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Popular Opera in Britain Study Day by Dr Alexandra Wilson

Caruso with record

The OBERTO opera research unit at Oxford Brookes University acts a mechanism by which to stimulate, support and promote staff and postgraduate research in opera studies. But it also has a more outward-facing ambition, which is to encourage people from outside the University to debate current issues in opera studies, whether they be other academics and students, opera industry professionals or members of the general public.

With this latter aim in mind, OBERTO hosted a free study afternoon at Senate House in London on 28 November entitled ‘Popular Opera in Britain, Past and Present’. The event considered opera’s status as a form of popular entertainment and its connections with other types of popular culture, with the aim of scrutinising whether the term ‘highbrow’ is appropriate when discussing opera.

A full podcast of this event is available here!

In the first half of the afternoon, two speakers transported listeners back in time to the beginning of the twentieth century, recreating British operatic culture in colourful detail. Dr Paul Rodmell (University of Birmingham) demonstrated that opera was regarded as genuinely popular entertainment during the Edwardian era, arguing that ‘opera came within reach of a greater proportion of the population than either before or since’. In large part this was due to the activities of touring opera companies such as the Carl Rosa and the Moody-Manners. These companies were constantly on the road, performing popular operas at popular prices in towns and cities up and down the land, as Rodmell illustrated vividly with interactive PowerPoint maps. The press of the day focused almost exclusively on Covent Garden, but Rodmell demonstrated that the real operatic picture of the years up to World War One was far more varied.

Dr Alexandra Wilson (OBERTO) then picked up the baton with a specific focus on the 1920s. During this decade, opera’s cultural status began to change and it is here that we can find the roots of some of the present-day attitudes towards opera. Intense debates about whether forms of culture were ‘highbrow’, ‘middlebrow’ or ‘lowbrow’ took place in Britain during the 1920s, in what has often been called the ‘battle of the brows’. Wilson demonstrated, however, that opera was very difficult to categorise, being regarded by some middlebrow commentators as too highbrow but by many music critics and intellectuals as not highbrow enough. Opera was still very popular among all classes, but the decline of the touring companies meant that opportunities to hear live opera were fewer than before the War. Opera mingled in interesting ways with new forms of popular culture: opera singers tried to carve out careers as film stars, jazz bands pinched melodies from Wagner and Puccini operas, and opera composers were the protagonists of best-selling novels. On the other hand, there were growing attempts to ridicule it by setting it up as something antithetical to the everyday.

These historical papers presented vital cultural background for the second section of discussion, which focused upon the present day. Four speakers who are involved in performing, researching and writing about opera took part: Anastasia Belina-Johnson (Royal College of Music), Benjamin Hulett (tenor), Cormac Newark (Guildhall School of Music) and John Snelson (Head of Publishing and Interpretation, Royal Opera House). The speakers were each asked to present a five minute response to the question of whether ‘highbrow’ is an appropriate word to use when discussing opera today; a lively round-table debate with questions from the floor then ensued. The speakers approached the question from a variety of different angles and it soon became apparent that the answer to it was far from clear cut: ‘highbrow’ seems in some contexts to be a dirty word, yet has the potential to be reclaimed in more positive ways. Discussion ranged widely, covering connections between opera and musical theatre, confrontations between opera and sport, and ways of promoting opera to new audiences that place an emphasis upon the simple factor of its being enjoyable.

Enjoyment was certainly something that characterised the study day itself and audience members commented on Twitter that they found it ‘thought provoking and intelligently led’ and ‘great but too short!’ One attendee remarked afterwards: ‘The comments on the current opera scene were very illuminating – it is good to have this kind of information from people who are actually involved, rather than just journalists and critics.’

We are very grateful to the British Academy for its generous funding of this event and the Institute of Musical Research for kindly providing a room at Senate House.

Follow OBERTO on Twitter @ObertoBrookes. A Storify of the day’s events can be found here.


PhD Studentship available: Opera and Politics

School of Arts

3 years full-time fees will be paid by the University.

 Bursary: £7,000 pa (with no inflation increase).

 Deadline: The closing date for applications is 22 December 2015.

 Interview date: Interviews will be held in week beginning 4 January 2016.

 Start date:  April 2016

 Eligibility: Home/EU


To mark its 150th Anniversary, Oxford Brookes University is pleased to offer this 3 year full-time PhD Studentship in the opera research unit OBERTO within the School of Arts, starting in April 2016.

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 they have sufficient additional means to complete the programme successfully in full-time study.

Topic of research: Opera and Politics

Opera and politics have been intimately connected since the birth of the art-form. Political agendas may be present in the way in which operas are conceived, staged and received, whilst opera’s place in society is invariably political, as demonstrated by omnipresent debates about the funding of opera and about accessibility. The field of opera and politics is a growing one but countless topics in this area, both historical and contemporary, remain to be explored.

This project will allow the recipient of the doctoral award to investigate the issue from one of many potential angles, including (but not restricted to):

Politics as represented on the operatic stage

  • The politicised reception of opera
  • Opera and society: gender, race, national identity and class
  • The politics of opera staging
  • The contemporary politics of opera: new audiences; stereotypes; funding
  • Opera and politics on film

The recipient of this doctoral award will be supervised by Dr Alexandra Wilson (Reader in Music), whose work in this area includes: the politicised reception of Puccini’s operas; operatic politics in early twentieth-century Italy and Britain; opera onstage and in film; and contemporary debates about cultural categorisation, accessibility and opera stereotypes.

Informal enquiries may be addressed to alexandra.wilson@brookes.ac.uk and further information about Dr Wilson’s research interests can be found at: http://arts.brookes.ac.uk/staff/alexandrawilson.html

The recipient of this award would be expected to contribute proactively to the activities of the OBERTO opera research unit. Further information about OBERTO can be found athttps://obertobrookes.com/

If you would like to apply you should request an application pack fromtdestudentships@brookes.ac.uk, quoting ‘Opera and Politics’ in the subject line. Fully completed applications must be sent to the same email address by 22 December 2015.

Please be advised that the selection process may involve an interview in the week commencing January 4 2016, and the successful candidate would be expected to commence the research degree programme in April 2016.

Popular Opera in Britain, Past and Present

Popular Opera, Past and Present
Saturday 28 November 2015, 3-5pm
Room 261, Senate House, Malet Street, London, WC1E 7HU

This study afternoon, open to members of the public, will consider opera’s status as a form of popular entertainment past and present. The aim of the event is to scrutinise and challenge stereotypes about opera being an ‘elitist’ activity.

In the first half of the afternoon Dr Alexandra Wilson (Oxford Brookes University) and Dr Paul Rodmell (University of Birmingham) will recreate the British operatic culture of a century ago, demonstrating that in the early twentieth century opera played to all social classes, enjoyed close connections with a range of different types of popular culture and resisted being pigeon-holed as ‘highbrow’ art. In the second half of the afternoon they will be joined by Dr Anastasia Belina-Johnson (Royal College of Music), Benjamin Hulett (tenor), Dr Cormac Newark (Guildhall School of Music and Drama), and Dr John Snelson (Royal Opera House) for a round-table discussion of opera and popular culture today, debating whether the term ‘highbrow’ has any valid currency in the operatic context.

This OBERTO event has been organised in association with the Institute of Musical Research and funded by the British Academy. Attendance is free but places are limited. Please email alexandra.wilson@brookes.ac.uk in order to reserve a place.

PhD Studentship: Opera and Politics

We’re very pleased to have a PhD studentship on offer!

This is open to applicants interested in working on opera and politics with Dr Alexandra Wilson.

Full details can be found here.


OBERTO 2015 Conference Report: Opera and Celebrity by Andrew Holden

Following on from OBERTO’s 2014 conference, which challenged stereotypes of elitism in opera, this September another enthusiastic and diverse group of scholars, students and opera industry professionals, gathered at Oxford Brookes’ Headington Campus to explore a wide range of historical angles on the changing nature of celebrity in opera, with papers ranging from eighteenth-century Parma to contemporary use of digital and social media.

OBERTO2015Samantha Hay and Luke Green recreating a 1920s celebrity recital.

In the opening session, David Kennerley (University of Oxford) and Anna Maria Barry (Oxford Brookes) presented complementary examples of female and male singers as objects and agents of celebrity in the nineteenth century.

Kennerley’s examination of two prima donnas in London, Catley and Vestris, highlighted their own manipulation of an exaggerated morally questionable public persona and how that might contrast with the reality of their private life. His paper also pointed to contemporary critical distinction of ‘effeminate’ celebrity culture from more serious and implicitly masculine musical criticism. Barry used three examples of male singers, Santley, Kelly and Reeves, to show how the masculine celebrity image could be shaped to portray a rugged, physically active persona. She also highlighted the way in which a vigorous contemporary conversation between different accounts and through the correspondence pages developed. Finally, she pointed to some of the consumer material culture through which the celebrity was connected to the public, including portraits of famous singers that were sold to be tinselled by young boys.

During the first of two parallel sessions, Margaret Butler (University of Florida) and Christina Paine (Royal Holloway) presented two in-depth case studies of prima donnas’ influence and power – Caterina Gabrielli in 1760s Parma and Angelica Catalani in Regency London.

Butler focused on new evidence from her archival research of theatre accounts demonstrating a singer’s influence from an institutional perspective. Gabrielli’s celebrity enabled the Parma theatre to pay down debts incurred through expensive French stagings and ballets. Paine examined how Catalani dealt with crises of her own ‘celebrity’ during two notorious episodes, and considered ways of challenginggender stereotypes about women’s agency, particularly with regard to their legal status and political power.

In the other morning panel, IngeborgZechner (University of Salzburg) and Clair Rowden (Cardiff University) gave papers on two Scandinavian prima donnas, Jenny Lind and Christine Nilsson. Zechner analysed the role of the media and managerial marketing strategies and the interplay between the London opera theatres, the wider celebrity market and lucrative US concert circuit. Rowden built on the theme of the development of the international celebrity opera circuit, and showed how Nilsson’s marketed persona highlighted and perhaps exaggerated elements of religion, Scandinavian and Nordic culture enthusiastically played on by the media.

Finally, Annabelle Lee fast-forwarded us to Joyce DiDonato’s use of social media, which gave the Twitter users among the audience the chance to live tweet responses to her thoughts about tweeting! Lee presented rich data from interviews with social media followers of DiDonato.

The ‘graveyard’ slot after lunch was enlivened by a round-table of industry professionals, Michael Volpe (Opera Holland Park), Hugo Shirley (Gramophone) and Rupert Christiansen (Daily Telegraph). The panel dissected various contemporary afflictions facing contemporary operatic celebrity culture. They questioned the augmented role of the stage director, over-training of singers and a homogeneity of sound and personality, and the influence of visual and digital media.

The final panel session of the day on ‘Mechanics of Celebrity’ comprised papers on less conventional operatic products, by Colleen Renihan (Mount Allison University), Anastasia Belina-Johnson (Royal College of Music) and Derek Scott (University of Leeds), and Harry Hickman (University of Cambridge). Renihan stunned the audience with a You-Tube video of child star Jackie Evancho and examined the ways in which opera is used in the repertoire of child stars in the United States. Belina-Johnson and Scott analysed a selection of Polish operetta celebrities from the early twentieth century including how the operetta system was embedded in the wider commercial culture of Poland. Finally, Hickman pursued the theme of the relationship between new media and live performance by analysing the creation of the Metropolitan Opera’s DVD ‘Wagner’s Dream’ to accompany their Lepage Ring Cycle and how it might have influenced consumption of the performance itself both in the theatre and on DVD.

The audience retired to the suitably decorous drawing room at Headington Hill Hall for a lecture recital by Oxford Brookes’ own Alexandra Wilson, with Samantha Hay (Soprano) and Luke Peter Green (Piano). Focusing on the 1920s, Wilson analysed the relationship between the celebrity star system, and critical distinctions between high art and the eclectic tastes of a wider public, and between foreign and home-grown singers. One critic from the time predicted that the age of vulgarity would have ended within five generations. To close the conference, Samantha Hay and Luke Green, in period dress, thrilled the audience with an astoundingly varied recital from a 1920s concert programme:

Caro mio ben: Giordani

Non so più (The Marriage of Figaro): Mozart

The Last Rose of Summer: folk song

Solveig’s Song: Grieg

Les Filles de Cadix: Delibes

Juliette’s Waltz – Ah! Je veux vivre! (Roméo et Juliette): Gounod

Sempre libera (La traviata): Verdi

Home Sweet Home

Speakers travelled to the conference from as far afield as Austria, Canada and the United States. Feedback from delegates about the day was extremely positive, with one American scholar saying “The level of scholarship was high all round and the breadth of topics within the theme was also impressive….The conference was an excellent introduction to your research unit, which is sponsoring vital work for our field”. Looking forward to OBERTO 2016!

Rescuing Opera from Stereotypes by Dr Alexandra Wilson

Dr Alexandra Wilson has written an article in the Oxford Brookes Research Forum Magazine about OBERTO’s work challenging stereotypes about operatic elitism. Click on the link below to download this piece.

Rescuing Opera from Stereotypes

Halévy’s La Juive in Gent by Russell Burdekin

Russell Burdekin is a postgraduate student at Oxford Brookes University, following the nineteenth-century music pathway of the MA in Music

It is not an unusual sight in parts of Italy to see a couple of resplendent ceremonial carabinieri stood at the main door of the opera house for an opera première. The opening night of Halévy’s La Juive at Opera Vlaanderen in Gent on April 15 saw a guard of Belgian police, some with sub machine guns. After last year’s shootings at the Jewish Museum in Brussels, the management were clearly taking no chances that someone might take the opera’s title as a provocation.

La Juive was one of the grandest of the Paris grand operas with one newspaper commenting on the enormous Act 1 procession that “The Opéra may become a power capable of throwing its armies into the balance of power in Europe” [i]. The libretto by Scribe was typical of his style with an unlikely series of events and coincidences vaguely based on historical incidents, in this case in 15th century Constance, and culminating in a sensational ending. It seems that Meyerbeer might have been approached initially to write the music [ii] but it soon devolved on Halévy and the opera premiered on February 23, 1835. Ruth Jordan claimed that the story fired Halévy’s imagination because it brought him “face to face with his [Jewish] heritage” [iii]. However, he did not respond by making use of Jewish music to any great extent nor could much of the music be called particularly inspired; “as for popular music, it has none” was Donizetti’s opinion after seeing it [iv]. However, other composers, including Mahler and Offenbach and, more surprisingly, Wagner, have been more complimentary and, after a shaky start, the opera firmly established itself in the 19th century repertoire.

The opera is a rare beast today and I was particularly interested that Opera Vlaanderen had hired Peter Konwitschny as the director, who is known for his radical interpretations, such as that of La Traviata at ENO in 2013.   To complement the opera, Opera Vlaanderen had also organised a two day conference on Judaism in Opera, during which Konwitschny discussed some of his decisions. He explained that he had directed little in the way of French opera, other than Carmen, and had been completely unfamiliar with La Juive until being invited to direct it. He talked of his Brechtian approach, no doubt a legacy of his East German upbringing, that aimed to avoid superficial sentimental emotion (“it’s not just about two poor Jews”) in the pursuit of a longer lasting and more deeply considered response ( “the audience should come out resisting intolerance”). More personally, he had asked himself whether he, as a German, was allowed to criticise a Jew – no doubt having in mind Eléazar’s own intolerance and morally ambiguous behaviour, particularly his lack of honesty with Rachel about her parentage. He then stated that he considered that the opera was too long with too many blocks to the dramatic flow and that the music was not good and had too many choruses. He had thus set about refashioning the opera to provide an exciting and suspenseful evening rather than just a long evening and certainly succeeded in his aim with an absolutely cracking performance that illuminated the spirit if not always kept to the letter of the opera. While this stance is anathema to some opera lovers, it was clear that Konwitschny had given the project considerable thought and was not just wanting to be different or to shock, the motivation that many often ascribe to non-traditional productions.

Konwitschny saw the opera not primarily as Christian and Jew but as persecuting majority and persecuted minority, an essay in intolerance. To this end all wore modern dress with no distinction except that the Christians wore blue gloves and the Jews yellow. Thus he claimed to have deracinated the opera, although I doubt whether many would be convinced about this even if they might agree about his broader message. I wondered whether it was deliberate that he chose yellow for the Jewish gloves bearing in mind the yellow badge that Jews were forced to wear in Nazi Germany but which would have cut across his avowed neutral approach or whether it was an oversight. The set had a huge rose window and other stained glass at the rear, which were lit up for certain scenes and otherwise the main features were groups of vertical metal bars that were arranged in various structures according to the scene. Thus it was a fairly minimal, functional set with no indication of time or place.


©Annemie Augustijns, courtesy of Oper Vlaanderen

Typical of his reworking of the opera was his removal of the overture so that we plunged straight into the organ introduction to the “Te Deum” and the gathering of the Christians under the leadership of Cardinal de Brogni. Around a further 30 minutes was cut from the earlier part of Act 1 and its lengthy scene-setting. In Act 2, he moved Eléazar’s cavatine to the end of the act because it does not have any specific bearing on the action at that point but is of a more philosophic nature and he wanted to keep up the dramatic impetus with Eudoxie’s entrance immediately following Rachel’s rising suspicion about Léopold when he does not eat the unleavened bread. Act 3 caused the greatest discussion amongst the next day’s conference attendees because when Rachel publicly accused Léopold of being her lover she was shown wearing a suicide belt. Some delegates felt that this ran against Rachel’s role as a mediator and the whole thrust of her personality. Unfortunately, the chairman called time on Konwitschny before he could adequately explain his ideas behind it but he said that he did not consider her as nice a person as some did and seemed to have been thinking in terms of her wanting to destroy the patrimony that was suppressing the world.


©Annemie Augustijns, courtesy of Oper Vlaanderen

 The end of the act saw the chorus, wearing various coloured gloves, constructing an endless series of suicide belts, presumably intimating that we are all complicit in prejudice and its manifest evils. Act 4, in which Rachel and Eudoxie come together in order to save the man who has betrayed them both, had their duet morph into a dance as they celebrated coming together to rise above the hatred that had hitherto permeated the opera and in washing their hands together both divested their gloves.

One of Konwitschny’s techniques was to have singers come out into the auditorium and mingle with the audience while singing, often having them seem to make asides to the audience or to look to the audience for support such as when Rachel, in the auditorium, lambasted Leopold, on the stage, for his duplicity. It gave the exchange a feeling of overhearing someone else’s argument and a much greater involvement than with a traditional stage confrontation. While this sort of manoeuvre is not new, I have never seen it put to such telling effect, although I did sympathise with the woman who sat with her hands over her ears as the volume must have been pretty daunting when Eléazar sang the big hit number “Rachel, quand du Seigneur” a couple of feet away from her.

The end is a problem. Scribe, as was his usual practice, aimed for an arresting stage coup with no regard for its musical potential [v]. Here the opera called for Eléazar and Rachel to be flung into cauldrons of boiling oil with Eléazar revealing that Rachel was Cardinal de Brogni’s daughter as this happened. Donizetti wrote on seeing it, “Too much reality – the final scene too horrifying, the more horrifying because of so much illusion” [vi]. For today’s director perhaps there can be no appropriate realisation living as we do under the shadow of the Holocaust. Here, Konwitschny had them walk up some stairs and then out of sight, while de Brogni fell down the stairs in his surprise and anguish. It served but lacked any real emotional punch.


©Annemie Augustijns, courtesy of Oper Vlaanderen

 All the roles were strongly delineated, even Eudoxie who can be a somewhat shadowy figure, and all were acted with great energy and commitment. The singing (Eléazar – Roberto Sacca, Rachel – Asmik Grigorian, de Brogni – Dmitry Ulyanov, Léopold – Randall Bills, Eudoxie – Nicole Chevalier, Ruggiero – Toby Girling) was excellent particularly when one considers the very physical acting that they were often asked to do at the same time and the whole enterprise was well supported by the orchestra under Tomás Netopil.

While some opera fans will no doubt decry such manipulation of the opera, it was all in all an intense and exhilarating evening and the audience clearly appreciated it. Unfortunately, on leaving the theatre past the armed police, they needed no reminding that intolerance is still very much with us.

[i] Quoted in Hugh Macdonald, “La Juive”, The New Grove Dictionary of Opera. Vol 2, edited by Stanley Sadie (London: Macmillan Reference Ltd., 1998) , p.926.

[ii] Mark Everist, Giacomo Meyerbeer and Music Drama in Nineteenth-Century Paris. (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate Publishing, 2005), p.221.

[iii] Ruth Jordan, Fromental Halevy. (London: Kahn & Averill, 1997), p.59.

[iv] Quote from a letter to Innocenzo Giampieri in Herbert Weinstock, Donizetti. (London: Lowe & Brydone, 1964), p.108.

[v] “The denouement for which music can do nothing” wrote Donizetti of Scribe’s ending for Dom Sébastien – Zaida and Sébastien fall from the rope they are climbing down to escape – quoted in William Ashbrook, Donizetti and his operas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982),  p.187.

[vi] Herbert Weinstock Loc. Cit.