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Puccini Without Excuses: A Refreshing Reassessment of the World's Most Popular Composer Paperback – Nov 8 2005

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Original edition (Nov. 8 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400077788
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400077786
  • Product Dimensions: 13.2 x 2.5 x 20.3 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 340 g
  • Average Customer Review: Be the first to review this item
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #217,002 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Product Description

From Publishers Weekly

Puccini, the celebrated composer of La Bohème, Tosca and Madama Butterfly (together, the three make up perhaps a quarter of all U.S. opera performances) is often regarded as a "guilty pleasure," too melodic, too "easy." Not so fast, says Berger, who proceeds to demonstrate exactly why attention must be paid. This is the third in the amusing, educational opera series by the popular NPR commentator and radio host, following Wagner Without Fear and Verdi with a Vengeance. The informal, sometimes slangy tone assumes readers' ignorance (but willingness to learn) and coaches them in everything they need to know. The formula follows that of the earlier books: first, a brief biography of the artist; then a breakdown of each opera (eight here) with comments, introducing the characters and explaining what kind of singer each part calls for; then an act-by-act summary with instructions on what to watch and listen for. Next, Berger veers off into three idiosyncratic essays, including one on Puccini's influence on modern show biz (on Bohème knockoffs: Moulin Rouge was good; Rent, not so much). Then it's back to instruction: singers to recognize, recordings to buy or rent, books to read and a glossary of musical terms, many Italian.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

About the Author

William Berger was born in California and studied Romance languages and music at the University of California at Santa Cruz. He worked for five years at the San Francisco Opera Company, where he acquired for the company’s recorded music collection. He is the author of Wagner Without Fear: Learning to Love–and Even Enjoy–Opera’s Most Demanding Genius and Verdi With a Vengeance: An Energetic Guide to the Life and Complete Works of the King of Opera. He is a frequent lecturer and radio commentator and has recently been a regular host for New York Public Radio’s Overnight Music. He has written libretti, performance pieces, and articles on a wide variety of topics including architecture, religion, and, of course, music. He is a music host for WNYC radio and lives in New York.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) HASH(0x9b1b3084) out of 5 stars 18 reviews
27 of 28 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x9b1bdc24) out of 5 stars An informative and entertaining look at Puccini Nov. 18 2005
By Bomojaz - Published on
Format: Paperback
This is an amazing book, at least an amazing book for me, because of what it's done for me. I must admit right now that I'm not a major opera fan, not that I don't like it, and not that I haven't listened to quite a bit of it over the years - it's just that my musical tastes lean more toward Louis Armstrong's Hot Fives and Charlie Parker's Reboppers. But Berger's book was so informative and so entertaining and, best of all, so enthusiastic, that the bug he is trying to infect us with regarding the operas of Giacomo Puccini has infiltrated my system and sent me reeling.

Berger is a radio host on NYC's PBS station (which I unfortunately have never heard), and his book reads exactly like what a well-informed, passionate d.j. would sound like as he waxed fervently about his musical loves. The book reads as if it were spoken and meant to be heard. This is a delightful and most enjoyable aspect of the book. As he recounts the story behind each opera, Berger interrupts himself with commentary, as if speaking over the performance at hand or hitting the pause button on the CD player. And his comments are highly personal, though not arbitrary or off-the-wall, meant to keep us on target and focused, but not school-marmish. He "speaks" to us like an old friend sharing what he knows and feels.

The book is a fairly thorough account of the man and his music: we get a brief biographical sketch, the operas (8 of them) in detail, recommended recordings, dvds, and books, Puccini in the movies, a glossary of opera terms and how they apply to Puccini's work, and more. And everything, even the glossary, has the Berger stamp of authority and élan to it.

So I've already started making a list of CDs based on Berger's recommendations and until I can get some of them, have put my LP version of MADAMA BUTTERFLY with Erich Leinsdorf conducting Anna Moffo and Cesare Valletti (not on Berger's list) on the turntable. That's what Berger's book has done for me: brought me back to the music of Puccini once again. Pops and Bird will just have to wait.
24 of 25 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x9b1bdc78) out of 5 stars Puccini with Many Excuses - Not That He Needs Them Feb. 13 2006
By J Scott Morrison - Published on
Format: Paperback
William Berger has written a book for operatic neophytes (as he did in his previous books 'Wagner Without Fear' and 'Verdi with a Vengeance') who want to learn more about opera in general and about Puccini in particular, and yet who have little background with which to understand a full-length book about the life and works of a single composer. I am no operatic neophyte, but I learned much from this book and was completely engaged throughout, even when I was disagreeing with some of the author's points. Make no mistake, Berger has a charming, informal, chatty style that sweeps the reader up into Puccini's world. My only real complaint about the book is that Berger seems to protest too much about Puccini's worth. He takes up the cudgels against those pedantic critics and musicologists who cast aspersions on Puccini's artistic value. It strikes me that the neophyte is not all that interested in this battle in the first place and that this is a battle long since won anyhow. No matter, Berger gets in plenty of blows for Puccini, probably more than Puccini actually needs these days.

The book has several sections. After a somewhat tendentious introduction, we get a chatty yet informative life and times chapter which also includes a description of what was going on in the wider world of opera and classical music during Puccini's life. There are fascinating comments about, say, the relationship between Puccini and Toscanini in this section.

Then we get a chapter by chapter discussion of each of the mature operas, beginning with Manon Lescaut and ending with Turandot. Each opera's chapter has an exhaustive discussion of each scene of the stage action, followed by really quite wonderful ruminations on the musical and production issues of each scene. Berger's comments are generally witty and almost always spot on. He also manages to include some of the gossip extant about various productions, singers, stage directors and conductors.

Then comes a section called 'The Puccini Code' which focuses on the myth of Tosca (one of the weaker chapters in my opinion), 'what one might expect to see' in various productions, and a little coda called 'Puccinian Permutations' which comments on influences the various operas (and the Puccini style) have had on popular culture; think of 'Rent' and 'Moonstruck', for instance.

Finally, there is a section in which Berger discusses recordings of the major operas, with comments about various singers, conductors (and he pulls no punches here) as well as some mention of DVDs and videotapes. He ends this section with a listing and comments about important books on his subject. The book ends with a glossary of terms (helpful for the neophyte, certainly, but without a pronunciation guide, which he had earlier supplied for the names of the operas; that might have been helpful. Can you pronounce 'morbidezza' or 'Regietheater'?). The book contains a fairly full index. Editing and production values are quite good (although I suspect director Jean-Pierre Ponnelle and baritone Simon Keenlyside might have preferred their names be spelled correctly). The paperback's cover features a blow-up of a photo of the young Puccini taken from a 'musical celebrities cigarette card series.' (!)

I would recommend this book not only to the newcomer to opera but also to grizzled opera veterans who think they already know everything there is to know about Puccini.

Scott Morrison
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x9b1c00cc) out of 5 stars A decent introduction Aug. 24 2007
By partmaudite - Published on
Format: Paperback
I would only recommend this book to someone beginning to explore Puccini who was desperate for a guidebook. With the exception of the useful biography in the beginning there is not much in here that one could not discover on their own by listening to recordings of the operas.
I found most of the commentary shallow.
Potential buyers should know that most of this book is a summary of Puccini's major operas (Edgar is not included).
Part Three, "The Puccini Code" is quite disappointing. I had hoped I would gain some deeper appreciation for Puccini but I came away unsure that there was anything I did not discover on my own.

Sometimes, Berger could not help taking unwarranted strikes at Wagner. This is strange for someone who wrote a book about Wagner and certainly knows better than to resort to clichés about his operas. At one point he even suggests that racial purity is a theme in Wagner's opera. If there are arguments to be made here, they should be made and not stuck in, unjustified, in a book on Puccini. He levels a similarly unjustified charge of racism on some of Puccini's critics. Mispronouncing "Turandot" . . . "slightly racist."

My advice, save your money and buy recordings or tickets. Puccini's brilliance is there. You do not need Berger to hold your hand through the process.
12 of 15 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x9b1c048c) out of 5 stars opera revealed Jan. 15 2006
By Rebecca Brown - Published on
Format: Paperback
Rebeccasreads highly recommends PUCCINI WITHOUT EXCUSES as one of the more unusual books you'll read about the popular culture of the late 19th & early 20th centuries. It is neither heavy-handed nor trivial because William Berger has a delightful sense of humor & an engaging way of expressing his passion - opera!

If you're a movie buff, you'll have heard snatches of a Puccini aria or musical interlude from THE GODFATHER III to MOONSTRUCK, & if you listen to any of this genius' legacy: LA BOHEME, MADAME BUTTERFLY, TOSCA, & his other five operas, you'll find the music quite familiar.

You'll find out why William Berger thinks Puccini is relevant in today's world in his analyses of the eight operas, the last of which is the unfinished TURANDOT. & you'll also find that Puccini's life was itself worthy of... a soap opera.

Even as I was enjoying the read, I learnt a lot -- about the history of the times, music, collaborations & domestic drama. Bravo!
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x9b1c0570) out of 5 stars Contrary to sub-title, this book is all excuses March 26 2012
By birdwalker - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I love Berger's Verdi with a Vengeance and Wagner without Fear: although Berger obviously has enormous respect for these two great opera composers, he is not timid about poking fun where deserved.

Puccini without Excuses is another matter altogether. The entire tone of this book is defensive: poor maligned Puccini, critically under-appreciated. The information in this book is colored by this attitude of the author, and because of this defensive tone, we don't get the feeling of respect and love that Berger transmits in both Verdi... and Wagner...

Nevertheless, this book is useful for the synopses of most of Puccini's operas and other bits of information, especially a very thought-provoking take on Il Trittico, as well as a sense of what you might expect to see in the staging of a production.