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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.

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