Cultural history is Herbert Lindenberger’s primary interest, and his formal training is in literary scholarship and the history of ideas, not music. But he is a lifelong opera enthusiast whose ambitious goal is “serious writing” about the genre. And opera, with its use of multiple art forms, is a tempting target for the cultural historian. Lindenberger’s book, Opera in History: From Monteverdi to Cage (Stanford University Press, 1998; $49.50), will shake up most of the assumptions you might have entertained about that fascinating, hybrid art.

The Avalon Foundation Professor of Humanities in Comparative Literature and English, Lindenberger ranges over the four centuries of opera history. He contrasts eras, tosses together disparate composers or works, and offers interdisciplinary insights into what, for example, the composer Rossini and the poet Shelley might have in common. He intentionally avoids most of the mainstream operatic monuments, content to explore the byways. The prose is densely packed with ideas, and the citations seem unending; but the writing is so lucid and the thought processes so clear that enjoyment and learning proceed in tandem.

Though the author includes history in his title, he does not aim at a continuous historical narrative. The book’s discrete topics are unified by several recurring concerns: how the perception of artists and their works changes over the centuries (Monteverdi leaps out of the early baroque to become a 20th-century icon); opera’s long tug-of-war between “symphonic” continuity and separate musical numbers; and opera’s curious, often frustrating mix of high and low art.

Lindenberger gives extensive consideration to specific concerns as well: the culture of the Weimar Republic; opera as a conservative force; and opera’s changing rank in the hierarchy of the arts in philosophical treatises. Multiculturalism and gays at the opera get fleeting attention. Current performances and singers are occasionally, and a bit obtrusively, dragged onto the page’s stage -- though the author is amusing when he equates a Three Tenors bash with the youthful pleasure of appeasing one’s palate at a Taco Bell.

In exploring these varied topics, Lindenberger searches for “new ways of thinking about the relation of history to aesthetic phenomena.” He rearranges facts that for the most part are well known and widely accepted; it is his imaginative manipulation of them that tickles the mind. The alliance of words with music has troubled opera since its founding fathers in late 16th-century Florence proclaimed the dominance of the word. When discussing opera seria, in which music is king, the author accepts the genre’s “high artifice” but denies that its contrasting “arias of affect” can help create characters. Admirers of Beverly Sills’s Cleopatra may think otherwise.

Lindenberger takes an interdisciplinary approach to several chapters. The best residue of the Rossini/Shelley discussion is his sage advice not to use outdated aesthetics to defend their “cultivation of excess.” When the past is reevaluated by the present, what were once demerits sometimes turn into assets -- and vice versa. For example, the “natural” is out of favor in the postmodern era. Similarly, the author observes, the composer Monteverdi, the painter Caravaggio and the poet John Donne, all early 17th-century figures neglected for hundreds of years, have been recognized as “creations of early-twentieth-century modernism.” Revolutionaries in their own time, their rehabilitation seemed inevitable when the arts learned to speak in new tongues during the early years of our century.

Another of the author’s central tenets might be called the “you are what you eat” theory. One cannot listen to a canonized work, he asserts, without calling into play all the baggage that the listener and the opera carry. Lindenberger is on solid ground here, though the weight of the baggage may not be as heavy as he suggests. Does anyone really linger over colonial imperialism (the construction of the Suez Canal, for instance) while watching the “oriental” ceremonial dances in Aida? The chapter on opera’s treatment of Eastern culture is grounded in recent historical studies of Western attitudes toward the East. But it is still a lightweight compared to the author’s other efforts. Even so, he regains his stride when he charts the “reverse” orientalism in contemporary operas such as Philip Glass’s Satyagraha, in which Gandhi is the hero and Eastern spiritual values are extolled.

Lindenberger’s lengthy and probing examinations of several 20th-century operas are marvelously informative. He neatly juxtaposes the contrasting political backgrounds and musical techniques of Schoenberg’s Zionist, high-culture Moses und Aron and Weill’s Marxist, dance-based Mahagonny. His clinical examination of the “regulated anarchy” of John Cage’s Europeras 1 & 2 allows him to question the age-old aesthetic foundations of opera. Here, as elsewhere in the book, Lindenberger pushes us toward a view of opera more in tune with the iconoclastic culture of our time.

This disturbing conclusion to the book is capped by a comic coda: Lindenberger gives his readers a noseflip. He defines the five types of present-day operagoers as Avid, Passive, Conscientious, Faultfinding and Uncompromised. Each is wittily and mercilessly tweaked. Some opera lovers from each of the categories may be baffled by a few underlying assumptions in these essays, but any reader with a modest interest in the arts will emerge refreshed and stimulated.

Paul Jackson, PhD ’67, dean emeritus of fine arts at Drake University, is the author of Saturday Afternoons at the Old Met and Sign-off for the Old Met.