Murray, a former staff writer at The New Yorker, spent the 2003-04 season with the students of the Opera Center for American Artists. He attended auditions, rehearsals, master classes, and performances with such noted singers as Samuel Ramey, Jos_ Cura, and Natalie Dessay.
Throughout Fortissimo, Murray reflects on the process of becoming a successful singer, on the risks and influences young artists meet along the way. He writes, "Becoming a successful opera singer—stepping out on a huge stage to try to fill the house with your voice, to bring an audience of thirty-six hundred people to its feet—is as risky in its own peculiar way as embarking on a career as a matador. You can triumph, you can struggle to survive, or you can perish from your wounds."
A review in the Chicago Sun-Times notes that fans of the recent tell-all memoir Mozart in the Jungle, famously full of sex and bad behavior, will not find such scenes in Murray's book. Rather, Fortissimo is written with "quiet, understated intensity," and it is clear that the author is "rooting mightily for Lyric's apprentices."