absurd’ or ’poppycock’ is all he needs to prick a very big balloon. . . . He and his scholarly peers . . . do not seek to dictate to a diva. They seek to put at her fingertips the wherewithal to light the fires of her creativity."

Matthew Gurewitsch | New York Sun

"This enthralling and important book offers vital reading for anyone with a serious interest in opera. Its author, Philip Gossett, describes himself as ’a fan, a musician, and a scholar’. . . . This volume is his life’s work. Written with unfailing clarity and waspish wit, it charts the musical problems, both theoretical and practical, presented by the autograph manuscripts, printed scores, and performances of this great corpus."

Rupert Christianson | Spectator

"The depth and scope of Gossett’s book . . . makes it one that will be of immense value to anyone approaching the subject of opera in the so-called age of belcanto. . . . He writes so clearly, and with such vigour, that the arguments about transpositions, cuts, translations and interpolations take on something of the feel of detective work."

Patrick O'Connor | Literary Review

“Philip Gossett is a superb scholar, but he is also a true man of the theater.”

G. W. Bowersock | New Republic

"Thanks to the author’s immense erudition concerning all aspects of 19th-century opera, his book provides a wealth of information not readily available elsewhere. . . . The author’s relaxed, chatty style . . . makes for entertaining reading."


"As authoritative an examination of the era as we are likely to get."

Anthony Tommasini | New York Times

"In a happy coincidence, the author’s surname is a near homonym for gossip, and this excellent book is leavened with timely and beautifully judged accounts of vanity, ignorance and arrogance. . . . A fine achievement. Gossett is not afraid to ’name and shame’ when it comes to artistic abuses by famous singers and conductors. . . . The book is both a first-rate piece of scholarship and an engaging and entertaining read. . . . Bravo."

Robert Gibson | Australian Book Review

"A book of admirable quality and insight, certainly among the most important studies of Italian opera in the past decade. . . . This book is now essential reading for the scholar of the subject and will doubtless be the text of choice for many graduate seminars for years to come. At the same time, the book has rewards for the ordinary reader, too."

Stanley Hauer | Southern Humanities Review

"[The book] has a great deal to offer opera fans, musicians, and scholars. . . . Every chapter contains intriguing tidbits of information that will lead scholars and performers to rethink their notions of performance. . . . Gossett invites us all not to accept operatic traditions blithely, nor to hide behind banners of historical authenticity. His goal of bringing singers and scholars together is laudable and his honesty as both a fan and a scholar is refreshing."

Sean M. Parr | Music and Letters

"A brief review cannot encompass all the richness and multiple levels of scholarly and artistic insight in Gossett’s impressive book, but one of its great achievements is its demonstration of the close imbrication of musicological issues, historical or contextual knowledge, and both pragmatic and aesthetic discernment that are involved in making critical, performing editions of these works. Gossett forces us to consider the too often neglected question of what we are, in fact, performing when we stage these works."

Jane F. Fulcher | Journal of Modern History

Table of Contents

1.Mare o monti: Two Summer Festivals
2.Setting the Stage
3. Transmission versus Tradition
4. Scandal and Scholarship
5. The Romance of the Critical Edition
6. Scholars and Performers: The Case of Semiramide
7. Choosing a Version
8. Serafin’s Scissors
9. Ornamenting Rossini
10. Higher and Lower: Transposing Bellini and Donizetti
11. Words and Music: Texts and Translations
12. Instruments Old and New
13.From the Score to the Stage
14. Two Kings Head North: Italian Opera in Scandinavia
Index to Operas and Performances
General Index


Amer Soc Composers/Authors/Publishers: Deems Taylor Award

The University of Chicago Press: Gordon J. Laing Award

American Musicological Society: Otto Kinkeldey Award

Society for Textual Scholarship: Richard J. Finneran Award
Honorable Mention

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