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.