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‘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.

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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.

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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’.

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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.

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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.