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Unsettling Opera

Staging Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, and Zemlinsky

Unsettling Opera

Staging Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, and Zemlinsky

What happens when operas that are comfortably ensconced in the canon are thoroughly rethought and radically recast on stage? What does a staging do to our understanding of an opera, and of opera generally? While a stage production can disrupt a work that was thought to be established, David J. Levin here argues that the genre of opera is itself unsettled, and that the performance of operas, at its best, clarifies this condition by bringing opera’s restlessness and volatility to life.

Unsettling Opera explores a variety of fields, considering questions of operatic textuality, dramaturgical practice, and performance theory. Levin opens with a brief history of opera production, opera studies, and dramatic composition, and goes on to consider in detail various productions of the works of Wagner, Mozart, Verdi, and Alexander Zemlinsky. Ultimately, the book seeks to initiate a dialogue between scholars of music, literature, and performance by addressing questions raised in each field in a manner that influences them all.

274 pages | 26 halftones, 11 musical examples | 6 x 9 | © 2007

Literature and Literary Criticism: General Criticism and Critical Theory, Germanic Languages

Music: General Music


"In terms of its performance, opera is still an under researched area. David Levin’s book brings light into this darkness. By introducing performance theory to opera studies, he opens up a completely new perspective on opera. Levin reveals to readers that it is only through performance that the unsettledness inherent to opera comes to life. The brilliant argument profits enormously from the author’s elaborate tool kit of a nuanced analytic vocabulary. For everyone interested in opera, Levin’s book is an absolute must."

Erika Fischer-Lichte, Free University of Berlin Institute for Theatre Studies

“There are few authors living today who possess the hands-on experience, theoretical insight, and sheer passion to interrogate the contemporary staging of our operatic war horses. Unsettling Opera does what it promises, challenging with supreme articulation the comfortable assumption that these warhorses will survive whatever the terms of their production. Levin shows us through theory and practice why staging matters far beyond the opera house.”

Lydia Goehr, Columbia University

“This rigorous and generous book affirms David Levin’s preeminence in interdisciplinary opera studies today. Unsettling Opera means recognizing and empowering opera’s cultural importance and responsibility. If Wagner reminds us that music drama always involves orchestra, singing characters, and the stage, Levin complements that structural grid with an historical one. Canonic works continue to come alive at the present moment of performance, he shows, and that present moment is contingent on dramaturgical urgency, incisiveness, and integrity. This is a study that will bring together practitioners and scholars in energized recognition of a challenge they share but do not always compare.”

Michael P. Steinberg, Brown University

Unsettling Opera is original, full of ideas, and entertaining as well. David Levin has an important and timely subject and he writes about it with passion, brio, and intelligence. He gracefully makes a persuasive case for the ways operas work and how creative opera productions can revivify texts often covered in layers of nineteenth-century upholstery.”

Peter Brooks, Yale University

“David Levin is one of the few scholars who functions effectively as both a literary critic in the University and a practical dramaturg in the opera house. His fascinating book demonstrates how critical readings of music and text can generate stagings that challenge and compel. Through Levin’s analyses, we understand the limitations inherent in traditional methods and the considerable advantages to be gained when a director stages his critical reading of a work. As theaters in America adopt increasingly this approach, which has previously been seen mostly on European stages, Levin’s book offers an indispensable guide.”

Philip Gossett, author of Divas and Scholars

“David Levin’s new book has as its object some of the best-known works in the operatic canon, and offers a bold new contribution to the anguished debate over the ‘radical’ staging they often receive today. His unsettling conclusions won’t please everybody; and quite right too. They will, though, make us all think harder about how and why, against all reasonable odds, opera continues to matter in the twenty-first century.”

Roger Parker, author of Remaking the Song

“Examining some seminal opera productions of the ‘post-naturalistic’ period, David Levin stimulates readers to be more adventurous and contextual in their own opera explorations. Among other things, Unsettling Opera is a great teaching manual about how to ask questions of opera scores and how to find one’s way to their sub-texts. I read the book with an ever-growing sense of excitement.”

Pamela Rosenberg, Berline Philharmonic

"Levin has provided a well documented look at operatic production an it exists in the early twenty-first century. His stance on many issues will incense traditional opera lovers but these are issues which must be faced in the light of what is happening on the stage today."

Richard LeSueur | MLA Notes

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations  

1 Dramaturgy and Mise-en-Scène
2 Reading a Staging/Staging a Reading: Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg in Performance
3 Fidelity in Translation: Mozart and Da Ponte’s Le nozze di Figaro
4 Deconstructing Singspiel: Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail
5 Between Sublimation and Audacity: Verdi’s Don Carlos
6 Beyond the Canon: Zemlinsky’s Der König Kandaules

Appendix: Plot Summaries

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