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Operatic Objects Conference Report by Hayley Fenn

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Senate House, London

On Saturday 18th March, “Operatic Objects” of all shapes and sizes were put under the spotlight by participants in a conference hosted by OBERTO, the opera research unit at Oxford Brookes University. Having convened a panel of the same name at the 2016 RMA Annual Conference, Alexandra Wilson and Anna Maria Barry (Oxford Brookes University) invited scholars and practitioners from Genoa, Paderbon, Stockholm, Boston, and all over the UK, to the Institute of Musical Research in Senate House, London, to discuss the stuff of opera: the prized possessions of its stars, the spectacles of its stage, and the paraphernalia of its fans.

In her welcoming remarks, Wilson categorised the objects under discussion broadly as those involved in the performance of opera and those owned by the people of opera. The first paper explored how objects might be both. Lewis Jones (London Metropolitan University) conjured the material world of Giuseppe Naldi, a singer best known for his part in introducing Mozart’s operas to London. For his frequent appearances in Mayr’s Il fanatico per la musica, Naldi composed inserted arias and adaptations conceived specifically for instruments from his enviable personal collection. Naldi’s instruments, Jones argued, not only afforded the opportunity for broader demonstration of his musical skill, therefore, but also recreated his domestic world onstage.

Indeed, many of the day’s speakers were concerned with the migrant nature of operatic objects, the multiple lives they accrue as they traverse different domains of possession and performance, and the reciprocal insight they grant into the private lives of their owners. Adelina Patti’s predilection for wearing her own jewels, often gifts from Tsar Nicholas II, in performance was just one of the many memorable examples in Clair Rowden’s (University of Cardiff) rich tapestry of the ways in which jewellery represents, and indeed helps create, the political, economic, and aesthetic identities of its divas. Anna Maria Barry, in her study of the eclectic archives of John Braham and Sir Charles Santley, and Henrike Rost (Musikwissenschaftliches Seminar Detmold/Paderborn, Universität Paderborn), in her analysis of Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient’s “Stammbuch,” both considered the potential roles played by albums in reconstructing singers’ personal and professional networks. Such collections reflect in microcosm the critical stakes of studying material culture, in particular the issues of curation, preservation, and loss. As Barry pointed out, it is often through loss­ (repossession, pawning, auctioning) that the existence of an item comes into historical light as it is only with that eventuality that it is preserved in written records. And of course, the converse is also true: preservation without curation can result in a sense of loss, of lost opportunities if not objects themselves, as evidenced by Matteo Paoletti’s (Genoa) survey of Italian artist and opera designer Pipein Gamba’s vast but unwieldy archive.

Michael Burden’s (New College, Oxford) operatic object was a set of 33 rules, drawn up Louisa Pyne, the founder of the Royal English Opera Company, to regulate singers’ behaviour. In his analysis, Burden emphasised the institutionalisation of the operatic enterprise brought about by the rules, a source of constancy amidst ever-changing opera company personnel. In the final presentation of the day, Mark Tatlow (University of Stockholm) considered the space of opera, specifically the 18th-century theatre at Drottningholm. Understood as an enduring repository for the tacit knowledge of performers and administrators, Tatlow revealed the participatory role played by the theatre in uniting contemporary and historical operatic practices, an idea resonant with Hayley Fenn’s (Harvard University) discussion of the vocalic phenomenology of marionette opera from the start of the day’s proceedings.

Whilst operatic objects are products of their historical moment, they also accumulate and shed meaning across time, passing through hands, across stages, under magnifying glasses, and into display cabinets. Join us in our search for operatic objects. Be they twinkling, resounding, disciplining, or remembering, the richness of opera’s materiality penetrates every corner of the opera house and extends far beyond its walls.

Hayley Fenn is a PhD candidate at Harvard University where she is in the early stages of research into a dissertation on puppetry and music.

Public Musicology Today by Dr Alexandra Wilson

Music matters to us all. A fragment of music overheard on the radio can act like Proust’s madeleine, taking us back to a specific moment in our past, or speaking deeply to our sense of personal selfhood. For all this, there is a widespread perception that music’s function is limited purely to entertainment: that it is fun and enjoyable, but does not merit our most serious attention.

Yet music has been considered sufficiently significant to have been woven into all of the most important civic and ceremonial occasions in Western history, from coronations to royal weddings. It has been fundamental to religious worship, to displays of wealth and power, and to establishing a sense of identity among diverse social groups.

Music, furthermore, has always been political. Consider, for example, the numerous ways in which a single piece, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, has been appropriated for symbolic purposes. (It was performed at the Fall of the Berlin Wall and at the Last Night of the Proms after 9/11; its final movement is the anthem of Europe; and less positively it has also been appropriated for various nefarious purposes.) It comes as no surprise to a music historian that so much press attention should have been paid to the music chosen to accompany Trump’s rallies on the campaign trail.

We live in an era in which music and sound, like visual images, carry meanings that may be as potent as those offered by written texts. Musicologists have an important role to play in helping society to interpret and understand these meanings. We have yet to see the appointment in the UK of any Professors of Public Musicology or courses explicitly devoted to the area, but the time for such a move seems to be ripe. (History is ahead of the game: the University of London recently appointed a Professor of Public Understanding of the Humanities and the University of Reading a Professor of Public Engagement with History. There are also numerous Public History MA programmes.)

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In the meantime, many musicologists are already communicating with wider audiences about how music functions in society, in ways that are accessible, engaging and jargon free. Some write books about music aimed at the general public; others write newspaper or magazine articles, appear on BBC radio and television, and produce blog posts and podcasts. Musicologists are regularly invited to give talks for prominent performing arts organisations. The BBC’s recent scheme to recruit more “expert women” to talk about classical music was welcome; hitherto a majority of TV music documentaries have been fronted by celebrities.

On our MA in Music at Oxford Brookes, we have placed ‘public musicology’ to the fore. Our students are diverse – they can specialise in historical musicology, opera studies, popular music, film music or composition – but they all come together for a research training module in which ‘applied research’ is a key theme. Drawing on staff members’ personal experience of working in the media, we teach our students how to communicate their research to wider publics via radio broadcasts, magazine articles, blogs and social media.

Students have an opportunity to develop these interests further in our Professional Experience module. Some take up a placement with an external arts or media organisation. Students last year, for example, worked for the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Handel-Hendrix Museum. Others work with one of our research units (in opera, pop music and sound art), or pursue a freelance project. One student this year has established a public lecture series in his home town of Exeter; another is helping to organise our next OBERTO conference. We very much hope to expand our focus on public musicology in the future.

Opera in the East End – launch event!

Oberto, the Opera Research Unit at Oxford Brookes, is delighted to be collaborating with Queen Mary, University of London, on a new project, Opera in the East End, which will be launched on Monday 6 March 2017.

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The People’s Palace in 1891

Opera in the East End (OIEE!) will be the first project to focus on the performance of opera in the East End of London from a multi-disciplinary perspective. We are beginning the project with a day of events at which Queen Mary are celebrating the 80th anniversary of the new People’s Palace in the Mile End Road, where Benjamin Britten conducted Albert Herring with the English Opera Group in 1948.

The programme includes performance, an archival exhibition and a Witness Seminar with a star line-up of guests who were students at the London Opera Centre, the forerunner of the National Opera Studio, whose home was the Troxy Cinema on the Commercial Road, Stepney. The panel includes Dame Josephine Barstow, Teresa Cahill, Robert Lloyd and David Patmore.

In the evening one of the country’s brightest young opera groups, Shadwell Opera, will perform Schönberg’s Erwartung and Mark Anthony Turnage’s Twice Through the Heart.

Please contact us by email or on twitter (@OBERTOBrookes) if you would like more information.

Tickets for day events (including the witness seminar) can be booked here. Tickets for the evening performances by Shadwell Opera must be booked separately here.