The Call-for-Papers from the Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film group at the University of Warwick for the City, Space and Spectacle Conference at their Venice Campus on 8-10 June 2018 in the Palazzo Pesaro-Papafava was just too attractive to be missed. The OBERTO team therefore turned out in full force: Anna Maria Barry, Barbara Eichner, Tim Lloyd and Alexandra Wilson submitted a joint panel about the “Operatic City”, whereas Andrew Holden’s paper on “Rome’s Reception of Religion in Opera 1870-1900” was accepted independently and formed the final presentation in the “Religion and Morality” panel.
The conference was dedicated to the memory of Michael Booth, whose ground-breaking book Victorian Spectacular Theatre (1981) ushered in a new era of theatre studies that was less concerned with great playwrights and their works, but instead foregrounded audiences experience, practicalities of staging and the taste for spectacle, particularly in 19th-century London. Many panels were therefore offered enticing topics such as nautical battles on stage, Victorian dancers or the theatrical interpretation of the Whitechapel murders, but there were also presentations about theatrical performances aboard ships and in Napoleonic prisoner-of-war camps, royal ceremonies in Turin and Warsaw, or the famous Hanlon Brothers, an American family of artistes who toured the world exhibitions. Our colleague Michael Burden from Oxford University added “Operatic Cities under Siege” to the theme of staging large-scale catastrophes which pervaded the conference.
Our OBERTO panel, amiably chaired by Michael Pisani (Vassar College, US), started with Alex’s interrogation of “Puccini’s Paris: City of the Imagination?”, where she argued that Puccini’s La Bohème built on and in turn contributed to the cliché of Paris as the “city of love”. Barbara compared the cityscapes of Rome and Nuremberg in Richard Wagner’s operas Rienzi and Meistersinger and connected their representation on stage with the expansion of city tourism in the 19th century. Tim Lloyd read the reception of Jules Massenet’s early operas at the Palais Garnier against the contemporary Expositions Universelles, which upped the stakes for visual spectacle on the one hand but also made spectator wary of visual excess in opera on the other. Anna’s paper charted the adventurous travels of tenor Michael Kelly, whose antics off-stage were read through the lens of his operatic roles. Finally, Andrew challenged traditional assumptions about the anti-clerical agenda of late-19th-century Italian opera, with particular attention to the first performance of Tosca in Rome and its reception by Catholics in Rome. This drew unexpected parallels with Leanne Waters’ paper (University College, Dublin) on fin-de-siècle literature and stage adaptations in London, including The Sorrows of Satan.
Apart from getting to know many colleagues in theatre studies from the UK, the US and Europe and networking about all things operatic, we also took the opportunity to see some of the sights of Venice, from the Piazza San Marco (at night to avoid the crowds) to the Gothic church of I Frari to the Palazzo Vendramin, where Wagner died – now ironically the municipal Casino of Venice. The city also offered some opera-themed exhibitions: the artworks of Mariano Fortuny in the Palazzo Fontany, including set designs for the Italian premiere of Tristan und Isolde), and an exhibition on the relationship between Eleanora Duse and Arrigo Boito at the Fondazione Cini. Serendipitously, Teatro La Fenice also held a memorial concert during the weekend to conductor Sir Jeffrey Tate.
On 15 May, OBERTO staff were delighted to welcome to Oxford Brookes Dr Christopher Hilton, archivist at the Britten-Pears Foundation, to give a talk to students, staff and members of the public. The Britten-Pears archive is housed at the Red House in Aldeburgh, Suffolk, which was shared by Benjamin Britten and his partner, the tenor Peter Pears, from the 1950s to the 1970s, Pears continuing to live there for a further decade between Britten’s death and his own. Today the house welcomes visitors including school children, members of the public, professional musicians, and researchers.
Dr Hilton gave a lively account of Britten’s life, with amusing anecdotes about an alcoholic organ-playing uncle in Ipswich and a father who hated music so much that he refused to have a gramophone in the family home. We also learnt about Britten’s travels (including a period living in a squalid house in Brooklyn, with a stripper down the corridor) and above all about the practical challenges of managing a clandestine relationship in the days before the decriminalisation of homosexuality.
Britten and Pears were inveterate hoarders, with the result that their home – which even today remains much as they left it – is a treasure trove for musicologists and social historians alike. Dr Hilton gave a fascinating account of the varied range of items to be found in the archive, including correspondence with librettists, costume and set designs, and notes on abandoned projects (oh that the operas based on A Christmas Carol and Mansfield Park might have come to fruition!). But not all of the items relate specifically to music: there are, for instance, letters from famous figures (Tony Benn, Vanessa Redgrave) who sought to co-opt Britten to their political causes. And most intriguing of all, perhaps, are the ephemera of daily life that provide a vivid insight into life in post-War England: receipts itemising Rice Krispies, Special K and copious bottles of booze; receipts from hotels where the couple booked two rooms; receipts from hotels where they booked just one. The archive’s musical riches are many but it is also, quite apart from anything else, a fantastic resource on the history of shopping.
Further information on the Britten-Pears Foundation and how to visit the Red House may be found here: https://brittenpears.org/visit/
A report on an OBERTO conference in 2017 on operatic objects may be found here: https://obertobrookes.com/2017/03/30/operatic-objects-conference-report-by-hayley-fenn/
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
The sixth annual OBERTO conference took place on 8 September 2016, welcoming to Oxford Brookes a diverse international mixture of more than 50 academics, singers, directors, critics and members of the public. This year’s theme was operatic acting and the conference set out to examine the manifold ways in which acting, singing, movement, body image, drama and dramaturgy interact on the operatic stage.
Ben Davis (Cardiff University) began with a paper about the concept of realism in opera, which drew upon the writings of Stanislavski in order to establish a theoretical framework that would prove useful throughout the day’s discussions. Davis drew upon his practice as an opera director, with Written on Skin as his case study, shedding light upon the ways in which directors mark up an operatic score as part of the production process. Kara McKechnie (University of Leeds) also reflected upon personal experience of her work as a dramaturg at Opera North in a paper on the ways in which singers ‘perform’ when backstage and during the rehearsal process, as shown in ‘behind-the-scenes’ documentaries.
Six historical case studies followed, organised into two parallel sessions. In a session with a nineteenth- and early twentieth-century focus, Helen Metzelaar (University of Amsterdam) told the fascinating story of the Devries family, a dynasty of Dutch opera singers who established considerable success across Europe during the nineteenth century, creating some landmark roles and drawing comparison in their interpretation of them with the great tragic actresses of the day. This established a link to the paper by Enza De Francisci (University College London), who compared the contemporaneous reception of the Italian actress Eleonora Duse and the French opera singer Emma Calvé, who both performed the role of Santuzza in London at the same time, in Verga’s play and Mascagni’s opera respectively. Alexandra Wilson (Oxford Brookes University) moved the discussion into the twentieth century, examining how star singers of the 1920s adapted their performance style (both on and off stage) in response to early film.
The parallel session was opened by Clemens Risi (Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nuremberg), who demonstrated that typical gestures displayed by singers – which have often been criticised for being stereotypical and repetitive – are rooted not only in 18th- and 19th-century ideas of rhetoric and acting, but also in vocal coaching techniques. Mark Berry (Royal Holloway, University of London) drew a parallel between two ‘singing actresses’ past and present: Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient, who inspired Richard Wagner’s operas and theoretical writings, and Waltraud Meier, one of the outstanding Wagner singers of the present. Laura Moeckli (Basel) introduced the concept of ‘disjunction’: as French treatises on acting show, the option of acting against the grist of the stage action or plot situation was already an option in the early 19th century; compositional traces can be found in Meyerbeer’s operas.
After lunch, drama tutor Norman Cooley showcased some of the techniques he uses in training singers to act, a session that was made engaging through audience participation. A lively discussion followed in the subsequent session on ‘bodies’. In a memorably titled paper (‘Fat Butch Orfeo’), Heather Hadlock (Stanford University) analysed the idea that mainstream body norms and beauty standards do not apply in the operatic world, concluding that the rare fat butch figure in opera retains a genuinely subversive, anti-normative energy. Hugo Shirley’s (Gramophone) paper continued the theme of body image, revisiting the so-called ‘Dumpygate’ controversy that surrounded the reception of Tara Erraught’s performance as Octavian in the Glyndebourne Festival production of Der Rosenkavalier in 2014.
The discussion then turned away from individual to collective acting, with a session on the chorus. Ryan Minor (SUNY Stonybrook) amused everyone with his anecdotes of wooden chorus acting at a certain well-known American opera house, before looking back to the eighteenth century to take a historical perspective on the problematic question of group acting. Katarina Aronsson then discussed some innovative directorial choices at the Royal Swedish Opera, where she is dramaturg, which were designed to showcase the chorus in innovative and convincing ways.
Singers Adriana Festeu (L) and Sally Burgess (R)
The conference ended with an ‘in conversation’ panel, in which mezzo sopranos Sally Burgess and Adriana Festeu discussed their experiences of operatic acting, and the ways in which they prepare for a role. The discussion focused particularly upon acting the role of Carmen, recently sung by Adriana and a signature role of Sally’s, and it was a treat to watch video clips of both in action. The session was ably chaired Karen Henson (Frost School of Music, University of Miami), who brought her historical knowledge of the singer who created the role of Bizet’s anti-heroine to bear upon the conversation.
Throughout the day, there was much opportunity for lively discussion, both in response to the formal presentations and informally during the breaks. Thanks to the diverse mix of participants, there was a lively intermingling of historical perspectives on operatic acting, theoretical analyses and pragmatic sharing of experiences – something that has become a trademark of the annual OBERTO conferences.