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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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