The topic for this year’s OBERTO conference is “The Canon Reloaded? Operatic Repertoire in the Twenty-First Century”. Please see The 2019 OBERTO Conference – CFP for more details. The CFP deadline has been extended to Friday, 28 June, 2019. Please send abstracts of 250 words or queries to email@example.com .
The conference will take place at Oxford Brookes University on Tuesday, 10 September 2019.
The Canon Reloaded?
Operatic Repertoire in the Twenty-First Century
The 2019 OBERTO conference will take place at Oxford Brookes University on Tuesday, 10 September 2019. The topic this year is “The Canon Reloaded? Operatic Repertoire in the Twenty-First Century”.
In 1932, A. H. Fox-Strangways, editor of the journal Music & Letters, wrote: ‘At the sound of the word “opera” a good many are repelled because they think at once of Faust and Aida only’. Every age has its operatic warhorses, and although these change periodically over time – Faust is no longer as ubiquitous as it was when George Bernard-Shaw claimed to have heard it around 90 times in a decade – the centrality of certain key works to the operatic canon remains largely unchallenged.
Musicologists have been discussing the mechanics and the politics of the musical canon since the 1990s. This might seem, on the face of it, like one of those New Musicology debates that are now rather dated. In reality, the debate is as alive as ever, except that is now more likely to be taking place on Twitter and other social media, and grabbing headlines in the daily press. Discussions rage about whether familiar works should be sidelined, or even jettisoned, in favour of more contemporary and neglected works from the past. The debate has become entwined with political activism to a pronounced degree, with some commentators calling for opera companies to “redress historical wrongs” by staging certain quotas of operas by female or BME composers. Censorship hovers at the fringes of the conversation, with some even advocating for repertory operas that offend present-day political sensibilities to be banned.
This conference, organised by the OBERTO opera research group at Oxford Brookes University, aims to explore the arguments for and against maintaining, refreshing or discarding the operatic canon and will consider implications for operatic creators, performers and audiences.
Possible topics include, but are by no means restricted to:
- Rejuvenating the canon and the limitations of the current performing repertory
- The economics of programming opera and other harsh realities
- Are some operas simply better than others? The taboo subject of ‘quality’ in classical music
- ‘Righting historical wrongs’: questions of gender and race
- The opera house as a museum of musical works
- Innovative stagings of standard repertory: merely tinkering around the edges?
- National canons and transnational difference
- Exporting operatic canons and the question of imperialism
- Operatic criticism before the “age of political correctness” and now
- Differences of perspective between academia, the opera industry, and different audiences
We invite proposals for 20-minute presentations, panel discussions and alternative format sessions such as lecture-recitals or poster presentations. We welcome contributions not only from academics but also from performers and opera industry or media professionals. Past OBERTO conferences have facilitated lively debates between academics, practitioners and members of the general public, and we would like to continue this tradition.
Please send abstracts of 250 words or queries to firstname.lastname@example.org by Friday 28 June 2019.
Headington Hall, Oxford Brookes University
Friday 7th June 2019
The conference takes place in Headington Hill Hall, on the Headington Hill Campus. Directions can be found here: https://www.brookes.ac.uk/about-brookes/contacts-maps-and-campuses/headington-campus/
The conference is free and lunch and tea and coffee are provided. Please register if you plan to attend by emailing email@example.com and include any dietary preferences.
10-11.30 Session 1: Masculinity
Sophie Horrocks (Durham University): “Mon père! J’ai peur!” Fatherhood and the construction of male identity in Halévy’s La Juive (1835)
Matthew Palfreyman (University of Leeds): Vengeful Passions: the performance of masculinity in Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci
Kerry Bunkhall (Oxford Brookes University): Opera, or the Undoing of Men? Representation of men in opera through the lens of feminist critique
Prof. Dr. Arnold Jacobshagen (Hochschule für Musik und Tanz Cologne / Distinguished Visiting Scholar at Christ’s College Cambridge): The obituary as a benchmark of canonization. (Trans-) national narratives on Rossini and his music
2-3 Session 2:
Bradley Hoover (University of Oxford): François Delsarte’s influence on Wagnerian aesthetics
Christopher Kimbel (Royal Holloway): The politics of ‘Bar’-form in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
2b: Millennial opera(s)
Jane Forner (Columbia University): ‘Feminism is Humanism:’ religion and violence against women in Cecilie Ore’s Adam and Eve: A Divine Comedy (2015)
Fueanglada Prawang (Bangor University): Thai Opera in performance: contexts and challenges
3.30-5 Session 3:
|3a: Law and Order
Annabelle Page (University of Oxford): Patronage in absentia: Marcus Sitticus and the music of Monteverdi
Giovanna Carugno (Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music): The ownership of operas in early 19th-century Italy: questions and (possible) answers for the musicologist
Patrick Becker (Universität der Künste Berlin): Fair and court: excluding economy and vilifying Power in Bulgarian operas during state Socialism
3b: Centres and Peripheries
Emma Kavanagh (University of Oxford): Éduoard Lalo’s exotic Brittany: the case of Le Roi d’Ys
Emese Lengyel (University of Debrecen): Folklore patterns, national identity and genre hybridisation in the case of 20th-century Hungarian comic operas
Mahima Macchione (Oxford Brookes University): The ‘global’ reception of Puccini’s Il Trittico (1918) and the operatic culture of the post-war period
5pm: Panel TBC
Oxford Brookes University
Friday 7th June 2019
OBERTO, the opera research unit at Oxford Brookes University, is delighted to announce its second dedicated postgraduate conference, aimed at providing students with a platform for presenting their research.
We invite proposals from both UK-based and international speakers with an interest in opera. 20-minute presentations on all facets of opera studies are welcome, including but not limited to the following areas:
- opera production, performance and reception
- opera and politics
- opera and gender
- opera and identity
- iconography and visual representation of opera
- musical analysis
The day is designed to be supportive and inclusive, with opportunities for students to meet fellow researchers. Proposals from both Master’s and Doctoral students are encouraged.
There will also be a roundtable discussion concerning academia and public engagement, with advice for postgraduate students on building a public profile, and a summary of the research opportunities and events offered by OBERTO.
Abstracts of no more than 250 words should be sent by email to firstname.lastname@example.org in Word document format. Please include your name, email address, institutional affiliation (if applicable), and details of any audio-visual requirements.
The deadline for receipt of proposals is 9am on Friday 26th April.
Professor Alexandra Wilson
Think opera is highbrow? Think again. In my new book, Opera in the Jazz Age: Cultural Politics in 1920s Britain (Oxford University Press), I investigate the place of opera in the 1920s ‘battle of the brows’, a heated debate about whether various forms of art should be categorised as highbrow, middlebrow, or lowbrow. It was a debate prompted, in essence, by the threat posed to traditional forms of culture and audience patterns by an explosion in popular culture and a shift in class structures after the First World War. In the course of my research, I discovered that opera’s place within discussions about the brows – which still have implications for how we think about the arts today – was far from straightforward.
I found that opera interacted in fluid ways with many forms of popular culture during the interwar period, including film and jazz. Opera singers were bona fide celebrities whom audiences camped out overnight to hear, their every move documented in the pages of the popular press. Opera was performed in many types of venue in the 1920s – music halls, cinemas, and restaurants as well as theatres – and popular with many different types of listener. Touring opera companies performed to socially mixed audiences in the industrial cities of the north and there was a particularly keen following for opera in the East End of London.
For all of these reasons and more, opera proved extremely difficult to pigeonhole. For some commentators of the time, it was too highbrow; for others, it was not highbrow enough. Opera proved in some ways uncategorisable, although interacted with the emerging middlebrow culture in intriguing ways.
There are many similarities between the operatic culture of the 1920s and that of today, but there are also important differences. Undercurrents of snobbery from above and suspicion from below swirled around opera in 1920s Britain, and yet it is equally important to recognise that there were also many sincere grassroots attempts to get more people listening to it and to educate people about it. There was, without doubt, more of a sense that opera was something that anyone could enjoy and could access, if they chose to take an interest. The term ‘elitism’ is one I never came across during my research into 1920s attitudes. Thus, my next project, funded by a Major Research Fellowship from the Leverhulme Trust, will investigate how attitudes towards opera have changed over the period from the end of the 1920s to the present, pinning down exactly when the ‘elitism’ tag began to be used. If we want to combat unhelpful stereotypes it is necessary, first, to understand their roots.
Opera in the Jazz Age can be found here: https://global.oup.com/academic/product/opera-in-the-jazz-age-9780190912666?cc=gb&lang=en&
You can listen to me talking about the book on BBC Radio 3’s Music Matters in an episode first broadcast on 12 January: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m0001zph (from around 21 minutes in).
And a documentary I made for BBC Radio 3 about operatic culture in 1920s London can be accessed here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b099vsvw
The 2018 OBERTO conference brought together an international field of speakers from the UK, Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Canada and the United States and was attended by a good crowd of academics, performers, directors and opera lovers. Fifteen papers explored the topic of “Opera and Violence” in its many facets, particularly debates surrounding “gratuitous violence” in modern stage productions, and works that are central to the repertoire yet replete with brutal and/or psychologically abusive plotlines.
The morning started with a session on Exoticism – Colonialism. Francesco Bracci (University of Bern) investigated resistance to colonial rule by supposedly “wild” or “irrational” peoples in grand operas from Spontini’s Fernand Cortez to Delibes’s Lakmé. Richard Langham Smith (Royal College of Music) debunked the myth that Georges Bizet had actually toned down the violence of Prosper Merimée’s novella, and demonstrated how Bizet and his librettists use acts of violence as focal points for each act. Trivia: the libretto features an astonishing array of different types of knives and firearms!
The second session focused on violence in contemporary stage works. George Haggett (Royal Holloway) tried “hearing the sounds of the 13th-century body in George Benjamin and Martin Crimp’s Written on Skin”; Nadine Scharfetter (University of Music and Performing Arts Graz) compared Olga Neuwirth’s American Lulu, which is set during the American civil rights movement, with Alban Berg’s original; and Annalise Smith (Memorial University) argued that Kamala Sankaram’s decision to stop the music during a rape scene in her opera Thumbprint was a more responsible approach to violence against women than smothering the upsetting event in beautiful music, as is – she said – customary in 19th-century operas. This started a lively discussion about the appropriate musical realisation of scenes of violence, with musicologist Suzanne Aspden pointing out that violence was invisible on the 18th-century stage, so even cautious depictions were quite radical in the 19th century, while composer Toby Young challenged Sankaram’s decision on aesthetic grounds. Conversations continued over the lunch break, which many delegates used to enjoy the grounds of Headington Hill Hall.
A parallel session took place in the nearby Music Room on abusive relationships between operatic characters. Emma Kavanagh (Linacre College, University of Oxford) explored the complex dynamics of love, jealousy and violence in Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. She looked at the opera’s plot, libretto and music through the lens of Symbolist aesthetics, thus reaching interesting conclusions in terms of the invisible, yet established connections between violence, consent and the unseen/unheard. Robert Rawson (Canterbury Christ Church University) gave an engaging paper about the abusive traditional society/community as found in Janáček’s Jenůfa and Kat’a Kabanova. He thoroughly analysed the characters of both operas. as well as the influence of the local petty tyranny on their relationships and vicissitudes, with particular attention to the character’s violent or non-violent responses to the oppressive regime. Finally, Sid Wolters-Tiedge (University of Bayreuth) commented on the violent and slapstick components of Harrison Birtwistle’s Punch and Judy, connecting them to both the it’s roots in popular theatre and commenting on recent stagings in Berlin and Vienna. He thoroughly took apart the complex connections between irony/humour and violent acts, as well as their interplay with issues of representation in music and on stage.
After lunch the parallel sessions continued with the themes Dis/ability and violence in the Music Room, and Reception and (post-)Fascism in the Green Room of beautiful Headington Hill Hall. Christina Guillaumier (Royal College of Music) explored Prokofiev’s last opera, The Story of a Real Man, which glorifies the transformation of a wounded fighter pilot to Soviet superman. Charlotte Armstrong (University of York) admirably disentangled “Disability and degeneracy in Franz Schreker’s Die Gezeichneten” in a recent interpretation by opera director Calixto Bieito, where the already complex story of a hunchbacked anti-hero is further complicated by making the protagonist a paedophile, giving his moral degeneracy a contemporary edge.
The parallel session focused on issues of violence, propaganda and political re-education through opera in fascist and post-fascist contexts. First, Georg Burgstaller (RILM New York) talked about the performances of Peter Grimes within the Grazer Festwochen organized by the occupying British forces in Austria in 1947 and analysed the interplay between the work’s ‘Britishness’, its use within a regime of military occupation, and the Austrian reception. Nicolò Palazetti (University of Birmingham) explored the complex political, cultural and ideological agendas at play behind the performance of Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino in 1938. After exploring the tight political links between Hungary and Italy and their consequences on cultural/musical patronage, Dr Palazzetti interpreted the opera’s plot, atmosphere and characters within the context of anti-Semitic propaganda, including the figures of Bartók and his librettist Balázs and their problematic relationship with the current regime.
The final session of the day brought together all delegates under the heading “Mozart and violence in contemporary stagings” and was one of the highlights of the conference. Since it is unlikely that war-horses of the repertoire will disappear from the world’s stages any time soon, even if their content might seem sensitive today, academics and practitioners alike grapple with how to represent storylines that are underpinned by arguably misogynist or racist world views. First Margaret Cormier (McGill University) compared two very different stagings of Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail. The first, again by Calixto Bieito (Berlin 2004), escalated the violence against women implicit in the original plot by setting the opera in a contemporary brothel. Wajdi Mouawad (Lyon 2016) took a diametrically opposed approach: in an attempt to subdue the orientalist stereotypes, he neutralised the violence against Constanze and Blonde by interpreting the opera as a flashback on the part of the women, who realise that their newly gained “freedom” is not so different from their previous captivity.
Two opera directors gave a direct insight into their work by explaining how they deal with the violent aspects of Don Giovanni – not just the physical violence against Donna Anna and the Commendatore but also the psychological abuse of Donna Elvira or Don Giovanni’s treatment of socially inferior characters like his servant Leporello and the peasant girl Zerlina. Alessandro Talevi’s 2012 production for Opera North embraced the challenge of the comedic elements by using puppetry reminiscent of a Punch and Judy show for some scenes. Laura Attridge, in contrast, faced the discomfort caused by Don Giovanni head on in her 2018 production for Waterperry Opera by interpreting the main protagonist as a contemporary upper-class bully who deservedly meets his downfall. The script of part of her talk can be seen on the Schmopera site.
Maria Thomas’s (University of Hertfordshire) personal reflection on the 2015 Royal Opera House production of Rossini’s Guillaume Tell, where director Michieletto replaced the ballet with a now notorious rape scene, led into a lively general discussion that developed many of the themes that had been sounded throughout the day. While the preceding sessions had focussed on composers, librettists and directors, now the expectations and reactions of opera audiences took centre stage. Are modern audiences so naïve that they just enjoy their favourite operas without giving a thought to the potentially problematic aspects of their plots? Do they need to be shaken out of their comfort zone by edgy, violent stagings, or is there such a thing as gore fatigue? Are opera houses patronising punters with trigger warnings, or is that a legitimate strategy to spare distress? The discussion was ably chaired by Mark Berry (Royal Holloway), and while it became very lively and intense, the participants felt comfortable to voice thought-provoking or controversial ideas and listened attentively to each other’s arguments, which demonstrated once more how our OBERTO conferences have become a forum for genuine debate amongst practitioners, opera lovers and academics. Several delegates also tweeted during the day using the hashtag #OBERTO2018, which gives a good idea of the day as it unfolded.
The 2018 OBERTO conference entitled Opera and Violence took place on 11 September 2018. Speakers included two working opera directors as well as academics. Papers and discussions ranged widely from specific operas to the problems of how to stage acts of violence and particularly violence against women, a staple of so many opera plots, in an appropriate way in today’s changed climate. Audiences’ responses to seeing violent acts on stage and, most critically, when they judge them to be gratuitous provoked a thoughtful debate.
The conference programme can be found at OBERTO_Annual_Conference_2018