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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.