The Opera Lover Declaring Opera Alive and Well in America UCSC Review Summer-Fall 1994
Historian John Dizikes still marvels at the American reluctance to recognize Broadway musicals for what they are: opera.
"Americans are really embarrassed to call something opera. It's all part of our Anglo-American tradition of being poker-faced and undemonstrative," says Dizikes, cracking a smile. "Opera is an excessive art full of broad expression. American culture prizes the ordinary, the matter of fact."
So Dizikes knew he was going out on a limb in his new book when he broadened the definition of opera to include musicals produced in New York during the 1940s and 1950s, such as "South Pacific," "Oklahoma," and "West Side Story." He braced for heavy criticism. He needn't have worried.
Instead of criticism, his new book "Opera in America: A Cultural History" has delighted readers and won rave reviews. Dizikes received the coveted National Book Critics Circle award for criticism, and his book was named a Notable Book of the Year by the New York Times Book Review. Already in its second printing, "Opera in America" reads like a love letter written by a man who wants to share his appreciation of opera with fans and skeptics alike.
Dizikes has been an opera buff since he heard his first performance at the age of fourteen, a Metropolitan Opera broadcast of Rigoletto. A professor of American studies, he spent twelve years writing "Opera in America," and the result is a sweeping cultural history of musical theater in the United States. His definition of opera as any dramatic story with music goes beyond the popular notion of "grand opera" to include the emergence of the unique form known as Broadway musicals.
"What I call New York opera is a distinctive form of light opera that appeared between 1940 and 1960. It's a great achievement that should be considered part of the operatic tradition, just as we have Viennese opera and Paris opera," says Dizikes, whose appreciation of New York opera is not diminished by the fact that the era came to an end. "All arts have moments when styles crystallize, when creators and audiences come together and something happens. They don't last forever--five, ten, fifteen, or twenty years, and then it disappears. And that's when we can see it--what a brilliant period it was, what style it had. It can't be recreated."
Far from a stuffy tome, "Opera in America" conveys the passion Dizikes feels for opera. He traces the American influence on opera since its arrival in 1735 from Europe by telling the stories of people, places, and performances. Dizikes deliberately chose an informal conversational tone, and the result is prose that sustains the reader through 560 pages of the triumphs and disappointments that make opera a compelling window through which to view American history.
"I tried to write a story--not an encyclopedia or an analysis-- and I tried to tell it in a way that would keep people reading. I tried to create suspense," says Dizikes, who celebrates the famous as well as the behind-the-scenes people involved in opera.
Dizikes developed his talent for storytelling during nearly 30 years of teaching. He prepares his lectures with care because he wants more than anything to share his love of American history with students. "Writing for a general audience is like lecturing to undergraduates," he says. "You have to show them why a subject is worth pursuing."
For Dizikes, opera's expansiveness and drama open a door to another world. "Singing is as natural as speech, but Americans tend to fall in with the French dramatist Beaumarchais, who said whatever is too silly to be said may be sung," he says, pausing. "Yes, but also what is moving may be sung. And what cannot be said may be sung."
Opera's stigma of exclusivity stems from its roots in the European aristocracy, but Dizikes delights in pointing out that an orchestra seat at the San Francisco Opera costs one-third the price of a $300 courtside ticket to see the Chicago Bulls. "The big money now isn't in opera or symphony. It's sports that are elitist." He also enjoys spotting opera's influence on American culture--even today's rock music and MTV culture have been touched, he says. "Talk about anything goes! I suspect Americans are going to create another distinctive form of American opera, maybe out of rock music."
Dizikes's book is divided into 53 short chapters that are meant to be "dipped into, not necessarily read straight through." To further encourage readers, Dizikes urged the publisher to sprinkle the book's many illustrations throughout its pages rather than cluster them, and the result is an even more enticing book.
Dizikes says he writes fast but rewrites a lot. Shunning computers, he wore out a couple of typewriters while working on the book, and he rewrote the final section 30 or 40 times before he was content with it. He thought for a long time about whether to use the contractions "can't" and "isn't" and was thrilled to receive a letter from a fan who appreciated his choice. "She said she knew as soon as she saw the book that she would enjoy it because I had used contractions," he says. "I had thought a lot about that."
Throughout the project, Dizikes worked diligently to make the book enjoyable. "Nothing pleases me more than for people to say they find the book readable," says Dizikes. "I didn't write it for professors or specialists, although I hope they'll read it and learn a few things. To me, having a lot of readers is a dream."
Dizikes has published only three books in his career. The first, his doctoral dissertation, is about politics in the New Deal era. In 1981, he completed a book about his other great love--sports. Then he decided to write about opera. "For a long time I was known, almost notoriously, as a nonwriter," says Dizikes, hastening to add that he had never published a word about music until this book. "I'm very much an outsider. I'm not even trained in music. I just write about what I love."