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New Publication: Italian Musical Migrations

Professor Alexandra Wilson and former Oberto research student, Dr Andrew Holden, have published articles in a special issue of the Journal of Modern Italian Studies. The special issue, co-edited by Andrew Holden, brings together six different perspectives on the rich history of ‘Italin Musical Migration to London’. The contributors were participants in a conference on the same theme at Birmingham, organised by co-editor Nicolò Palazzetti at the University of Birmingham in 2019.

Image: Italian Street Musicians in London, from ‘Street Life in London’, 1877, by John Thomson and Adolphe Smith.
LSE Digital Library

Alexandra Wilson’s article, Opera for the country lout: Italian opera, national identity and the middlebrow in interwar Britain, relates the reception of Italian opera and musicians to wider debates about taste-formation and the ‘battle of the brows’ during this crucial period of cultural self-definition.

Andrew Holden’s article, A slice of operatic life in London’s East End 1880-1940 (currently available on open access) developed from research on the musical life of the philanthropic institutions of East London which was the subject of a conference co-hosted by Oberto at Queen Mary, University of London in 2017, ‘Opera in the East End’. The article takes as a point of departure a remarkable photograph of Queen Mary emerging from a performance of Pagliacci in Bethnal Green through a guard of honour formed by local choristers dressed as Calabrian peasants.

With the continuing shuttering of theatres almost everywhere and performers unable to travel, Italian Musical Migrations reminds us of the fragile regard in which opera has long been held and how dependent it has always been on the mobility of artists and cultural exchange at all levels of society.

‘Don’t mention the C Word’ – re-assessing the meaning and impact of censorship in opera

This has now been made an online conference on
Wednesday 24 June, 2020 11:00 BST to 18:00 BST

If you would like to register for log-in details to attend, please email andrew.holden@rhul.ac.uk by Tuesday 23 June.

Supported by the Institute of Musical Research, RHUL, Performance and Cultural Industries, University of Leeds and OBERTO, Oxford Brookes.

At its 2015 conference in Madrid, Opera Europa, the main European industry network, heard from opera producers in Perm, Russia about the threat they face from renewed political oppression. Alexander Pereira, then Artistic Director of Teatro alla Scala, Milan, told the conference “there is no future without solidarity”. But solidarity with whom, and against what? This conference will explore a new understanding of opera’s regulation in a world in which binary poles between freedom of expression and censorship in opera have broken down.

The opera business model in its mature markets has been undermined by shrinking public grants and become more reliant on philanthropy. As opera ecologies expand in regions like East Asia and the Middle East, gender norms, sexuality and violence, cultural habits like smoking and tattoos, and the visual representation of naked flesh, are policed in highly individual contexts. Performance tradition and power structures in opera are also being breached by more collaborative approaches to production and community opera, as well as performer and audience activism based on gender, ethnicity and disability. These trends challenge existing concepts of censorship, in which a range of participants have agency in processes which may mimic regulatory control, but in pursuit of diversity and against cultural appropriation, for example ethnocentric operatic tropes such as ‘blackface’ Otellos and ‘yellowface’ orientalism.

The boundaries between taste, market forces, local cultural contexts and artistic freedom have always been shadowy. This one-day conference will address the pressing need for a more nuanced articulation of how censorship is operating in the global market for opera.

Provisional Programme

Welcome and Introduction – Test video, Housekeeping and Etiquette (10:45 BST)Andrew Holden and Kara McKechnie
Session 1 (11:00 to 13:15 BST)Kara McKechnie (University of Leeds) – ‘Free Kirill – Stuttgart Opera’s 2017 campaign for Serebrennikov’
 Fueanglada Prawang (Bangor University) – ‘Thai opera and a censorship drama: Sucharitkul’s Ayodhya’
 Michelle Assay (University of Huddersfield) – ‘Our wills and fates do so contrary run’: an ill-fated Georgian Hamlet Opera’
 Charlotte Armstrong (University of York) – ‘Exhibition and Erasure: Disability on the Contemporary Opera Stage’
 Alan Williams (University of Salford) – ‘The Case for Self-Censorship: the politics of representation and anti-realism in opera’
BREAK 13:15 to 15:15 
Welcome – Re-test video, welcome back, housekeeping, etiquette. (15:15)Andrew Holden and Kara McKechnie
Session 2 (15:30 to 18:00pm)Michael Walling (Opera Director) and Haili Ma (University of Leeds) – ‘Nixon in China, censorship, production and consumption’
 Haili Ma (University of Leeds) -‘ Chinese opera as a national cultural industry, the case study of Errenzhuan’
 Imani Danielle Mosley (Wichita State University) – ”I Will Always Be a Black Aida!’: Opera at the Intersection of Racism and Cancel Culture’
 Andrew Holden (Institute for Musical Research, Royal Holloway, London) – ‘Love for Three Oranges – Prokofiev’s edited adventures in America’
 Inka-Maria Nyman (University of Turku) – ‘Accessibility to opera in a minority language context in the digital age’
 Nicolò Palazzetti (University of Strasbourg) – ‘Backstage live. Opera and the obscene in the Web Age’

Postponed until 2021 – Travels in Hyperreality: medievalism and postmodern musical cultures

A joint conference organised by the School of Arts at Oxford Brookes University and REMOSS (Representations of Early Music on Stage and Screen)

It has been 37 years since Umberto Eco wrote Travels in Hyperreality. Gazing at the ‘postmodern neomedieval Manhattan new castle’ of Trump Tower, he found ‘a new feudalism’ in a ‘New Middle Ages’. Now that Trump is sovereign, Eco’s playful comparisons between saints and pop stars overspill their boundaries grotesquely. But why is the pop star so sainted? And if ‘the relationship between illuminated manuscript and cathedral is the same as that between MOMA and Hollywood’, does the tower loom as large as the soundbite?

For its fifth annual conference, the REMOSS (Representations of Early Music on Stage and Screen) study group invites proposals on the theme of ‘Travels in Hyperreality’, with a particular emphasis on the relationship between pre- and postmodern musical cultures. We aim to acknowledge medievalism’s pervasiveness in postmodern society and ask what worldviews we share with premodernity—what relationships with ambiguity, truth, reality, and excess—and how they manifest themselves in the world of sound. 

Keynote lectures will be given by Lindsay Steenberg and Bruce Holsinger.

Contributions could cover (and are not limited to):

  • pre-/postmodern ideas of reality
  • video game music and soundscape
  • contemporary opera and musical theatre
  • hyperreality in film and television music
  • medievalism, racism, and violence on stage and screen
  • historically informed performance, reconstruction, and roleplay
  • medievalist influences in compositional practice
  • the influence of medieval conceptions of gender, sexuality, body, sound, and music
  • pre-/postmodern ideas of reality

Our conception of ‘early music’ is a broad one, including the use, or re-use, of ‘real’ early music in contexts new and old. As ever, the conference will be live-streamed, and we welcome both speakers and delegates to attend digitally. All proposals and contributions will be considered.

If you have any questions about the conference, feel free to contact any of the organisers, particularly George Haggett, george.haggett@magd.ox.ac.uk .

Programme committee:

James Cook (University of Edinburgh)

George Haggett (Magdalen College Oxford)

Alexander Kolassa (Open University)

Leander Reeves (Oxford Brookes University)

Adam Whittacker (Royal Birmingham Conservatoire)

Sign-up for our jiscmail newsletter at: REMOSS@JISCMAIL.AC.UK

CFP: ‘Don’t mention the C Word’ – re-assessing the meaning and impact of censorship in opera

Former Brookes doctoral student, Dr Andrew Holden is organising the following conference hosted by the University of Leeds, supported by OBERTO, RHUL, Oxford Brookes and an Early Career Fellowship from the Institute for Musical Research.

Call for Papers – deadline Friday 13 March 2020.

‘Don’t mention the C Word’
– re-assessing the meaning and impact of censorship in opera

University of Leeds, Thursday 11 June 2020

At its 2015 conference in Madrid, Opera Europa, the main European industry network, heard from opera producers in Perm, Russia about the threat they face from renewed political oppression. Alexander Pereira, then Artistic Director of Teatro alla Scala, Milan, told the conference “there is no future without solidarity”. But solidarity with whom, and against what? This conference will explore a new understanding of opera’s regulation in a world in which binary poles between freedom of expression and censorship in opera have broken down.

The opera business model in its mature markets has been undermined by shrinking public grants and become more reliant on philanthropy. As opera ecologies expand in regions like East Asia and the Middle East, gender norms, sexuality and violence, cultural habits like smoking and tattoos, and the visual representation of naked flesh, are policed in highly individual contexts. Performance tradition and power structures in opera are also being breached by more collaborative approaches to production and community opera, as well as performer and audience activism based on gender, ethnicity and disability. These trends challenge existing concepts of censorship, in which a range of participants have agency in processes which may mimic regulatory control, but in pursuit of diversity and against cultural appropriation, for example ethnocentric operatic tropes such as ‘blackface’ Otellos and ‘yellowface’ orientalism. Many of these trends encourage risk aversion and self-censorship.

The boundaries between taste, market forces, local cultural contexts and artistic freedom have always been shadowy. This one-day conference will address the pressing need for a more nuanced articulation of how censorship is operating in the global market for opera.

Potential Conference Themes:

  • Theoretical concepts and expanded definitions of censorship
  • Legacies of censorship.
  • What is being censored in opera – text, music, characterisation, staging, space, reception.
  • Processes of adaptation
  • Censorship of opera in relation to other art forms.
  • Local, regional, national conventions, transnational circulation, globalisation.
  • Emerging markets – artistic, cultural, religious, political contexts.
  • Opera business models and their impact on artistic expression – state and private funding, co-production and hires.
  • Evolving sub-genres of opera – eg. community opera, site-specific opera.
  • Agency and power dynamics within opera production.
  • Broadcasting, digital criticism, social media, audience activism.
  • Rhetorics of censorship including cultural sensitivity and exchange, diplomacy, marketing

Abstracts for 20-minute papers (max 300 words) and short biographies (max 150 words) should be sent to andrew.holden@rhul.ac.uk by Friday 13 March 2020.

Interdisciplinary approaches, and paper proposals from early career researchers and opera practitioners are particularly welcome.

The conference is hosted jointly by the School of Performance and Cultural Industries and the School of Music, also supported by OBERTO at Oxford Brookes University.

The conference will be free to attend. A small number of travel and accommodation bursaries, generously provided by the Institute of Musical Research, will be available to doctoral candidates, and early career researchers.

For any additional information contact Andrew Holden: andrew.holden@rhul.ac.uk

OBERTO Conference 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. A day of presentations and panels, featuring opera scholars as well as opera industry professionals, will explore how opera houses and opera audiences create repertoires, and whether and how the operatic canon needs to be refreshed for the twenty-first century.

9am Registration
9.45am Welcome
10am Session 1: Foundations

Mike Gibb (Founder of Operabase): New Opera in the 21st Century – A Guided

Cormac Newark (Guildhall School of Music and Drama): The Oxford Handbook of the Operatic Canon

11am Coffee break
11.30am Session 2: Interventions

Leo Doulton (director and librettist): Frankenstein’s Donster: Reinventing Don
Giovanni with the Arcola Queer Collective

Andrew Holden (Oxford Brookes University / Turin): Don’t Mention the ‘C’
Word – Negotiating and Confronting the Transnational Circulation of Opera

Imani Danielle Mosley (Wichita State University): ‘The Positives Outweigh the
Negatives’: Performing Opera in the Age of Social Justice and Social Media

1pm Lunch
2pm Session 3: Institutions and Orthodoxies

Adriana Festeu (Royal Academy of Music): Programming Operatic Repertoire
for Young Singers

Sid Wolters-Tiedge (Forschungsintitut für Musiktheater, University of
Bayreuth): ‘Verachtet mir die Meister nicht’: Directing the Operatic Canon as
Institutional Practice in Germany

Alexandra Wilson (Oxford Brookes University): Dead White Men and the Spectre of Elitism

3.30pm Tea break
4pm Session 4: Marginalia?

Jeremy Gray (Bampton Classical Opera): Footnote Operas: Probing the
Marginalia of Classical Opera

Alexandra Monchick (California State University, Northridge): Outside the
Operatic Canon after #MeToo

5pm Panel Discussion

with Benedict Nelson (baritone), Brian Robins (Early Music World), Jane-Eve
Straughton (English Touring Opera), Michael Volpe (Opera Holland Park)

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, tea and coffee will be provided. Please register if you plan to attend by emailing tde-oberto@brookes.ac.uk  before 1 September 2019, and include any dietary preferences.

2019 OBERTO conference – CFP deadline extended

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 oberto@brookes.ac.uk .

The conference will take place at Oxford Brookes University on Tuesday, 10 September 2019.

The 2019 OBERTO Conference – CFP

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 oberto@brookes.ac.uk by Friday 28 June 2019.

OBERTO Post Graduate Research Conference, 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 tde-oberto@brookes.ac.uk  and include any dietary preferences.

Provisional Programme

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

11.30-12: Coffee

12-1: Keynote

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

1-2: Lunch

2-3 Session 2:

2a: Wagner

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

3-3.30: Coffee

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

CFP: Postgraduate Research Conference, 2019

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
  • singers
  • musical analysis
  • historiography

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 tde-oberto@brookes.ac.uk 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.

Opera in the Jazz Age

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 bookpiccategorised 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


Conference Report, OBERTO 2018: Opera and Violence

The 2018 OBERTO conference brought together an international field of speakers from the UK, Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Canada and the United States and was attendedaudience-3 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.


Laura Attridge

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.



Alessandro Talevi

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.

Opera and Violence: Abstracts from the 2018 OBERTO conference

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

Programme for the 2018 OBERTO Conference

We are delighted to share the programme for the forthcoming OBERTO 2018 conference, which will take place at Oxford Brookes University (Headington Hill Hall) on Tuesday, 11 September 2018. Participation is free, including lunch and refreshments, but please reserve a place by sending an email to oberto@brookes.ac.uk.


Opera and Violence

9.45 am: Welcome


10am: Session 1: Exoticism – Colonialism


Francesco Bracci (University of Bern): ‘The Violence of the Weak: Colonialism, Violence and Irrationality in 19th Century Opera’

Richard Langham Smith (Royal College of Music): ‘Hardened Criminals; Softened Violence. Bloodshed in Carmen

11am: Coffee break

11.30 am: Session 2a: Violence in Contemporary Stage Works


George Haggett (Royal Holloway): ‘“heart hair mouth nail hand skin blood”: Hearing the Thirteenth-Century Body in George Benjamin and Martin Crimp’s Written on Skin


Nadine Scharfetter (University of Music and Performing Arts Graz): ‘Olga Neuwirth’s American Lulu (2006-2011): Alban Berg’s Lulu against the backdrop of the civil rights movement’


Annalise Smith (Cornell University): ‘Beautiful Music for Ugly Situations: Operatic Depictions of Sexual Violence’

11.30 am: Session 2b: Abusive Relationships


Emma Kavanagh (University of Nottingham): ‘“Non! Non!”: Pelléas et Mélisande, Symbolism, and Issues of Consent’


Robert Rawson (Canterbury Christ Church University): ‘Jenůfa and Kaťa’s public and private reactions to the violence of samodurstvo in Janáček’s Jenůfa and Kaťa Kabanová


Sid Wolters-Tiedge (University of Bayreuth): ‘Violently funny? Thoughts about staging violence in Harrison Birtwistle’s Punch and Judy

1pm: LUNCH



2pm: Session 3a: Dis/ability and Violence


Christina Guillaumier (Royal College of Music): ‘War in the Late Operas of Sergei Prokofiev’


Charlotte Armstrong (University of York): ‘(Re)Interpreting Impairment: Disability and Moral Degeneracy in Franz Schreker’s Die Gezeichneten at Komische Oper Berlin (January 2018)’

2pm: Session 3b: Reception and (post-)Fascism


Georg Burgstaller (RILM New York): ‘No More Storm: The Reception of Britten’s Peter Grimes in Occupied Austria, 1947’


Nicolò Palazetti (University of Birmingham): ‘“Gronda il sangue dalle più vaghe apparenze” The Italian Premiere of Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle in 1938’

3pm: Tea break

3.30: Session 4: Mozart and Violence in Contemporary Stagings


Margaret Cormier (McGill University): ‘Reimagining the Seraglio in the Twenty First Century: Staging Violence Against Women in Two Productions of Die Entführung aus dem Serail


Alessandro Talevi (freelance opera director): ‘Violence at the end of the pier’


Laura Attridge (freelance opera director): ‘Leaning into the Discomfort: Approaching Classic Operatic Repertoire in 2018’

5pm: Closing session (chaired by Mark Berry)


Maria Thomas (University of Hertfordshire): ‘“I was there”: A reflection on Michieletto’s Guillaume Tell at the Royal Opera House’


Group discussion


OBERTO in Venice, 2018

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.

Britten-Pears Foundation at OBERTO


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 Pears Foundation Archive

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/