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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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’
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’
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.