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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.

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