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Opera Research Students’ Conference Report by Anna Maria Barry and Corrina Connor

On Tuesday 17th June the inaugural Opera Research Students’ Conference was held at Oxford Brookes University, hosted by OBERTO. This conference, organised by OBERTO postgraduate students, attracted 14 speakers from the UK and beyond. The speakers spoke in 6 sessions, encompassing a diverse range of approaches, from economics and psychology to composition and archaeology.

Things kicked off with two parallel sessions, one of which was entitled ‘Performance Practices’. The first speaker in this session was Matteo Paoletti (University of Genoa), who spoke about the career of director Giorgio Strehler and his pursuit of a ‘lyrical theatre of art’. Strehler believed that for this ideal to be attained, singers had to be ‘theatrical animals.’ Strehler died during the rehearsals for his 1998 production of Così fan tutte and no one has ever studied his work. Paoletti’s fascinating paper was followed by one from Anna Koukoullis (Oxford Brookes University), who spoke passionately about the evolving role of acting on the operatic stage. She showed clips from different productions of Carmen to highlight the change from ‘presentational’ to ‘representational’ acting, and considered how acting is taught to young singers in conservatoires today.

Meanwhile, in the parallel session ‘Production and Creative Process’, we heard two more speakers. First up was Emma Higgins (NUI Maynooth), who spoke about the status of the mezzo-soprano in early Third Republic Paris. The truth seems to be that the ‘mezzo’ as a category did not exist in name at the Paris Opéra (although singers were expected to perform mezzo roles): the most prestigious female vocal categories were those of the soprano and contralto. Next, Simone Spagnolo (Trinity Laban) discussed Italian experimental opera in the second half of the twentieth century, using Berio’s Opera and Bussotti’s Passion Selon Sade as examples of alternative narrative forms which can mean many things (or nothing at all) according to the multiple interpretations of the audience. Spagnolo also discussed his own opera It Makes No Difference in the context of the ‘open work’. This paper, overall, demonstrated that the creation of an open work requires ingenious planning, and it was fascinating to see the difference intellectual processes which are necessary for creating a ‘convincing’ open work.

After a short break, delegates came together for a three-paper session entitled ‘The Business of Opera’. Alessandra Palidda (Cardiff University) got things started with a highly amusing paper on La Scala in Napoleonic Milan. Just one of the republican-flavoured works that was performed during this period was the ballet Il general Colli in Roma which featured a dancing Pope on stage and became known as ‘the Pope’s ballet’. Next, Matthew Elliot (Emmanuel College, Cambridge) brought the finances of French Grand Opera alive, with a look at the finances and funding of the Paris Opéra. The amounts of money it took to keep the art form alive were staggering, and losses were abundant; not helped by the bizarre condition that stage sets could not be re-used for subsequent productions. The last speaker in this session was Annabelle Lee (RHUL), who offered a fascinating insight into the Metropolitan Opera’s social media strategy. Lee ultimately concluded that we should be rather wary of claims that social media strategy is able to bring new audiences to the opera house. Some of her figures were surprising; for example, audiences over 55 are more likely to experience opera via digital media.

Following lunch was another session of three papers, entitled ‘Cross-cultural reception’. The first speaker was Corrina Connor (Oxford Brookes), who gave a colourful account of the 1876 arrival of Die Fledermaus in London. Particularly interesting was the way in which social and political events had an impact on the reception of this opera, and its subsequent revival in 1895. Next, Zara Barlas (Heidelberg University) gave a fascinating account of Edward Soloman’s operetta The Nautch Girl. This opera reflected colonial anxieties about Indian dancers, who were erroneously seen as prostitutes. Barlas demonstrated how this opera might be viewed through a colonial lens, offering new perspective on transculturality during this period. The final speaker in this session, Catherine Hutchinson (Goldsmiths), spoke of the lavish 1860 production of Sémiramis at the Paris Opéra. Particularly fascinating was Hutchinson’s description of how recent archaeological finds from Assyria, displayed at the Louvre during this period, were reflected in the sets of the production.

After another short break, delegates split for two more parallel sessions. One of these was entitled ‘Psychology and Listening.’ First up, David John Baker (Goldsmiths) shared the fascinating research he is undertaking as part of the ‘Transforming Musicology’ project. Baker has been working with many listeners, testing which factors affect their recognition of Wagner’s Leitmotifs. This study has so far yielded some surprising results, and Baker’s paper offered some intriguing insights into how the brain processes music. The last speaker in this session was Sebastian Bolz (LMU Munich), who offered an examination of the operatic chorus in Germany around 1900. This understudied area, Bolz argued, can offer a new perspective as a medium for group dynamics.

The final parallel session was entitled ‘British Literary Adaptations’. The first speaker, Russell Burdekin (Oxford Brookes), illustrated the lurid origins of Loder’s opera Raymond and Agnes, which was derived from the sensational Gothic romance The Monk (c. 1795) by Matthew Gregory Lewis. Burdekin explained that as theatre productions were subject to censorship in the early nineteenth century, it was necessary for stage adaptations of The Monk to tone some of the most scandalous aspects of this book which also had a plot too convoluted to be easily enacted on stage. Michael Tippett’s The Knot Garden was also derived from an earlier literary source, in this case Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Michael Graham’s (RHUL) paper focussed less on Tippett’s adaptation of the story than it did on the significance of ‘Der liebe Farbe’ – a song from Schubert’s cycle Die schöne Müllerin –which two of the opera’s characters (Flora and Dov) sing in Act II. Graham discussed the significance of the song for the ideas of gender mutability which pervade The Knot Garden.

The conference finished with a brilliant keynote from OBERTO’s Dr. Alexandra Wilson who offered much practical career advice for opera studies students, as well as sharing her own experiences and top tips. Alex began her talk by saying how pleased she was to see so many diverse and imaginative approaches being taken to opera studies and by noting that ‘The field is clearly in good health!’ Students found it especially useful to be able to ask questions and discuss topical issues such as public engagement and the REF. Please see Dr Wilson’s seperate blog post about this talk, where she shares her ‘top tips’. Delegates then held a short discussion about the future of the Opera Students’ Network, and many suggestions were made including regular social events, a new blog and website, and collaboration with singers and opera houses. We will be meeting shortly to discuss how to take some of these ideas forward – watch this space!

After the conference everyone headed to a local pub, where mutual areas of interest were discussed and new friendships were forged. It was extremely valuable to bring opera research students from around Europe together to discuss their research, as people working in disparate areas were able to come together share their work and ideas in a fun and dynamic environment. We eagerly look forward to next year’s conference!

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