Review: The Metropolis Case, Matthew Gallaway

When I was telling my friend tim about the plot of this book, the title of which I did not mention, she said, “Oh hey! It sounds like The Makropoulis Case,” which evidently is an opera by a Czech composer I’ve never heard of because I am very, very ignorant of all things opera-related. I went and read the Wikipedia article on the opera in question, and the moral of the story is that if you are going to read a book that is an homage to an opera, you should (a) know going in that it is an homage to the opera and (b) be moderately familiar with the plot of the opera. Otherwise you may end up feeling stupid about having complained that the ending of the book was idiotically improbable, when in fact it was operatically improbable and taken straight from the opera to which the book is an homage. That’s a really specific moral, I know. But I’m sure it has broader applications than just this book. I will let you know when I work out what they are.

The Metropolis Case has, more or less, four central characters: a nineteenth-century opera singer called Lucian, a weird orphan from 1970s Pittsburgh, Maria, who loves nothing but music; a 1960s singer called Anna who loves Tristan and Isolde (they all love Tristan and Isolde); and a Manhattan lawyer called Martin searching for meaning after 9/11. They are all interconnected, if you can hang in there long enough to find out how.

I don’t suppose you have to like opera to enjoy The Metropolis Case, but I expect it helps. As I said, I am very, very ignorant of all things opera-related. It damaged my reading experience. When I say the book is operatically improbable, I mean it’s improbable in the way that opera plots are improbable. You know how when you spend a year reading Virgil, you develop a soft spot for extended metaphors even though in normal life you wouldn’t necessarily care for them? I think if opera triggered any sparkly snuggle hearts in my mind, I would have connected with this book more.

Less vaguely, it would have helped if I had been familiar with The Makroupolis Case. As it was, I couldn’t imagine what the author’s endgame was, I wasn’t always wild about the writing (a little overwrought), and my reading experience lacked momentum. This phenomenon, which nearly spoiled Revolutionary Road for me (but didn’t!), is yet another reason it’s a good idea to read the end before you read the middle.

On the up side, I liked Lucian a lot and kept reading to find out what was going to happen to him and his father. And although, as I say, I didn’t connect with the opera-love that fulminates throughout the novel, I did start to feel that I was missing out by not knowing about opera. Perhaps now is the time that I will stop not caring about opera and decide to care about it after all. I mean if Vivian the Hooker can fall in love with it, surely I can. Right?

Any opera recommendations, bloggy friends? Any assurances that opera is far more accessible than I have been led to believe? Thoughts on reading the subtitles vs. not reading the subtitles?

Other reviews:

Sophisticated Dorkiness
Truth, Beauty, Freedom, and Books
Rundpinne
Wordsmithonia
A Work in Progress

Let me know if I missed yours!

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34 thoughts on “Review: The Metropolis Case, Matthew Gallaway

    • It may have done, maybe I just missed it. I knew it was an homage to opera in the sense that the book’s all about opera. I just didn’t know about this specific one.

  1. Opera is overwrought, in general. I went to one at the Kennedy Center because a friend of mine was singing in it (Susan Dunn) and the woman next to me punctuated every single high note by plunging her face into a linen handkerchief and sobbing loudly. Since my son was about two I’ve wanted to take him to the opera; I think he has the kind of personality for it. But maybe I should wait a few more years, because no teenage boy will weep openly in public.

  2. I can totally see where not having the sparkly snuggle hearts for opera may have led to you not really being able to appreciate this book. The only opera I have ever been to was called Die Fledermaus (which means The Bat) and it is in German. It seemed to be about a party where there were a lot of illicit affairs going on, and it reminded me a bit of Three’s Company. I also didn’t know that there even were operas in German, as it is such a guttural language. Color me surprised when I actually sat down and watched it!

  3. Carmen is totally my favorite opera, and there are a number of adaptations that are so good as well. It’s just a great tale of possessive and jealous love. Carmen Jones was made into a movie one could even rent. Otto Preminger directed, starred Harry Belafonte and Dorothy Dandridge. A more recent adaptation is a ya book that is very good (haven’t posted my review yet): When the Stars Turn Blue by Caridad Ferrer.

  4. Sorry, I know nothing about opera or anything musically related for that matter. BUT, I loved Revolutionary Road. It meanders and you start to wonder if you want to invest anymore in it, and then you sort of fall in love with the idea of Frank and April going to Paris and even when you know it will all go bad, you want it to be OK somehow.

    • Exactly! I not only knew from the dynamics of their relationship that things were going to go bad, but also because I had read the end, and still I kept hoping and hoping that everything would work out.

  5. This has not much to do with your post, but I showed my students the French film Diva over Jan term, and it has something to do, tangentially, with the Italian opera La Wally. Three of my students did a presentation on the plot of that opera and O.Em.Gee was it off the charts. Love! Revenge! Jealousy! Insults! Avalanches! Ravines! Eternal remorse! I mean, the awesomeness did not stop.

  6. Comments on this post are going to give a very interesting little survey of overlap between book bloggers and opera lovers. Opera is one of those things I feel barely guilty at all for not liking, and not knowing much about, even though I know it marks me as . . . something. I watched a lot of operas on public television as a kid. I remember thinking “I would these plays better if everyone wasn’t singing and overacting.” Books that revolve around any kind of intense passion for music generally put me off. Descriptions of music-rapture seems not to translate well into fiction.

    In sum: I’m unqualified to comment. I would not have, except that I *could* not leave a post with the word “fulminates” in it uncommented upon!

    • >>>Descriptions of music-rapture seems not to translate well into fiction.

      Dude, yes. It always ends up sounding a bit silly, in a way that books revolving around intense passions for, say, history, do not. I don’t know why this is.

    • Sorry, yes! It’s not based on Tristan and Isolde. Tristan and Isolde just features in it as a particularly good opera. As far as I can remember, nobody ever mentions the Makropulos Case in the book.

  7. As Clare said, you’d think they’d mention that on the back cover or something! I possibly have *negative* knowledge of opera, so what happened to you would have happened to me as well. Except I can easily imagine only discovering the connection years later 😛

  8. Sounds…interesting. You should go to the Met. I just signed up for the student thing and can get orchestra tickets for $27.50. We’ll go. I am going to see La Boheme next week! Can’t wait! I only just saw my first ever opera a couple of weeks ago and now I am in love. It’s so melodramatic!

  9. Here’s a tip from my secondary school (high school) music teacher: go to the shop and check how many CDs the opera is, and for your first time don’t go for anything longer than a 2-CD opera.

    Isn’t Wagner supposed to be pretty heavy going? I’ve never been to an opera either and I think I’d be more inclined to go for Mozart as I’m familiar with some of the music already – The Marriage Figaro perhaps. Though I think Figaro is a 3-CD opera…

    • Solid advice. I will bear it in mind and not start with Wagner. I have actually seen Mozart before — I saw The Magic Flute when I was a little girl. I don’t remember it awfully well now, though.

  10. A ha! Now THIS I can sort of help you with because my husband is an opera singer. Not active, but a trained tenor nonetheless. He worships Puccini and would recommend Madama Butterfly (my favorite) or La Bohème (his). He also says The Magic Flute by Mozart is good for starters. You probably know that La Bohème was the inspiration for the musical Rent.

    I went to see my husband in Madama Butterfly—he was Butterfly’s drunken uncle—and it was so magical. You might try going to see one. They provide subtitles as so many of the operas are in another language.

    Also, I learned that if a story is out there, it’s been made into an opera. Even The Great Gatsby.

    • Helpful! The Magic Flute was good when I was a kid, and I am quite keen to see it again, to see how closely it aligns with my memory. And Madame Butterfly sounds good.

  11. Also, I promise I am not an idiot—I came over from my feed reader, which doesn’t show your tags, which clearly discuss La Bohème, which I also see that you have seen. But that said, Wagner is pretty freaking heavy.

  12. I remember Danielle’s review of this book. It sounds a tad overheated, but then opera does seem to have that effect. I read a novel last year called The Maestro’s Voice by Roland Vernon, and that was about an opera singer and rather good. I can’t sell it as the best book ever, but it was well-written and had a very jolly plot.

  13. Opera’s one of those art forms in which you do have to suspend a little disbelief, both for the plots and for the singers, not all of whom are great actors. I’m not a huge fan, though I do really like ‘The Marriage of Figaro’ (one of the few to have a baritone hero, though sadly the main female characters are all sopranos as usual). Britten’s ‘The Rape of Lucretia’ is really moving, is relatively short, and in English, which helps. I don’t know ‘Tristan und Isolde’, but Wagner’s music is very engaging, even if his operas are very very long.

    The utterly fabulous ‘An Incomplete Education’ by Judy Jones and William Wilson suggests that for one’s first opera one shouldn’t choose Wagner (“later you may wish to spend several hours in a darkened auditorium musing over the erotic implications of death”), but rather something by Mozart or Verdi (Puccini’s alright, they admit, but even a novice will appreciate real quality) for a first outing.

    The opera version of ‘The Makropolous Case’ is by Janacek, isn’t it? I’m not sure it’s often performed since it’s in Czech, not your standard operatic language, though Janacek’s operas are becoming more popular (I also know of ‘Jenufa’ and ‘The Cunning Little Vixen’ but have never listened to any of them). Does Elena Makropolous appear in the novel? or is there a character who has her sort of history?

    A good send up of opera and its cliches can be found in Terry Pratchett’s ‘Maskerade’ (incidentally also the title of an opera by Khachaturian…), and Agatha Christie uses a production of ‘Tosca’ to have a character commit murder in one of her short stories. Edmund Crispin similarly uses a production of Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg in his ‘Swan Song’ for a background to murder, but the opera isn’t really an important part of the plot – the singers are.

  14. I’m a bit late to the party here, but, taking a look at the upcoming Met schedule, Orfeo ed Euridice might be a good one to try; a lot of fun, and running time is only an hour and a half. They’re also doing Tosca, which, although longer, is still gripping, especially if you’re a fan of melodrama. And, don’t forget the City Opera, right next door; tickets there are often a bit cheaper.

    The best way to get your first opera exposure, though, might be to catch the Met’s Summer HD festival. For the past two years, they’ve broadcast the HD recordings of a different opera every night of a week in late August on the side of the Met in Lincoln Center Plaza, for free. It’s a great way to try out a bunch of different operas—there’s no investment other than arriving an hour or so before the show starts, you get to hang out outside on a nice summer night, and if you really don’t like it you can just leave without worrying that you’re wasting money. Also, my girlfriend actually prefers the HD recordings to going to see live shows, because you can see the singers much better than from the seats we can afford.

    Finally, I’d be amiss in not recommending another fine opera parody: Peter Schickele’s The Abduction of Figaro (available on DVD). It spoofs all sorts of operas and opera conventions (with characters such as Donald Giovanni—”they call him Don for short”) but was funny even when we were kids who knew next-to-nothing about opera.

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