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Opera at the AMS by Alexandra Wilson

The Annual Meeting of the American Musicological Society (AMS) is arguably the most important event in the musicological calendar. Thousands of scholars from around the globe visit a major American city each November in order to debate the latest research in the field. A huge array of papers can be heard in around nine parallel sessions and there are also plentiful opportunities to hear performances, to browse the bookstall and to network. And so, this year, to Pittsburgh.


The AMS is a generalist conference, with sessions titles this year as diverse as ‘Institutional Cultures in the Middle Ages’, ‘Nineteenth-Century Instrumental Music’, ‘Performance and Aesthetics in Popular Music’, and ‘European Film’. Nevertheless, it would have been possible to construct a personal conference schedule comprising nothing but opera, by choosing from sessions on ‘Opera Displacements’, ‘French Opera, Entrepreneurs and Culture, 1870-1930’, ‘Materializing Puccini’, ‘Restaging Opera’, ‘Opera and Voice in Nineteenth-Century France’, ‘Producing Minimalist Opera’, ‘French Opera, 1680-1790’ and ‘Revisiting the Risorgimento’. So extensive was the operatic programming that several of these sessions clashed with one another and, indeed, with opera-focused papers elsewhere on the programme. (Particularly frustrating, from my perspective, was the scheduling of the ‘Materializing Puccini’ session against the ‘Audio Vision’ session in which my own paper on the use of Puccini’s music in period film had been placed.)

The AMS offers a fantastic opportunity to catch up with the latest developments in your own area of research – or, indeed, to go and learn about something entirely new. This year I opted primarily for the latter approach. Yet even in papers on ostensibly non-operatic topics, opera had a way of making its presence felt. For instance, in a paper by Trevor Herbert (Open University) on music and the British military in the nineteenth century, we learnt about boys plucked from orphanages to be trained as military musicians who would go on to spawn sons of great operatic and theatrical repute (including the tenor Sims Reeves and the composer Sir Arthur Sullivan). Peter Kupfer (Southern Methodist University), meanwhile, drew upon a wide-ranging and fascinating survey he had undertaken of music in American advertising in order to observe that opera is the genre of music used by far the most often for purposes of humour and parody. And Jonathan Glixon (University of Kentucky) whisked his audience away to Baroque Venice, discussing the competing musical delights, both operatic and sacred, that featured in eighteenth-century Venetian guidebooks.

The AMS provides a snapshot of the current musicological discipline in all its rich diversity. Nevertheless, opera’s prominence year after year on the AMS programme is striking and speaks both of its centrality to the discipline and of the ever-expanding array of interdisciplinary critical approaches that scholars from musicology and beyond are taking to the art-form.

Wandering Minstrels: Travelling Opera in Britain – Conference Report

On 26 October, a group of OBERTO staff and students attended the ‘Wandering Minstrels: Travelling Opera in Britain’ study day at the Royal Academy of Music. Here are some of their responses to the day.

MA student Pauline Galea writes:

I particularly enjoyed Dr Paul Rodmell’s session on ‘Unsung Heroes, 1875-1919’.  His overview of the range of touring opera companies in England during that period, their repertoire and their performing schedule, painted a very vivid picture of the importance of the touring system.  It was interesting to note that opera companies then, as now, needed to maintain a balance of producing ‘old favourites’ to bring in the revenue, but also regularly commissioned new works, and also that the principal language for touring companies was English, with the attendant requirement to arrange translations.

MA student Anna Koukoullis writes:

I was most drawn to comments made by Dr John Ward, who presented a paper on the history of the Carl Rosa company. This was particularly interesting as it discussed Rosa’s thoughts not only on repertoire, but production issues. Dr Ward was able to show us a primary source that contained a sketch of the vision Rosa had for the staging of a particular project. Touring opera companies often find their ambitions for the staging of a work limited by being on the move, and performing in a variety of venues of differing size. This inspired me to ask the question, how does touring limit what companies can do visually and dramatically on stage? And do these limitations affect how they bring opera to the masses?

Carl-rosa-printCarl Rosa

PhD student Anna Maria Barry writes:

The most interesting session for me was ‘English Touring Opera and the Impact of Cinema Broadcasts’. This paper concerned a research project that is currently underway examining the fast-growing trend for operatic cinema broadcasts and the impact this may be having on the audiences for live opera. English Touring Opera traditionally serves audiences in towns and rural communities where live opera is not available. Now, however, the majority of these communities are able to access world-class cinema broadcasts from the Met and the Royal Opera House. The research project is surveying audiences in order to learn more about the perceived advantages and disadvantages of opera in the cinema. It is hoped that the results will allow English Touring Opera to adapt to a changing marketplace for opera. Although the project is still ongoing, initial audience responses raise some interesting and surprising questions about the nature of live performance.

Alexandra Wilson writes:

A highlight of the day was Professor Katherine Preston’s keynote paper about the tours made by British opera troupes to the US during the long nineteenth century. I have written about a concert tour that the Italian-American soprano Amelita Galli-Curci made to the UK during the 1920s, so it was interesting to learn how the process worked in reverse. Professor Preston gave a vivid account of the challenges that opera singers faced on the road, the alternating fads for Italian and English opera in nineteenth-century America, and the surprisingly important role that was played by women in setting up and managing operatic troupes.

Liszt, the Forgotten Kapellmeister: A Reassessment by Dr Joanne Cormac

In 1848 Liszt made the controversial decision to give up a highly successful and lucrative career as a touring virtuoso to take up full-time the role of Kapellmeister of the small, Weimar court orchestra. His critics could not have known that he was about to embark on arguably the most fruitful period of creativity of his entire life. The symphonies, symphonic poems, piano works and oratorios from that period are now well known,but Liszt’s work as director of the court theatre and his contribution to the history of opera are still largely unfamiliar.


In many ways, Liszt and Weimar were unsuited. The traditions of the court were stuck in the past, particularly in their treatment ofmusicians. Liszt saw artists as priest-like figures with an important role to play ineducating society. Grand Duke Carl Friedrich, on the other hand, saw artists as members of the payroll.They were required to wear uniforms, they would fulfil commissions for court birthdays, anniversaries and other celebrations, and they would entertain the court or give music lessons when desired. In this respect, Liszt’s position was not so different from Haydn’s at the court of the Esterházy family almost a century earlier. Nonetheless, Liszt insisted on retaining the title, Kapellmeister in Extraordinary, which allowed him some freedom from Weimar. He described his position as ‘voluntary’ and only received a modest, sporadic salary. All of this allowed Liszt freedom from Weimar for extended periods when he would leave the theatre in the hands of a deputy.

Despite quarrels with other members of the artistic staff, the mediocre orchestra and dismal chorus (amusingly described by Berlioz in 1841 as‘a rabble of unimaginable incompetents, bawling their way through the score with a contempt for the conventions of pitch and rhythm such as I have never heard equalled’) and despite the miserly attitude of Grand Duke Carl Friedrich towards funding the arts, Liszt’s achievements were considerable. He took risks in programming new works, providing an important platform for contemporary composers. The premiere of Lohengrin was given by Liszt in Weimar at a time when Wagner struggled to persuade theatres anywhere to stage performances of his work. Liszt also gave early performances of Tannhäuser, Der fliegendeHolländer, Schumann’s Manfred, Genoveva and Scenes from Faust, and Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini among many others.

Perhaps less well known is the role Liszt played in nineteenth-century Gluck rehabilitation. Wagner, Berlioz, and Strauss are often associated with 19th-century Gluck revivals. Nonetheless, Liszt mounted an earlier revival of Orphéein Weimar,“updating” the opera with his own music, whilst at the same time attempting to stay true to Gluck’s orchestration choices and style. In his published writings, Liszt was also an early voice in the growing ‘authenticity’ movement, and he was instrumental in publicly decrying outdated performance practices, such as entr’actes. In the 19th century it was common for a soloist or an orchestra to play a short movement in between the acts of a play or opera, whilst the audience happily chatted away. Liszt, having experienced this from the perspective of both performer and conductor, despised the practice. Perhaps most importantly, however, he contributed to increased rigour in performance standards with his meticulous rehearsals. He took piano rehearsals, coaching the singers individually, he took sectionals at time when this was uncommon to say the least, and he worked closely with the Regisseur and the composer (where possible) overseeing almost every aspect of production.All of this repositions Liszt as a formidable influence on theatre practices whose legacy deserves to be reassessed.

‘Staging Operatic Anniversaries’ – Conference Report by Dr Alexandra Wilson

OBERTO 2013: Staging Operatic Anniversaries

2013 is a year of key operatic anniversaries, marking, amongst others, the bicentenaries of Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner and the centenary of Benjamin Britten.  Rather than focus upon the music of an individual composer for our 2013 conference, we decided to interrogate the mechanics of operatic anniversary celebrations past and present, in keeping with the historiographical focus of past OBERTO conferences. ‘Staging Operatic Anniversaries’, held at Brookes on 10 September 2013, brought together scholars from the UK, America, Germany and Italy, postgraduate and undergraduate students, opera critics, and members of the music industry.

The first session of the day, ‘Institutional Politics’ (chaired by Francesca Vella, KCL) opened with a paper by Giuseppe Montemagno (Catania) surveying the Verdi celebrations of 2013 at La Scala, with productions of his operas from Oberto, Conte di San Bonifacio to Falstaff. Marianne Betz (Hochschule für Musik und Theater Leipzig) then looked back a century to examine the rejection by a no less august opera house, the New York Met, of an intriguing opera on the ever-topical theme of immigration, George Whitefield Chadwick’s The Padrone.

The second session, ‘Shifting Memorialisation’ (chaired by Adeline Mueller, New College, Oxford) explored how the commemoration of individual composers changes over time, demonstrating how anniversaries can serve as useful reference points in composers’ reception history. Corrina Connor (Oxford Brookes University) examined four significant dates – 1925, 1974, 1975, and 1999 – in the ‘afterlife’ of Johann Strauss and in so doing raised important broader points about the simultaneous reception of composers as artists and as ‘brands’ ripe for commercial exploitation.  Erik Levi (RHUL) explored how Germany and Austria marked key Mozart anniversaries in 1931 and 1941. Levi drew upon a rich array of primary-source documents in order to demonstrate the diverse and in many cases outrageous ways in which composer anniversaries have been hijacked for political ends.

The conference took on a different pace after the lunch break, when Jamie McGregor (Rhodes University) performed his one-man show, ‘Wagner Reading Wagner’. Complete with tail-coat, waistcoat and period facial hair, McGregor recreated one of the soirées in which Wagner read his libretto aloud to gatherings of friends and supporters in what were clearly staged performances, exercises in self-promotion designed to attract and educate audiences in advance of the completed work. McGregor’s reading from the libretto of Tannhäuser was followed by an opportunity to listen to the scene in question and thence a lively discussion about McGregor’s project chaired by Russell Burdekin (Oxford Brookes).

Jamie McGregor’s act, ‘Wagner reading Wagner’

(Note: this was not filmed at the OBERTO conference)

The fourth session of the day, ‘Monumentalisation and Commemoration’ (Chair, Peter Franklin) retained a primarily Germanic slant. Matthew Werley explored the idea of historicism in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg within the context of recent academic debates about monumentality. This was followed by a paper by Mark Berry (RHUL) on this year’s Wagner celebrations in Germany, which have in many respects adopted an anti-monumental stance. Berry examined attempts to reclaim Wagner as a ‘Saxon’ composer and a shift of interest from the composer’s later to his earlier career. The importance of place in the celebration of anniversaries was summed up by Hugo Shirley (Oxford Brookes) in the last paper of the day. Hugo analysed a range of contrasting anniversary celebrations from 2013, including a production of Britten’s Peter Grimes on Aldeburgh Beach, a Verdi box set emphasising the composer’s links with Parma, and irreverent Wagner graffiti in Bayreuth.

The conference closed with a discussion involving all delegates chaired by Alexandra Wilson (Oxford Brookes) about the broader historiographical themes the conference had raised. The discussion was wide ranging, covering the politics of historical tourism and the commercialisation of anniversaries; anniversary celebrations that have spectacularly failed; and the ways in which anniversaries play a vital – and laudable – role in building audiences for music from the past.

V&A Theatre and Performance Archives by Anna Maria Barry

The V&A is renowned for its world-famous collections of art and design, but perhaps you didn’t know that it also houses a substantial Theatre and Performance Collection. This fantastic collection contains everything from costumes, architectural plans and financial records to portraits, playbills and even puppets!

From 1987 these collections were housed at the V&A’s Theatre Museum in Covent Garden, but unfortunately this was forced to close in 2007 due to a lack of funding. In 2009 the V&A Museum opened its dedicated Theatre and Performance Galleries, where many of the collection’s highlights are on permanent display. However, much of the material remains in storage. The good news is that all of this material can be accessed through the V&A’s Theatre and Performance Archives which are held on a separate site in Kensington Olympia. Over the summer I have been using these archives for my PhD research, and am pleased to report that they hold a great deal of material relating to opera.  I will share a brief summary of my experiences, in the hope that it will be useful to others who wish to navigate this brilliant collection for operatic research.

My current research concerns the British opera singer John Braham (c. 1774 – 1856), so I began my exploration of the V&A collections by searching for him in the collection database. This database only contains the part of the Theatre and Performance Collection that can be classified as objects and works of art – the V&A defines such items as “costumes, paintings, designs, ceramics and other museum objects.” A search for John Braham offers three pages of results (mainly portraits) with high quality images and further information on each item.


John Braham as Don Alfonso

V&A Theatre Archives

My next step was to search the National Art Library Catalogue where archives, books, manuscripts and audio-visual items from the collection are listed. A search for John Braham produces various results, including playbills and sheet music. I also searched for the names of his productions, which produced further results; it is always a good idea to search around your main subject! The Theatre and Performance Collection contains many archives of institutions and individuals; they are all recorded in the National Art Library Catalogue, but the most important of these are also listed in greater detail here, so it is worth looking through this list too.

My final step was to visit the Theatre and Performance Archive in Olympia. A conversation with a very helpful archivist had made me aware of the ‘Production Boxes’ held at the Archive. I was advised that for every theatre in London (and many major theatres in the provinces) the Archive holds a box for each year it was active. I wanted to find out which roles John Braham had performed at different points during his career; although I knew which dates he was working at certain theatres, I did not know which performances he had been in. So I requested, for example, the box for ‘Theatre Royal 1811’.


Playbill for John Braham’s Benefit Night, Theatre Royal, 1811

V&A Theatre Archives

These huge boxes contain a seemingly random range of different materials relating to the productions in a given year. The boxes I looked at contained a huge number of playbills covering almost every single day of the year in some cases. These playbills always featured a cast list, so they allowed me to find out which roles John Braham had performed on given dates. The playbills for some performances, such as the one above, list additional popular songs that Braham had chosen to perform in addition to the main performance. In some boxes I was also lucky enough to find items such as reviews, contemporary accounts of performances and even a few images.


Catalani and Braham share a bill – Theatre Royal, 1807

V&A Theatre Archive

My research has only used a selection of the Theatre and Performance Collections; there is so much more material to explore. The V&A offer their own advice on Researching Theatre and Performance and also have a whole section of their website devoted to opera; this contains a range of useful articles and reading lists.

Bayreuth celebrates by Dr Hugo Shirley

As a taster ahead of Oberto’s fast-approaching ‘Staging Operatic Anniversaries‘ conference, here are a couple glimpses of Bayreuth in Wagner’s anniversary year. (Below, multiple mini-Richards in conductor pose in front of the Festspielhaus.)


But the composer’s house, Wahnfried, is closed for renovation, and a series of performances of Wagner’s early, non-canonic operas in July was dubbed a ‘festival of half-heartedness’. Frank Castorf’s new production of the Ring, meanwhile, has been widely criticised (here‘s the Guardian’s take on the final two instalments–it’s worth remembering, though, that by all accounts the now-classic centenary Chéreau-Boulez Ring was similarly booed). Castorf’s approach, however, was one that deflated the grandeur of the cycle at every turn and brought its characters very much down to earth, lowering the stakes and defusing the drama. Similarly, Bayreuth’s own celebrations seemed low-key and, well, somewhat un-celebratory; certainly the mocking, irreverent Wagner with tongue poking out that featured dotted around the town gave that impression.

ImageMaybe this all represents an enactment of what Andreas Huyssen, with specific reference to how one was to deal with Wagner’s vastness in the context of a modernism suspicious of such vastness, has called ‘anti-monumentality’ (a concept more recently discussed in Alexander Rehding’s Music and Monumentality). Despite the socialist Mount Rushmore that featured in Siegfried, Castorf’s Ring seemed intent on such an approach. And this feeling was only emphasised by the fact that its ‘anti-monumentalist’ stance was articulated with the aid of vast and clearly very expensive sets.

Clearly, then, the manner in which Bayreuth is honouring its birthday boy is not dictated by economic constraints. That Italy is generally believed to be giving Verdi short shrift in the anniversary year … well, that’s another matter.

Mastering the Mix: ‘Opera Studies and Interdisciplinarity’ by Dr Barbara Eichner

The following is a statement that Barbara Eichner contributed to the ‘Mastering the Mix’ conference:

Advocating an interdisciplinary approach to opera studies seems like carrying castrati to Naples. For the last 400 years this form has combined different arts – music, visual art, dance – and social phenomena with an enthusiasm that is hardly matched elsewhere, forming a unique entity. To quote the Italian musicologist PierluigiPetrobelli: “In opera, various ‘systems’ work together, each according to its own nature and laws, and the result of the combination is much greater than the sum of the individual forces.” Or, to look at it from the perspective of the recipient rather than the producer: In opera the distinction between “text” and “context” is more obviously blurred than in other types of music, to an extent that begs the question whether opera is actually a “type of music” or “musical genre” at all, rather than a medium in its own right that happens to involve music. So what role should musicology play in mastering the specific “mix” of opera?

To be honest, musicology as a field shied away from opera for quite a long time, the efforts of individual scholars notwithstanding. The diverse nature of the art form was seen either as a distraction – these pesky singers getting in the way of serious contemplation – or as a weakness: Because opera was this all-singing, all-dancing spectacle, it had no need to develop a sustained musical interest, thus offering little that serious musicologists nurtured on Bach or Brahms could get their teeth into. If they ventured into these dangerous waters, they were happiest with Mozart or Wagner, especially since the latter’s insistence on the symphonic nature of his music offered a convenient model for analysis. Thus for a long time it was an uphill struggle to argue even that opera was worthy of musical investigation, never mind celebrating it as an interdisciplinary free-for-all.

As a consequence, opera studies was one of the great beneficiaries of the rise of the so-called “New Musicology” from the mid-1980s onwards, since here the new ideas imported from literary criticism or cultural studies could be brought to fruition quite easily. Arguing that Verdi’s Aida betrays an exoticist Euro-centrism is more straightforward than deconstructing the post-colonial string-quartet. The new openness worked so brilliantly that Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker felt compelled to justify their analytical and canonic focus in their 1989 book Analyzing Opera. Many of the seminal texts of the “New Musicology” were written by non-musicologists, such as the notorious The Queen’s Throatby literary scholar and confessionally gay opera fan Wayne Koestenbaum, or the esoteric The Angel’s Cry by psycholinguist Michel Poizat. And it was especially their quirkiness, their unabashed enthusiasm that felt like a welcome breath of fresh air to a discipline that considered itself stifled by critical editions and Schenker graphs. Whereas some musicologists might have felt protective towards “their” opera, most of them have taken the invasion with good grace, for example by establishing an interdisciplinary forum in the journal Cambridge Opera Studies.

So while many disciplines, plus a sizeable number of well-versed amateurs, are now happy to claim opera as a favourite playground, this large circle of friends and admirers has still left the field of “opera studies” as an “orphan without a home”, as of literature Herbert Lindenberger bemoans in his recent book Situating Opera. Institutional restrictions continue to apply: Funding councils, peer-review mechanisms and hiring policies dictate to some extent the disciplinary approach of the individual scholar. As Lindenberger stresses, each of the many disciplines that could potentially get involved in opera studies has its own history, conventions and customs and is loath to cede any ground to new heresies or new heretics. This means that many collaborative projects still feel the need for a bit of special pleading. Take, for example, the blurb that series editor Roberta Marvin wrote for the newly-established Ashgate series Interdisciplinary Studies in Opera:

When I first arrived at the University of Iowa in the late 1990s, I was greeted with a cadre of colleagues from various disciplines including Classics, French, German, Comparative Literature, Religious Studies, History, and so forth, whose research focused on opera and others who were knowledgeable about the genre and had become avid opera-lovers. … As a result of that experience and my firm belief that research on opera is not just for music scholars, I quickly seized the opportunity to prepare a series for Ashgate on interdisciplinary opera studies.

Interestingly most books in the series are actually written or edited by musicologists, which begs the question whether they – or we – don’t just use the catchphrase “interdisciplinary” to do a bit of fashionable window-dressing to sell our books to a wider audience or at least more libraries. The general “decentring” of academic disciplines, which was so optimistically predicted in the 1990s, has simply not happened, so for the time being good old collaboration seems still to be the order of the day.Likewise the establishment of a dedicated field of “opera studies” on a par with “film studies”, which is advocated in some circles, hardly seems to be the way forward, since it would just result in a further splintering of the humanities into ever smaller sub-disciplines.

So what should the specific contribution of musicologists be when it comes to mastering the particularly messy mix of opera? All too often we get defensive when comparing ourselves with the more glamorous offerings from media studies, film studies or literary criticism: We are embarrassed of our lingering interest in the “music itself” that nowadays seems to be implicated in all kinds of unsavoury ideologies like nationalism and colonialism, unless we somehow redeem it by hiding behind “the sonic” or “the body”. Shouldn’t our relationship to the other disciplines be rather a humble plea to be instructed and enlightened, since we still seem to limp behind the sister humanities or up-and-coming fields like music psychology or performance-as-research? Well, this question was clearly rhetorical! Without embarking on a whole-sale defence of historical musicology I would only offer the followingtwo points for consideration: First, while some contributions from historians or literary scholars offer new and exciting angles, others revisit well-trodden ground but claim that musicologists have neglected to engage with that particular angle. A few years ago I spoke at a history conference in Italy where the organiser – an ex-journalist and historian – seriously claimed that the concept “music and politics” was news to musicologists! Similarly, at a recent opera conference, two speakers gave a key note address on Wagnerian traces in Verdi and Puccini that might have been cutting-edge in medical circles, but not for an audience that had kept up with recent publications. Thus the plea for interdisciplinary instruction works both ways: Everybody who wanders into a new field should have the good grace to read at least the equivalent of the discipline’s Lonely Planet guide.

My second point: Colleagues from other disciplines often make an excellent job at ignoring the music altogether when thinking about opera. Maybe they simply feel not qualified to puzzle over half-diminished seventh chords in Parsifal or are not very interested in the genre conventions that have shaped Figaro. Alternatively they approach the musical side of opera with a distorted vision: Because it is the main source of the pleasure they derive from the art form – and we don’t have to go as far as Koestenbaum’sorgasmic response to Rosenkavalier –and because music got them “into opera” in the first place, they are often reluctant to have this pleasure somehow spoiled or displaced by academic rigour. Music becomes once more, as for the Romantic poets of the nineteenth century, the ineffable source of beauty and fulfilment that spurns and transcends the written word. So maybe it is less our knowledge of harmonic procedures and voice types that is an asset to an interdisciplinary approach to opera studies. It is our unflinching willingness to apply this knowledge even to the most beguiling coloratura by our favourite opera star.

MA Funding

Applicants to the MA in Music at Oxford Brookes University have the opportunity to apply for various Brookes bursaries to support their studies. The closing date for these awards is Friday 28 June 2013.

For further details visit http://www.brookes.ac.uk/studying-at-brookes/finance/postgraduate-finance—uk-and-eu-students/sources-of-funding-for-postgraduate-uk-and-eu-students/ and follow the links to the John Henry Brookes, Faculty Taught Masters Scholarships and Santander awards.

Applicants must have a place on the course before applying for the funding. If you are interested in applying to the course and being considered for funding, please contact Alexandra Wilson at the first opportunity.