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Yearly Archives: 2014
One of the most enjoyable elements of studying for a PhD is the fact that it presents many opportunities to travel. Admittedly, these trips can often be less than glamorous; a stay in a dodgy hotel in Hull and getting lost in the wastelands of Taunton have not really been high points of my academic career so far.
However, since I started work on my thesis two years ago, I have been lucky enough to visit several new corners of the UK to work in archives and give papers at universities; I even managed to find a good excuse to visit Venice for a conference last year. None of these adventures, however, were quite as appealing as the prospect of a research trip to archives in New York City and Washington D.C.
I work on opera singers of the nineteenth century and, over the course of my research, it quickly became clear that a significant amount of relevant sources were held in American collections. After compiling a list of these sources that numbered into the hundreds, I applied for funding from the Royal Historical Society and the Royal Musical Association in order to make a research trip possible. I was lucky enough to be successful on both counts and so, armed with my list of sources, I boarded a plane for New York City last month.
This was my first ever trip to the US and I was very much looking forward to experiencing research life stateside. My plan was to spend two weeks utilising various collections within three institutions: the New York Public Library, the Morgan Library in New York and the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C.. My work started several weeks before I left the UK, as a painstaking amount of organisation was needed to arrange access to so many different sources. Within the New York Public Library alone I needed to view material from ten different collections, each of which has its own librarian and several of which are located within different buildings across New York. Because of this, I was a little apprehensive when I turned up at New York Public Library on my first morning in the city.
New York Public Library
I had expected the library to be similar to the British Library, which is where I do most of my research in the UK. The feel, however, was quite different. To start with, the sheer beauty of the New York Public library stands in stark contrast to the far more modern St. Pancras site. Despite this grandeur, though, the feel of the library is much more informal. Indeed, it felt more like a local library than a central library; crowds of tourists wandered around taking photos, community groups and teenagers were using the reading rooms and there was always an interesting event going on in the foyer.
I spent a week at the library and, thanks to many helpful librarians, managed to navigate my way around its various divisions. I found far more material than I had anticipated, including very many prints and (literally!) thousands of newspaper articles about British opera singers I am working on. These newspaper articles, located on a database, proved a little bit of an issue as they were tricky and painstaking to save. I am still working through hundreds of PDFs that I saved to my laptop, but the material they contain is extremely rich. The sheer amount of newspaper sources has led me to re-evaluate my thoughts on the celebrity status of these singers, as they clearly had a far greater international profile than I had previously imagined.
I especially enjoyed my time in the Pforzheimer Collection, which contains archives relating to Percy Bysshe Shelley and his circle. This beautiful room looks like a Victorian gentleman’s study and I loved working at an antique desk, complete with a bust of Shelley to keep me company. As I worked in this area, accessible by appointment only, tourists took photos through a glass door. I also spent a day at the New York Public Library’s Performing Arts division, next to the Met. It was excellent to work so close to the opera house and I especially enjoyed the beautiful items that the library displays, in particular the belt that Sarah Bernhardt wore when she played Cleopatra.
The Met by night
Sarah Bernhardt’s Cleopatra belt
After a week in New York, I travelled to Washington D.C. to visit the Folger Shakespeare Library. I fell in love with Washington, which looked especially lovely with the famous fall colours out in force. A taxi to the Folger took me past several famous landmarks before stopping opposite the Capitol, where the library is very centrally located. This library is also extremely beautiful, packed with fascinating portraits and other theatrical relics. Over a few days, I worked through several collections of important letters, pamphlets and playbills. I especially enjoyed an expedition to the basement, hunting for a dusty old volume; bookcases stretch as far as the eye can see with a phenomenal amount of literature on Shakespeare and the stage. The material at the Folger is extremely rich and I certainly plan to return.
View from the Folger, looking towards the Capitol
The Folger Reading Room
David Garrick’s chair, complete with Shakespeare medallion attributed to Hogarth
The Folger’s cavernous basement
I headed back to New York for my final week, which I spent at the Morgan Library. The list of materials I had requested to see was so lengthy that I almost sent the librarian’s systems into meltdown, but the staff were extremely helpful and I managed to get through mountains of material over five days. These sources proved extremely rich; letters to and from key singers revealed much new information about their personalities and careers. Many of these letters form part of the extensive Gilbert and Sullivan collections held at the Morgan. Some were extremely touching, describing family tragedies and desperate situations. It was peculiar to spend hours engrossed in these letters, written in nineteenth-century London, before walking out onto bustling Madison Avenue. A favourite discovery was an album compiled by one of Queen Victoria’s servants, containing letters to and from the Queen as well as notes from dozens of key figures of the age; these included politicians, authors, artists and society figures. The album even contained a scrap of the Queen’s wedding dress and some of her artwork. After spending a week in the Morgan’s reading room, I spent some time exploring the rest of the library and Museum. The building is stunning with a library that has to be the most beautiful I’ve ever seen, rammed full of rare books and fascinating artworks.
The Morgan Library
My trip to the US was extremely fruitful; over a month after returning, I am still sorting through all of the material that I located! Many of these sources will feature prominently throughout my thesis, but especially in a chapters dealing with the themes of celebrity and touring. It was a surprise to discover just how many sources pertinent to British culture of the nineteenth century are held in America. I would certainly encourage others working on this period to explore what material is held in these institutions. This is very easy to do through their online catalogues, which are detailed and easy to use. I certainly plan to return to the US for future research and have already located certain collections that will be pertinent to my planned postdoctoral research. Watch this space!
New York Public Library by night
If there is one occasion when you hear me sigh: “Sounded like a good idea at the time”, it’s usually when I’ve accepted a conference invitation for mid-semester. Going to a European capital, catching up with old friends and meeting new colleagues are wonderful prospects – six months before the actual event. Back in April, there was optimism a-plenty that I would not just find the time to jet to Vienna and back again, but also to write a fairly original paper on a topic only marginally related to my established research interests in opera and German national identity. Four weeks before the event the flights were duly booked, but the confidence about the presentation had largely evaporated. How did I ever think that I could contribute something meaningful to Christoph Willibald Gluck – Mythen, Bilder, Diskurse, when the line-up featured specialists from the critical Gluck editions at Frankfurt and Salzburg? How would my paper on Gluck and German national opera slot into a programme which also featured presentations on Gluck’s 19th-century biographies, the concept of operatic reform or the image of Gluck as a classicist? I vividly saw myself playing “quotation bingo”: erasing from my paper one quotation after the other as the preceding speakers bagged all the juicy soundbites from Herder, Brendel, Marx et al. So it was with some apprehension that I set out on 22 October for Vienna, my paper completed (or at least written) for better or worse, largely thanks to a kind colleague who had taken on my first-year lecture.
And then it all turned out completely different. The conference itself was impeccably organised by Profs Michele Calella (Vienna), Klaus Pietschmann (Mainz) and Thomas Betzwieser (Frankfurt) and took place in the cosy new rooms of the Österreichische Gesellschaft für Musik (Austrian Society for Music), nestled between the State Opera and the art gallery “Albertina”. As it is customary for symposia on the continent, participation was free, which meant that the conference was attended by a good crowd of students, opera lovers and members of the general public, so conspicuously absent from many conferences in this country because of forbidding fees for bad coffee and limp biscuits. (Actually Michele Calella’s conference assistants spoiled us with home-made muffins.) Discussions were lively, vigorous and well-informed, and we made full use of the 45-minute slots allocated to each presentation. As the topic of Gluck reception was quite new to me, I learned a lot about performances of Gluck in Sweden during the reign of Gustav III (Jens Duffner), Russian culture wars over Gluck (Yuliya Shein), or Debussy’s attempts to erase Gluck’s pernicious Teutonic influence from the annals of French music (William Gibbons).
The highlights for me, however, were two presentations with quite dry-sounding titles: Melanie Unseld’s paper on the Gluck master-narratives in 19th-century biographies of the composer, and Arnold Jacobshagen’s musings on operatic reform and reform opera in 19th-century music historiography. Both speakers took their departure from a special branch of the German intellectual tradition that plays a small role in Anglophone musicology: Begriffsgeschichte, i.e. the history of technical terms and concepts, and Gattungsgeschichte, the history of musical genres. Both historiographical tools have been side-lined in recent years because they seem to sit badly with the myth-busting, hegemony-exposing impetus of the New Musicology, and because in the wrong hands they guarantee hours of unalleviated boredom. (I vividly remember a university seminar presentation I attended as a student where the unfortunate speaker started his analysis of theological messages of a specific Bach cantata by explaining the etymology of “cantata” in the early 17th century, working his way towards the 1720s with excruciating slowness.) The Gluck presentations by my senior colleagues from Oldenburg and Cologne, however, superbly demonstrated how a careful dissection of historiographical concepts illuminates our understanding of music’s place within the wider intellectual tradition of an era.
Melanie Unseld, who has wrote her Habilitation on music history and life writings, investigated a selection of early Gluck biographies, distilling a catalogue of narrative stereotypes (in academic German parlance now called a “Narrativ”, with a long final syllable) such as the humble origins of the artist in a Bohemian village, the misunderstood genius in philistine Vienna, the triumph against adversity in the Parisian querelles. Such narratives sound familiar enough, but Gluck’s “real” life story, as far as it can be reconstructed today, is singularly unsuited to the familiar fairy-tale of the musical genius à la Beethoven. With the help of the narrative tropes, however, the non-Beethovenian aspects of Gluck’s career simply vanish from the storyline: his shrewd business sense (Gluck died a very wealthy man indeed), his uneventful private life (no “immortal beloved” but a marriage that appears to have been as happy as anybody’s), or the fact that he continued writing traditional operas and even ballets after he had allegedly invented reform opera. Melanie Unseld then exemplified her theoretical reflections with a two-page anonymous biography of Gluck written sometime in the 1850s or 1860s, where Gluck is hailed as Wagner’s predecessor but, strangely, his short stay in Copenhagen receives much more attention than decades of Habsburg service in Vienna, playing to the interests of a North-German and progressivist readership.
The title of Arnold Jacobshagen’s paper sounded similar to Unseld’s, but he tackled the operatic reformer from quite a different angle: by tracing the very term “reform” to its origin in late-15th-century theology and church politics. As Jacobshagen argued, thanks to the historiography of the Reformation the term “reform” was understood as a genuinely German form of improving things with gradual and careful steps. In Enlightenment writings, the term was often still used in its French spelling – réforme – but towards the end of the century increasingly construed in opposition – or even as an antidote – to the dangerous French revolutionary tendencies which threatened to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Whereas French music historians customarily hailed Gluck as a revolutionary of French opera, German music historians celebrated Gluck as the master of operatic reform. The dialogue between these seemingly straightforward terms – reform and revolution – suddenly opened up a whole vista of historiographical configurations where not only Gluck, but all 19th-century attempts to push ahead with new artistic development appeared in a new light.
My paper came straight after Unseld’s and Jacobshagen’s, and I have to admit feeling rather self-conscious that my paper lacked a comparable theoretical or methodological foundation, as I placed Gluck in the development of German national opera before and after Wagner. Although no German writer of the 19th century seriously doubted Gluck’s essentially German nationality and national character (see also Eric Schneeman’s inspired blog post about this issue), there was no denying that he had never written a German opera (or even just an opera in German), but concentrated his creative efforts on Italian opere serie and French tragédies. Nevertheless Gluck’s name was often invoked to ward off the dangerous enthusiasm for contemporary Italian opera, playing as it were the bible and garlic to the Rossinian vampires. But that does not mean that his music was a pivotal or even permanent presence on the German stages, nor that young composers invariably looked towards Gluck for guidance and inspiration; Wagner was not the only one for whom Gluck was comfortably dead and buried. Whatever the academic merits of my paper (it can be read in full on academia.edu), at least most of the jokes came off and I introduced a running gag to the conference: Gluck and the German forest. For the published version in the conference proceedings – the organisers will make us work a bit more for the comfortable hotel and the opera tickets – I feel sorely tempted to replace my rather misguided conference title “Zurück in die Zukunftsmusik” with the snappier “Gluck im deutschen Wald”. Side-lining Wagner in a discussion of German national opera is, after all, sometimes not a bad idea.
‘Let the past and its oddness provoke us’ – A day at the Oxford Centre for Life Writing, by Corrina Connor
Biography and life-writing are often central to musicology, and to opera studies in particular. Although my own research does not involve writing a biography of any particular performer, I am investigating the professional – and also the personal – lives of a number of singers who worked at the Theater an der Wien in the 1870s and 1880s. When I saw an announcement for a day workshop called ‘Quest for Materials: Life-Writing Challenges’, run by the Oxford Centre for Life Writing (OCLW), I thought this would be the ideal opportunity to learn techniques for life-writing, particularly as the workshop was directed by Hermione Lee, with Lyndall Gordon, Clare Morgan and Elleke Boehmer, all eminent authors.
I had expected the workshop to explore the nuts and bolts of life-writing: research techniques, or how to search and collate archival finds. Instead, with the participants divided into three groups of about a dozen people, led by Lyndall Gordon, Clare Morgan and Elleke Boehmer, we spent the day in a series of discussions about the challenges – ethical, authorial and paradoxical – of life-writing in a variety of contexts. The participants in my group included researchers from different backgrounds working on biographies, architectural, oral, military and family history. What became obvious was that whether one is working in an academic setting – either as a graduate student or an established academic – or working independently, life-writers face problems which are applicable to musicology. These problems include:
- Finding too much material in archives
- Finding too little material in archives
- Finding vast amounts of material which is not relevant to one’s research, and which takes a lot of time to search with no concrete results
- Feeling lost, helpless and thwarted (by the archive…)
- Finding ‘gaps’ in archival material which can make research feel incomplete or unverified
Then, assuming that the researcher strikes archival gold or even silver (sometimes unexpected or initially irrelevant material can turn out to be ground-breaking), there is the problem of writing it up. Almost everybody in the room said that when writing about a life, they have difficulty in establishing an authorial voice which is appropriate to the subject, and which allows the subject to live. Another problem which arises for many life-writers is that of interpretation. To what extent can the author reflect and interpret their primary source findings? Here, two researchers (PhD students in English Literature and History) commented that reflection and interpretation are one difference between doing a purely academic piece of work – a thesis or journal article – and a biography which might be intended for popular and academic audiences. In the first, an interpretation (as a form of criticism) is imperative for establishing an argument. But, in a published biography, some editors prefer that that ‘facts’ are left to stand by themselves. Of course, the manner of assembling the facts and establishing a narrative is a form of interpretation which is silent, and as subjective as obvious editorialising. Both Lyndall Gordon and Hermione Lee emphasised that as life-writing becomes more experimental in form, there is room for exploring new forms of narrative in which the lives of even the ‘greatest’ people can be approached from creative angles, which require interpretation and criticism to achieve authority.
An example of where interpretation or imagining is necessary could occur in a case where a lucky author finds letters written by their subject and letters written by friends or family of the subject. Such a case allows the author to pick apart the different letter-writers’ view of the subject and his or her thoughts and actions. Even business letters – which may appear mundane and without ‘human’ interest – can paint a compelling picture of a public figure. Our discussion of this topic led to considering how we understand talent, genius or creativity, and – when writing about a creative figure or artist – whether or not to separate the artistry and the person. Everybody in our group had read biographies of an outstanding creative person in which the author’s compulsion to expose every negative characteristic of their subject had made the reader feel uncomfortable. Julia Kavanagh’s Rudolf Nureyev: The Life was cited as an example. Several people in our group had read this book, and agreed that the author’s emphasis on Nureyev’s ‘bad’ behaviour had changed their attitude to his unique talent as a dancer. This was not a sensation that they enjoyed. It was unsettling. At least two of us agreed that this emphasis on Nureyev’s negative traits – whether his poor treatment of colleagues on stage, or his promiscuity – became prurient. It had the effect of forcibly diminishing Nureyev’s extraordinary artistic legacy by not allowing the reader to interpret the material. Hagiography is equally frustrating, but we questioned what was to be gained by writing an exposé
To recover from this passionate debate, practical matters were discussed, especially the most difficult elements of writing anything: how to begin and where to end. All agreed that the beginning is difficult. How to introduce a character, and how to illustrate context are both problems which can halt the momentum of a piece. Lyndall Gordon said there were no magic formulae; she found that choosing a particular moment in a subject’s life – a moment she had found revealing or immediately moving – was often the key. This allows the reader to ‘meet’ the subject. Gordon cited her biography of T.S. Eliot, which opens with a study of Wyndham Lewis’s portrait of Eliot, and her 2005 book Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft which begins with Wollstonecraft’s personal reaction to arriving in revolutionary France and witnessing the Terror at first hand. Ending the story is another problem: a life, paradoxically, does not end with a death. An after-life is often more important, especially in the case of lives cut short (think of Schubert, or Wilfred Owen). The reverberations of a subject’s life are integral to their reception and reputation.
To conclude, a representative from each of the day’s groups, and the groups’ tutors spoke briefly to summarise the discussions in each room. Although some of the points are more applicable to authoring a book, these are ideas which are useful for any piece of academic writing, and the common priorities revealed were:
- Establish who you are writing for, and why.
- Decide the extent to which you will ‘editorialise’ and remain consistent
- Consider your attitude to the past. Do not feel oblige to excuse a subject’s behaviour or attitudes, even if they now seem dated or offensive.
- ‘Let the past and its oddness provoke us!’ (as one participant said).
- What is meant by ‘authenticity’? To what extent do ‘facts’ exist? Mediate between contradictory ‘facts’ about a subject’s life. Never exclude what you don’t like.
- True authenticity lies in the writer’s passionate commitment to (but perhaps not involvement with) the subject.
This is just a snapshot of the day. I recommend attending events run by the OCLW for stimulation, motivation, and the opportunity to meet some remarkable colleagues.
Oxford Brookes University
150th Anniversary PhD Scholarship
Edgar Degas, The Ballet from Robert le Diable, 1871
OBERTO are very pleased to offer a three year full-time PhD scholarship to a new student commencing in January 2015. The successful applicant will receive an annual bursary of £7,000 for three years (with no inflation increase), and fees will be paid by the University. The candidate will need to demonstrate that in addition to the scholarship other funding is available for them to successfully complete the programme in full-time study.
The successful candidate will work within the School of Arts under the supervision of Dr Barbara Eichner.
Topic of research: Religion and ‘the Church’ on the Nineteenth-Century Stage
This project will investigate the manifold ways in which religion, spirituality and ‘the Church’ were represented on the nineteenth-century (operatic) stage. The ‘long’ nineteenth century is often characterised as an era of secularism, rationalism and materialism. Despite this – or perhaps as a counter-reaction to it – religion, rituals and mysticism continued to fascinate composers, librettists and singers. The nineteenth-century stage offers particularly rich pickings in this area, from the use of chorales as musical markers of historical distance to the salacious nuns’ ballet in Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Robert le diable.
This project will allow the recipient of the doctoral award to investigate the representation of religion on the nineteenth-century stage from a number of angles, such as (but not restricted to):
- musical historicism and the sounds of religious music
- religious roles and voice types, from the ethereal nun to the evil cardinal
- influences from other genres, such as oratorio, cantata or liturgical music
- church criticism, parody, blasphemy and censorship
- staging religious rites
- contemporary church politics
- encounters with non-Christian religions and atheism
The scope of the project is not limited to a particular national ‘school’ or geographic area; it will build on the prior knowledge and interests of the recipient of the scholarship. However, a comparative approach is strongly encouraged, and at least one of the major traditions (Italian, German, or French) should be included.
The recipient of the scholarship will be part of the thriving research culture of OBERTO. All our staff and PhD students are working on topics that concern opera’s relationship to broader cultural debates and questions of identity during the long nineteenth century. The recipient of the scholarship would be encouraged to take a pro-active role within the research unit, and to communicate their research findings to wider audiences.
Further information about the OBERTO research unit can be found at www.obertobrookes.com.
For information about the prospective supervisor, Dr Barbara Eichner, consult her profile on http://oxfordbrookes.academia.edu/BarbaraEichner. Informal inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org are welcome.
If you would like to apply you should request an application pack from Ms Zane Kalnina email@example.com, quoting ‘Religion in Opera’ in the subject line. Fully completed applications must be sent to the same email address by 31 October 2014.
As part of the application you should submit a CV, a research proposal (maximum 3 pages), together with a supporting statement summarising your reasons for undertaking this project, preparation undertaken for your project, as well as a summary of your previous research experience.
Please be advised that the selection process may involve an interview on 13 November 2014, and the successful candidate would be expected to commence in the research degree programme in January 2015.
At the end of our recent conference Beyond Black Tie and Bubbly: Rescuing Opera from Stereotypes, I tried to kick off the general, final discussion with the following ‘alphabet’ that unites beloved buzzwords, common clichés and time-honoured tropes.
A is for accessibility: opera is more accessible today thanever before in its history – something that’s easily forgotten
B is for bums on seats: the bottom line of the impresario
C is for crossover: way forward or cul-de-sac?
D is for dumbing down: the pet hateof the conservative establishment
E is for education: can we be taught to love opera?
F is for fan base: who are they, and what keeps them happy?
G is for government funding: predictably enrages ‘the taxpayer’, though considerably lower than in many other European countries
H is for HD Cinema Broadcast: currently the Holy Grail in reaching audiences beyond the opera house
I is for impact: the persistent need to prove that opera and opera studies are relevant to society
J is for journalists: is it them who won’t let the clichés die?
K is for Katherine Jenkins: you know, the opera singer (or is it ‘opera singer’?)
L is for luxury: see also class
M is for marketing: hype, hype, hype
N is for new audiences: what’s wrong with the old ones?
O is for outreach to ‘ordinary people‘: the group that allegedly would never go to the opera
P is for privilege: see also class
Q is for quality versus quantity
R is for Royal Opera House versus Royal Variety Show
S is for sexing it up: see also dumbing down
T is for taste: is opera an expensive acquired taste?
U is for Unterhaltungsmusik: indeed, opera was and is still part of that
V is for Victorian popular opera: when did opera stop to be enjoyed by the many in seaside resorts, music halls and brass band concerts?
W is for working class: does it make some people feel apologetic about liking opera?
X is for X-Factor: plenty of opera there, but is it the ‘real thing’?
Y is for Why do we worry about operatic stereotypes?
Z is for …
… at this point the discussion took over, and a long, spirited and fruitful discussion it was!
On a sunny day in early September, over fifty delegates travelled to Brookes from the United States, Ireland, Germany, Italy and all over the UK for the fourth OBERTO conference. The aim of this year’s conference was to examine critically the idea of opera as a socially exclusive and intellectually forbidding genre, and to consider ways in which it might be presented in more positive, interesting and productive ways.
The stereotype of opera as an ‘elitist’ pursuit for the snooty rich, who dress up to enjoy fat ladies singing loudly in opulent surroundings is not new; however, it is one that has been perpetuated much more vigorously in recent decades by a media hungry for hits and happy to fan the flames of controversy. Concerns about the squandering of public funds are never far from the surface of the debate. The premise of our conference was that the negative stereotypes surrounding opera are profoundly damaging, inhibiting potential new audiences from engaging with opera by telling people it is ‘not for them’.
We were delighted to welcome to Brookes not only academics who have approached this issue from a variety of historical and critical perspectives, but also opera house professionals, critics and singers who have to confront the negative stereotypes that are attached to opera in their daily lives. This mixture of different types of delegate led to some extremely productive discussion. A summary of the day’s papers is provided below. For a thoughtful commentary on the conference’s broader conclusions, see Michael Volpe’s blog post here.
In the first session of the day (‘Opera and Class’), David Kennerley (University of Oxford) and Paul Rodmell (University of Birmingham) challenged the notion that opera in Britain has always been for an elite. Kennerley discussed a Chartist rally in Bradford in 1841 at which operatic excerpts were performed as a revolutionary call-to-arms, while Rodmell demonstrated that the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century touring opera companies played to socially-mixed audiences up and down the country.
Our thoughts turned in the second session to the ways in which opera is marketed: Aoife Ni Drisceoil (NUI Maynooth) debated the pros and cons of opera companies’ use of social media, while Michela Ronzani (Brown University) demonstrated how savvy the Ricordi opera company was at advertising its operas as ‘products’ at the turn of the twentieth century. John Snelson (Royal Opera House) offered a critique of hyperbolic marketing materials that tell audience members how they ‘ought’ to react to opera and, in so doing, set the response bar too high.
After lunch, delegates’ thoughts turned to opera’s interactions with contemporary popular culture. Rupert Christiansen (The Telegraph) discussed the rise and institutional mechanics of the ‘crossover’ movement, concluding that the audience for crossover artists is static and that listeners are unlikely to make the leap into attending operas. Hayley Fenn (Harvard), meanwhile, analysed the ostensibly unexpected success of quasi-operatic acts on Britain’s Got Talent.
In the subsequent session on international perspectives, Tash Siddiqui (The Wagner Journal) returned to questions of class in her discussion of the Krolloper, an avant-garde opera house set up expressly for the proletariat in Weimar Germany. Turning the focus to the United States, Laurel Zeiss (Baylor University) asked why operas based on actual events (often with a strongly political focus, such as Dead Man Walking) currently make for such good box office.
The final formal session of the day was devoted to the role played by education in creating audiences for opera. Andy Doe (King’s College Cambridge) pursued a sceptical line, querying the need for plot summaries and programme notes. In contrast, Michael Volpe (Opera Holland Park) drew upon his own childhood experiences of being introduced to opera and other forms of culture ‘without fanfare’ at an unusually progressive school. Volpe stressed the importance of presenting opera, to children and to adults, as something ordinary, not as something extraordinary. His paper can be read here.
Each formal session contained a substantial period of discussion time and there was further general discussion at the end of the day. The conversation ranged widely across many topics: strategies for getting newcomers to attend their first opera; the pros and cons of striving to make opera ‘relevant’; crossover singers being sold as ‘the real deal’; and a hostility towards opera among the political classes, certain sections of the media and even some working in education. Although our conclusions were not entirely gloomy, two things were clear: that there is a great deal of work to be done in changing perceptions of opera; and that we can only do it effectively if opera professionals and academics work together.
We very much hope that a publication will result from the conference in due course. In the meantime, Barbara Eichner’s ‘Opera Stereotypes Alphabet’ from the final discussion session will appear here soon.
The first Opera Research Students’ Conference took place at Brookes on 17 June 2014. For a separate report on the conference, see here. The day concluded with a talk by Dr Alexandra Wilson on career development for PhD students and early career researchers. Alex has distilled her talk down into a list of ‘top tips’, which can be found below.
These are hard times for young academics. Realistically, there have probably never been enough academic jobs for everyone who wanted one, but things seem to be getting more difficult for each successive generation: there are, to put it bluntly, fewer and fewer jobs and more and more people with PhDs. To be in with a fighting chance of making it onto a shortlist, every student therefore needs to arm him- or herself with a sort of ‘tool kit’ of skills and experiences, either before finishing the PhD or shortly after.
First it is worth summarising the main types of employment Music PhDs typically enter after graduating:
- Oxbridge Junior Research Fellowships. The holy grail of early career academics: three years with (in most cases) little or no teaching, in which to work on a new research project of your own choosing. These are fearsomely competitive: hundreds of people apply and you’re competing with applicants from around the world.
- British Academy and Leverhulme postdocs. These also give you a period of several years in which to undertake a new research project. For these awards you need to find an institution to ‘host’ you and you need to demonstrate that there’s a good fit between you and the institution in question. Again, they’re very competitive.
- Postdoctoral research assistant positions. These are often the result of a senior academic making a funding bid to a research council. Unlike with the above, the topic will be stipulated, so your specialism has to be the right fit.
- Short-term early career researcher posts in individual university departments. There were lots of these strategic appointments pre-REF but don’t expect to see many being advertised for the next few years.
- Short-term teaching posts covering senior academics’ research leave or maternity leave. A very common first job nowadays, this type of post is likely to be heavy on both teaching and administration. Nevertheless, this can be an extremely useful stepping stone to the next thing: you are essentially thrown in at the deep end and expected to prove your mettle.
- Freelance jobbing, picking up bits and pieces of teaching here and there: this is not a particularly desirable course but the reality for many people, and some are successful in eventually securing a permanent post.
- Finally, there must still be a few people who manage to walk into a permanent, full-time job straight out of a PhD but this route is now unusual.
Below I have outlined the main things an aspiring academic needs to get on their CV, while taking great care not to be distracted from the main task in hand: completing the PhD on time.
1. Have one good publication accepted (if not in press/print) before you graduate
Some supervisors will tell you that you should concentrate on your PhD and wait until after finishing it to write an article. I couldn’t disagree more. The REF pressure may be off (slightly) for a few years, but departments still want to see that you’re going to be able to produce a good return for the next one.
An early-career researcher, entering their first job, usually needs to submit only one article for the REF. This counts for as much as a more senior academic’s four items. Thus, an early-career researcher with an excellent article can be a very hot ticket for a department. But it has to have been published somewhere that is deemed to be good. For all the REF panel may say about an equality of media, there is still a firmly entrenched belief that where you publish counts: that certain journals score more highly and that peer-reviewed articles rank higher than chapters in edited books. It’s worth aiming to place your work in one of the more highly esteemed peer reviewed journal articles to be on the safe side.
The shrewd thing to do, time wise, is to adapt a PhD chapter, or to use some material you haven’t been able to fit in as the basis for an article, rather than writing something entirely new. And get someone to read your work before you send it off. Yes, this is daunting, but anonymous peer reviewers don’t know that you’re a graduate student and will not pull their punches, so it’s worth making use of the feedback of friendly academics to make your work as good as it can be before submitting it.
I’ve written more about the publishing process here.
2. Get some teaching experience
Teaching experience may be relatively unimportant for some of the JRF posts but the majority of first jobs are short term posts that involve covering somebody’s teaching and you need to be able to convince a committee that you can hit the ground running.
There are many different types of teaching and they all require different skills, so it’s worth doing a small amount of lots of different types rather than a lot of one. Tutorials on the Oxford model are quite different to giving large lectures, and seminars where you’re effectively supporting a more senior academic are different to devising your own module. I think departments ideally want to see that you’ve done a bit more than just assisting someone else with a few seminars so any evidence you can provide of having helped devise a course or assessment experience can be a very good thing. Any postgraduate teaching you can get (even just the odd class) can also mark you out from the crowd.
Do be wary of taking on too much teaching experience: the result may be that you drag your PhD out for an extra year.
3. Present your work at conferences
This is like asking for feedback on an article – it helps you to hone and refine your work (and your presentation skills) – and conferences are the best place to make valuable new contacts in the field. Conferences also look good on the CV and every graduating PhD student should make sure they’ve spoken at a couple: it’s a good idea to start out with a student conference and then try to get a paper accepted for a ‘grown up’ conference like the RMA, or one of the specialist conferences in your field. But again, don’t go so overboard with conferences that you get distracted from writing your PhD.
4. Consider taking on a small administrative role
Administration sounds dull but it’s certainly something every academic has to deal with these days. Having some administrative experience is probably going to be neither here nor there if you’re going for an Oxbridge JRF. However, if you’re up for a temporary teaching job, some administrative experience could give you the edge. You can pick up a certain amount of administrative experience as part and parcel of taking on teaching, or you might want to seek out some extra responsibility, such as serving on the RMA committee as a student rep.
5. Start thinking about sharing your research with the public
Impact matters these days and a willingness to engage with wider audiences is likely to be regarded as an asset by most departments. Activities like writing programme notes, talking on the radio or giving pre-concert talks can also help us to hone our academic skills, making us better lecturers and better writers. It’s also possible to talk about your research with a wider audience via blogs and social media but beware of giving away your actual research findings. I have written more about what impact is and how to get into it here.
6. Network, network, network.
You need to get to know senior academics early on in your career who are not your supervisor, who will be on your side as your career develops and whom you can ask to write references for you. A typical JRF application requires you to nominate three referees and they have to be senior academics from well-respected institutions. Having international referees can also be extremely valuable. Networking can be daunting but you can’t afford to be shy. Develop a network among your peers as well: friends made at this stage can be a vital source of support for years to come.
Armed with this tool kit of skills you should be able to approach the job market with a reasonable amount of confidence, but every aspiring academic, however brilliant, still needs to tick the last box on my list, which is: have a Plan B… and preferably a Plan C.