'Getting Opera' Offers Help To 'Cultured But Confused'

New book gives informal, unconventional introduction to new aficionados.

Matt Dobkin is not exactly modest about what he has accomplished in his new book, "Getting Opera: A Guide for the Cultured but Confused" (Pocket Books).

After only 88 pages, he tells his readers, "Now ... you know everything you need to about the history of opera, classical singing and the current state of the opera world."

Dobkin, a veteran of the Metropolitan Opera's Children's Chorus and a rock composer and performer, attempts to pin down the essentials for the kind of reader described in his subtitle. His book provides raw material for intermission chit-chat and offers suggestions on what to wear (formal attire is not usually needed) and etiquette (it's okay to doze, if you don't snore). There are also helpful tips: bring cough drops and go to the restroom before taking your seat. And he provides a basic road map to 50 operas.

Dobkin's style is informal and wide-ranging. He speculates on what kinds of opera a reader might like, based on his or her astrological sign. He tries to correlate pop music tastes with possible operatic preferences. "If you like Sean 'Puffy' Combs, you'll love anything by Rossini," Dobkin writes. "Why? Rossini was a purveyor of pastiche, which means that he often lifted elements from other works for his operas. The difference is that Rossini usually stole from himself."

Other items in Dobkin's book include his personal ratings of the strengths and weaknesses of major opera companies and lists of opera Web sites and opera jokes.

There is also a rundown of the singers now on the scene, with a separate list of those (male and female) whom Dobkin deems to be as attractive visually as they are vocally. And he offers short lists of the sopranos and tenors whom he says are overrated.

For all those "cultured but confused" readers — and others — who don't find all they need in Dobkin, there are other sources available.

Many consider the four encyclopedia-size volumes of "The New Grove Dictionary of Opera" to be the definitive work on the subject. There's also Phil G. Goulding's 700-page "Ticket to the Opera: Discovering and Exploring 100 Famous Works, History, Lore, and Singers, With Recommended Recordings"; and the Earl of Harewood's "The New Kobbe's Opera Book," which is in its 11th revised edition.

These all offer more than "Getting Opera" in one way or another — particularly plot summaries of more operas.

Another thing that sets apart the Dobkin book is that in the 50 operas discussed, the author tends to concentrate on living composers and less familiar work. For example, he discusses Monteverdi's Orfeo rather than the more-often produced Coronation of Poppaea.