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.
OBERTO staff were delighted to welcome Michael Volpe, General Director at Opera Holland Park, to Brookes on 20th June to receive an Honorary Doctorate in Music.
Michael Volpe with OBERTO staff Alexandra Wilson (left) and Barbara Eichner (right)
Michael Volpe joined the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea in 1989, where his role was to promote local cultural institutions. Within a few years he had persuaded the Council to start its own opera company. Opera Holland Park is now one of the UK’s most thriving, respected and artistically innovative opera companies. As General Director, Michael’s numerous duties include repertory choice, strategic planning, fundraising, communications and all general aspects of creating the festival infrastructure.
Michael is a powerful advocate for the transformative nature of education. He attended an unusual state boarding school, which took inner city boys and gave them an education rich in music and drama. Since then, he has dedicated himself to promoting opera as something everyone can enjoy. He is a regular voice in the national press and his recent memoir Noisy at the Wrong Times is a passionate plea for the arts to be taken seriously in schools. Michael has spoken at several OBERTO conferences and we look forward to collaborating with him again in the future. We consider him to be a superb role-model for our students. The full text of Michael’s speech can be found below.
Michael Volpe: Honorary Doctorate acceptance speech
Oxford Brookes June 2016
It is with great surprise and pleasure that I come here today to accept this honorary doctorate, the giving of which is met with more pride than I can actually express. To be recognised by an academic institution is not something I ever thought possible as I grew up. My two oldest children have achieved far more than I have in academia, but, as a competitive Dad I just want to say to them…erm, Doctor?!
I am also honoured to be here on what is a great day of achievement for all of you and I have been asked to speak to you with the intention of inspiring you. Perhaps the best thing I can do is ask you to look at yourselves for inspiration: I can say that all of you, by dedicating yourself to your degrees, by showing the commitment and desire, have already achieved a great deal more than I ever did. You have much to feel proud of yourselves for and if it helps to use my own failures as inspiration, I am happy to allow you to do so.
The question is, what kind of a world are you going out into, and more specifically, given the subject of many of your degrees, what kind of an arts and cultural world are you entering? It is a tough one, I won’t lie.
Over the next ten years, our children, and thus your future audiences, customers or collaborators will leave school less cultured and knowledgeable of the arts than ever before. The proposed new eBacc doesn’t encourage careers in the arts and as a nation, the country of Shakespeare, we don’t truly put the arts alongside other subjects. We are making it extra-curricular. And the world is largely an electronic one, which may encourage you to go into media arts, or become social media gurus. I suppose that you are all children of the digital age too. But don’t despair at any of these realities, which I am well known for doing a lot of moaning about. The world is still full of human beings. They may communicate in different ways but our emotions and our responses haven’t changed. Our chemistry HAS survived Twitter.
Having taken an arts degree, you may still end up doing something unrelated, as do many people in the working world, but I contend you will be better at it. I was lucky enough to attend a school that put cultural education at the very heart of its academic life, with the highest standards possible. I was the world’s worst pupil, but not when I was on stage, or singing or drawing. I came from a poor Italian family who came to this country in the fifties. Neapolitan songs were our house soundtrack, a bit of opera by Mario Lanza perhaps. The effect that theatre and music had on me as a truculent teenager was startling in its transformative power. And when I used to go to football matches at Chelsea, I might have been the only person there who knew that the abusive song we were all singing was based on the Libiamo from La Traviata. It felt good knowing that.
And culture defines our histories. We recognise decades and centuries largely by the culture of the time. Culture is at the core of humanity, it isn’t just a hobby a few of us have. Every single person on the planet is touched by the creativity of others, whether the most rapacious business that needs a beautiful logo and a well written brochure or the most primitive tribes on the planet who sing together around the fire. The fact that we spend so much of our time in the arts trying to make this point to the government is actually absurd. The irony of it struck me last week when the Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, was a guest at Opera Holland Park. Now, she was our guest, on a rare night off, and it wasn’t appropriate for me to voice my opposition to some of her policies too heartily, but she was keen to read my book about the school I went to, and my inscription to her in it was restrained and genuine. But I offered my services should she want to discuss the issue of cultural education. She was eager to read the book on her summer holidays, so perhaps in September, we will see some surprising policy reversals from the government.
But there we were, a poor, immigrants’ son, with a party that included two distinguished lawyers, a government minister, the leader of the wealthiest council in the country and a distinguished former chair of the V&A friends, at an accessible opera festival that I founded and which has generated millions for the local economy – and they were all very pleased that I had taken the time to visit them at their picnic table. I think the irony of it may not strike the minister until she has read the book, but I have always been amazed at how what I do, rather than divide classes, actually brings us together in collective appreciation of something beautiful.
In fairness, I think the government believes what it says about the arts, but ultimately, it isn’t something they can control or do much harm to. The world cannot exist or function without the creative industries. I think – and hope – that people like you will always follow your hearts and gifts and talents. It is something we don’t, and can’t, control.
If you do pursue a career in a creative industry, I will always encourage you to engage in work that speaks in a human way to your audience, but above all, whatever you decide to do in the years to come, your over-riding aim should simply be to believe fully in what it is you are doing. And don’t chase what someone else tells you is what the ‘audience’ or market ‘wants’. Always do your best to expose them to more, to the new, to the challenging. You yourselves can determine how your work, your efforts and your passions will affect the lives of others.
As for your careers and how to negotiate them, there is no great secret to it. I will offer a few pointers to if not success, then a comfortable sense of honest endeavour. The lavishness of any consequent success is up to you and your talent.
- Believe in yourself. One of my favourite sayings is “if you don’t blow your own trumpet, someone else will use it as a spittoon.” So blow your trumpet. Sometimes, blow it more quietly – but blow it nevertheless.
There is a difference, however, between blowing your own trumpet and blowing someone else’s for them. The world is full of egomaniacs who will want to take credit for your achievements, for your creativity, your talent. Be secure in the knowledge they have done it because they want the reflected glory. That is your reward, along with the satisfaction of the achievement.
- However, when YOU reach a position of leadership and authority. Never take credit for the achievements of others. Well, we have to stop the cycle somewhere.
- Generosity of spirit towards those around you will ensure you are far more likely to learn more from them, and in turn make you better at what you do. This is not to say you shouldn’t stand up for yourself – you should, most firmly. But don’t be an arse about it.
- Integrity is an overused word. People with the least integrity I have ever known have been very fond of using the word. It is hard to know what it means in every context. I think of it in quite a simple way. You set yourself basic rules and you stick to them. If you are being challenged or criticised, you need to be able to look that person square in the eye, without flinching, and to either accept that criticism, or dispute it. Integrity will help you do that fearlessly. You must always be fearless.
- Never, ever give up. You can eventually admit defeat, but that is distinct from giving up. Meet your challenges fearlessly, honestly, with integrity, passionately, with humility and collaboratively. If you do that, your talents will shine through.
You have all achieved a great deal already. But you have so much to learn. That isn’t meant to patronise you, because if you are clever, you will realise that you never, ever stop learning. All the best among us would agree with me.
Congratulations on your graduations and good luck.
The OBERTO opera research unit at Oxford Brookes University acts a mechanism by which to stimulate, support and promote staff and postgraduate research in opera studies. But it also has a more outward-facing ambition, which is to encourage people from outside the University to debate current issues in opera studies, whether they be other academics and students, opera industry professionals or members of the general public.
With this latter aim in mind, OBERTO hosted a free study afternoon at Senate House in London on 28 November entitled ‘Popular Opera in Britain, Past and Present’. The event considered opera’s status as a form of popular entertainment and its connections with other types of popular culture, with the aim of scrutinising whether the term ‘highbrow’ is appropriate when discussing opera.
A full podcast of this event is available here!
In the first half of the afternoon, two speakers transported listeners back in time to the beginning of the twentieth century, recreating British operatic culture in colourful detail. Dr Paul Rodmell (University of Birmingham) demonstrated that opera was regarded as genuinely popular entertainment during the Edwardian era, arguing that ‘opera came within reach of a greater proportion of the population than either before or since’. In large part this was due to the activities of touring opera companies such as the Carl Rosa and the Moody-Manners. These companies were constantly on the road, performing popular operas at popular prices in towns and cities up and down the land, as Rodmell illustrated vividly with interactive PowerPoint maps. The press of the day focused almost exclusively on Covent Garden, but Rodmell demonstrated that the real operatic picture of the years up to World War One was far more varied.
Dr Alexandra Wilson (OBERTO) then picked up the baton with a specific focus on the 1920s. During this decade, opera’s cultural status began to change and it is here that we can find the roots of some of the present-day attitudes towards opera. Intense debates about whether forms of culture were ‘highbrow’, ‘middlebrow’ or ‘lowbrow’ took place in Britain during the 1920s, in what has often been called the ‘battle of the brows’. Wilson demonstrated, however, that opera was very difficult to categorise, being regarded by some middlebrow commentators as too highbrow but by many music critics and intellectuals as not highbrow enough. Opera was still very popular among all classes, but the decline of the touring companies meant that opportunities to hear live opera were fewer than before the War. Opera mingled in interesting ways with new forms of popular culture: opera singers tried to carve out careers as film stars, jazz bands pinched melodies from Wagner and Puccini operas, and opera composers were the protagonists of best-selling novels. On the other hand, there were growing attempts to ridicule it by setting it up as something antithetical to the everyday.
These historical papers presented vital cultural background for the second section of discussion, which focused upon the present day. Four speakers who are involved in performing, researching and writing about opera took part: Anastasia Belina-Johnson (Royal College of Music), Benjamin Hulett (tenor), Cormac Newark (Guildhall School of Music) and John Snelson (Head of Publishing and Interpretation, Royal Opera House). The speakers were each asked to present a five minute response to the question of whether ‘highbrow’ is an appropriate word to use when discussing opera today; a lively round-table debate with questions from the floor then ensued. The speakers approached the question from a variety of different angles and it soon became apparent that the answer to it was far from clear cut: ‘highbrow’ seems in some contexts to be a dirty word, yet has the potential to be reclaimed in more positive ways. Discussion ranged widely, covering connections between opera and musical theatre, confrontations between opera and sport, and ways of promoting opera to new audiences that place an emphasis upon the simple factor of its being enjoyable.
Enjoyment was certainly something that characterised the study day itself and audience members commented on Twitter that they found it ‘thought provoking and intelligently led’ and ‘great but too short!’ One attendee remarked afterwards: ‘The comments on the current opera scene were very illuminating – it is good to have this kind of information from people who are actually involved, rather than just journalists and critics.’
We are very grateful to the British Academy for its generous funding of this event and the Institute of Musical Research for kindly providing a room at Senate House.
School of Arts
3 years full-time fees will be paid by the University.
Bursary: £7,000 pa (with no inflation increase).
Deadline: The closing date for applications is 22 December 2015.
Interview date: Interviews will be held in week beginning 4 January 2016.
Start date: April 2016
To mark its 150th Anniversary, Oxford Brookes University is pleased to offer this 3 year full-time PhD Studentship in the opera research unit OBERTO within the School of Arts, starting in April 2016.
The successful applicant will receive an annual bursary of £7,000 for three years (with no inflation increase), and fees will be paid by the University. The candidate will need to demonstrate that they have sufficient additional means to complete the programme successfully in full-time study.
Topic of research: Opera and Politics
Opera and politics have been intimately connected since the birth of the art-form. Political agendas may be present in the way in which operas are conceived, staged and received, whilst opera’s place in society is invariably political, as demonstrated by omnipresent debates about the funding of opera and about accessibility. The field of opera and politics is a growing one but countless topics in this area, both historical and contemporary, remain to be explored.
This project will allow the recipient of the doctoral award to investigate the issue from one of many potential angles, including (but not restricted to):
Politics as represented on the operatic stage
- The politicised reception of opera
- Opera and society: gender, race, national identity and class
- The politics of opera staging
- The contemporary politics of opera: new audiences; stereotypes; funding
- Opera and politics on film
The recipient of this doctoral award will be supervised by Dr Alexandra Wilson (Reader in Music), whose work in this area includes: the politicised reception of Puccini’s operas; operatic politics in early twentieth-century Italy and Britain; opera onstage and in film; and contemporary debates about cultural categorisation, accessibility and opera stereotypes.
Informal enquiries may be addressed to firstname.lastname@example.org and further information about Dr Wilson’s research interests can be found at: http://arts.brookes.ac.uk/staff/alexandrawilson.html
The recipient of this award would be expected to contribute proactively to the activities of the OBERTO opera research unit. Further information about OBERTO can be found athttps://obertobrookes.com/
If you would like to apply you should request an application pack email@example.com, quoting ‘Opera and Politics’ in the subject line. Fully completed applications must be sent to the same email address by 22 December 2015.
Please be advised that the selection process may involve an interview in the week commencing January 4 2016, and the successful candidate would be expected to commence the research degree programme in April 2016.
Popular Opera, Past and Present
Saturday 28 November 2015, 3-5pm
Room 261, Senate House, Malet Street, London, WC1E 7HU
This study afternoon, open to members of the public, will consider opera’s status as a form of popular entertainment past and present. The aim of the event is to scrutinise and challenge stereotypes about opera being an ‘elitist’ activity.
In the first half of the afternoon Dr Alexandra Wilson (Oxford Brookes University) and Dr Paul Rodmell (University of Birmingham) will recreate the British operatic culture of a century ago, demonstrating that in the early twentieth century opera played to all social classes, enjoyed close connections with a range of different types of popular culture and resisted being pigeon-holed as ‘highbrow’ art. In the second half of the afternoon they will be joined by Dr Anastasia Belina-Johnson (Royal College of Music), Benjamin Hulett (tenor), Dr Cormac Newark (Guildhall School of Music and Drama), and Dr John Snelson (Royal Opera House) for a round-table discussion of opera and popular culture today, debating whether the term ‘highbrow’ has any valid currency in the operatic context.
This OBERTO event has been organised in association with the Institute of Musical Research and funded by the British Academy. Attendance is free but places are limited. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org in order to reserve a place.
We’re very pleased to have a PhD studentship on offer!
This is open to applicants interested in working on opera and politics with Dr Alexandra Wilson.
Full details can be found here.
Following on from OBERTO’s 2014 conference, which challenged stereotypes of elitism in opera, this September another enthusiastic and diverse group of scholars, students and opera industry professionals, gathered at Oxford Brookes’ Headington Campus to explore a wide range of historical angles on the changing nature of celebrity in opera, with papers ranging from eighteenth-century Parma to contemporary use of digital and social media.
In the opening session, David Kennerley (University of Oxford) and Anna Maria Barry (Oxford Brookes) presented complementary examples of female and male singers as objects and agents of celebrity in the nineteenth century.
Kennerley’s examination of two prima donnas in London, Catley and Vestris, highlighted their own manipulation of an exaggerated morally questionable public persona and how that might contrast with the reality of their private life. His paper also pointed to contemporary critical distinction of ‘effeminate’ celebrity culture from more serious and implicitly masculine musical criticism. Barry used three examples of male singers, Santley, Kelly and Reeves, to show how the masculine celebrity image could be shaped to portray a rugged, physically active persona. She also highlighted the way in which a vigorous contemporary conversation between different accounts and through the correspondence pages developed. Finally, she pointed to some of the consumer material culture through which the celebrity was connected to the public, including portraits of famous singers that were sold to be tinselled by young boys.
During the first of two parallel sessions, Margaret Butler (University of Florida) and Christina Paine (Royal Holloway) presented two in-depth case studies of prima donnas’ influence and power – Caterina Gabrielli in 1760s Parma and Angelica Catalani in Regency London.
Butler focused on new evidence from her archival research of theatre accounts demonstrating a singer’s influence from an institutional perspective. Gabrielli’s celebrity enabled the Parma theatre to pay down debts incurred through expensive French stagings and ballets. Paine examined how Catalani dealt with crises of her own ‘celebrity’ during two notorious episodes, and considered ways of challenginggender stereotypes about women’s agency, particularly with regard to their legal status and political power.
In the other morning panel, IngeborgZechner (University of Salzburg) and Clair Rowden (Cardiff University) gave papers on two Scandinavian prima donnas, Jenny Lind and Christine Nilsson. Zechner analysed the role of the media and managerial marketing strategies and the interplay between the London opera theatres, the wider celebrity market and lucrative US concert circuit. Rowden built on the theme of the development of the international celebrity opera circuit, and showed how Nilsson’s marketed persona highlighted and perhaps exaggerated elements of religion, Scandinavian and Nordic culture enthusiastically played on by the media.
Finally, Annabelle Lee fast-forwarded us to Joyce DiDonato’s use of social media, which gave the Twitter users among the audience the chance to live tweet responses to her thoughts about tweeting! Lee presented rich data from interviews with social media followers of DiDonato.
The ‘graveyard’ slot after lunch was enlivened by a round-table of industry professionals, Michael Volpe (Opera Holland Park), Hugo Shirley (Gramophone) and Rupert Christiansen (Daily Telegraph). The panel dissected various contemporary afflictions facing contemporary operatic celebrity culture. They questioned the augmented role of the stage director, over-training of singers and a homogeneity of sound and personality, and the influence of visual and digital media.
The final panel session of the day on ‘Mechanics of Celebrity’ comprised papers on less conventional operatic products, by Colleen Renihan (Mount Allison University), Anastasia Belina-Johnson (Royal College of Music) and Derek Scott (University of Leeds), and Harry Hickman (University of Cambridge). Renihan stunned the audience with a You-Tube video of child star Jackie Evancho and examined the ways in which opera is used in the repertoire of child stars in the United States. Belina-Johnson and Scott analysed a selection of Polish operetta celebrities from the early twentieth century including how the operetta system was embedded in the wider commercial culture of Poland. Finally, Hickman pursued the theme of the relationship between new media and live performance by analysing the creation of the Metropolitan Opera’s DVD ‘Wagner’s Dream’ to accompany their Lepage Ring Cycle and how it might have influenced consumption of the performance itself both in the theatre and on DVD.
The audience retired to the suitably decorous drawing room at Headington Hill Hall for a lecture recital by Oxford Brookes’ own Alexandra Wilson, with Samantha Hay (Soprano) and Luke Peter Green (Piano). Focusing on the 1920s, Wilson analysed the relationship between the celebrity star system, and critical distinctions between high art and the eclectic tastes of a wider public, and between foreign and home-grown singers. One critic from the time predicted that the age of vulgarity would have ended within five generations. To close the conference, Samantha Hay and Luke Green, in period dress, thrilled the audience with an astoundingly varied recital from a 1920s concert programme:
Caro mio ben: Giordani
Non so più (The Marriage of Figaro): Mozart
The Last Rose of Summer: folk song
Solveig’s Song: Grieg
Les Filles de Cadix: Delibes
Juliette’s Waltz – Ah! Je veux vivre! (Roméo et Juliette): Gounod
Sempre libera (La traviata): Verdi
Home Sweet Home
Speakers travelled to the conference from as far afield as Austria, Canada and the United States. Feedback from delegates about the day was extremely positive, with one American scholar saying “The level of scholarship was high all round and the breadth of topics within the theme was also impressive….The conference was an excellent introduction to your research unit, which is sponsoring vital work for our field”. Looking forward to OBERTO 2016!
Dr Alexandra Wilson has written an article in the Oxford Brookes Research Forum Magazine about OBERTO’s work challenging stereotypes about operatic elitism. Click on the link below to download this piece.
Russell Burdekin is a postgraduate student at Oxford Brookes University, following the nineteenth-century music pathway of the MA in Music
It is not an unusual sight in parts of Italy to see a couple of resplendent ceremonial carabinieri stood at the main door of the opera house for an opera première. The opening night of Halévy’s La Juive at Opera Vlaanderen in Gent on April 15 saw a guard of Belgian police, some with sub machine guns. After last year’s shootings at the Jewish Museum in Brussels, the management were clearly taking no chances that someone might take the opera’s title as a provocation.
La Juive was one of the grandest of the Paris grand operas with one newspaper commenting on the enormous Act 1 procession that “The Opéra may become a power capable of throwing its armies into the balance of power in Europe” [i]. The libretto by Scribe was typical of his style with an unlikely series of events and coincidences vaguely based on historical incidents, in this case in 15th century Constance, and culminating in a sensational ending. It seems that Meyerbeer might have been approached initially to write the music [ii] but it soon devolved on Halévy and the opera premiered on February 23, 1835. Ruth Jordan claimed that the story fired Halévy’s imagination because it brought him “face to face with his [Jewish] heritage” [iii]. However, he did not respond by making use of Jewish music to any great extent nor could much of the music be called particularly inspired; “as for popular music, it has none” was Donizetti’s opinion after seeing it [iv]. However, other composers, including Mahler and Offenbach and, more surprisingly, Wagner, have been more complimentary and, after a shaky start, the opera firmly established itself in the 19th century repertoire.
The opera is a rare beast today and I was particularly interested that Opera Vlaanderen had hired Peter Konwitschny as the director, who is known for his radical interpretations, such as that of La Traviata at ENO in 2013. To complement the opera, Opera Vlaanderen had also organised a two day conference on Judaism in Opera, during which Konwitschny discussed some of his decisions. He explained that he had directed little in the way of French opera, other than Carmen, and had been completely unfamiliar with La Juive until being invited to direct it. He talked of his Brechtian approach, no doubt a legacy of his East German upbringing, that aimed to avoid superficial sentimental emotion (“it’s not just about two poor Jews”) in the pursuit of a longer lasting and more deeply considered response ( “the audience should come out resisting intolerance”). More personally, he had asked himself whether he, as a German, was allowed to criticise a Jew – no doubt having in mind Eléazar’s own intolerance and morally ambiguous behaviour, particularly his lack of honesty with Rachel about her parentage. He then stated that he considered that the opera was too long with too many blocks to the dramatic flow and that the music was not good and had too many choruses. He had thus set about refashioning the opera to provide an exciting and suspenseful evening rather than just a long evening and certainly succeeded in his aim with an absolutely cracking performance that illuminated the spirit if not always kept to the letter of the opera. While this stance is anathema to some opera lovers, it was clear that Konwitschny had given the project considerable thought and was not just wanting to be different or to shock, the motivation that many often ascribe to non-traditional productions.
Konwitschny saw the opera not primarily as Christian and Jew but as persecuting majority and persecuted minority, an essay in intolerance. To this end all wore modern dress with no distinction except that the Christians wore blue gloves and the Jews yellow. Thus he claimed to have deracinated the opera, although I doubt whether many would be convinced about this even if they might agree about his broader message. I wondered whether it was deliberate that he chose yellow for the Jewish gloves bearing in mind the yellow badge that Jews were forced to wear in Nazi Germany but which would have cut across his avowed neutral approach or whether it was an oversight. The set had a huge rose window and other stained glass at the rear, which were lit up for certain scenes and otherwise the main features were groups of vertical metal bars that were arranged in various structures according to the scene. Thus it was a fairly minimal, functional set with no indication of time or place.
©Annemie Augustijns, courtesy of Oper Vlaanderen
Typical of his reworking of the opera was his removal of the overture so that we plunged straight into the organ introduction to the “Te Deum” and the gathering of the Christians under the leadership of Cardinal de Brogni. Around a further 30 minutes was cut from the earlier part of Act 1 and its lengthy scene-setting. In Act 2, he moved Eléazar’s cavatine to the end of the act because it does not have any specific bearing on the action at that point but is of a more philosophic nature and he wanted to keep up the dramatic impetus with Eudoxie’s entrance immediately following Rachel’s rising suspicion about Léopold when he does not eat the unleavened bread. Act 3 caused the greatest discussion amongst the next day’s conference attendees because when Rachel publicly accused Léopold of being her lover she was shown wearing a suicide belt. Some delegates felt that this ran against Rachel’s role as a mediator and the whole thrust of her personality. Unfortunately, the chairman called time on Konwitschny before he could adequately explain his ideas behind it but he said that he did not consider her as nice a person as some did and seemed to have been thinking in terms of her wanting to destroy the patrimony that was suppressing the world.
©Annemie Augustijns, courtesy of Oper Vlaanderen
The end of the act saw the chorus, wearing various coloured gloves, constructing an endless series of suicide belts, presumably intimating that we are all complicit in prejudice and its manifest evils. Act 4, in which Rachel and Eudoxie come together in order to save the man who has betrayed them both, had their duet morph into a dance as they celebrated coming together to rise above the hatred that had hitherto permeated the opera and in washing their hands together both divested their gloves.
One of Konwitschny’s techniques was to have singers come out into the auditorium and mingle with the audience while singing, often having them seem to make asides to the audience or to look to the audience for support such as when Rachel, in the auditorium, lambasted Leopold, on the stage, for his duplicity. It gave the exchange a feeling of overhearing someone else’s argument and a much greater involvement than with a traditional stage confrontation. While this sort of manoeuvre is not new, I have never seen it put to such telling effect, although I did sympathise with the woman who sat with her hands over her ears as the volume must have been pretty daunting when Eléazar sang the big hit number “Rachel, quand du Seigneur” a couple of feet away from her.
The end is a problem. Scribe, as was his usual practice, aimed for an arresting stage coup with no regard for its musical potential [v]. Here the opera called for Eléazar and Rachel to be flung into cauldrons of boiling oil with Eléazar revealing that Rachel was Cardinal de Brogni’s daughter as this happened. Donizetti wrote on seeing it, “Too much reality – the final scene too horrifying, the more horrifying because of so much illusion” [vi]. For today’s director perhaps there can be no appropriate realisation living as we do under the shadow of the Holocaust. Here, Konwitschny had them walk up some stairs and then out of sight, while de Brogni fell down the stairs in his surprise and anguish. It served but lacked any real emotional punch.
©Annemie Augustijns, courtesy of Oper Vlaanderen
All the roles were strongly delineated, even Eudoxie who can be a somewhat shadowy figure, and all were acted with great energy and commitment. The singing (Eléazar – Roberto Sacca, Rachel – Asmik Grigorian, de Brogni – Dmitry Ulyanov, Léopold – Randall Bills, Eudoxie – Nicole Chevalier, Ruggiero – Toby Girling) was excellent particularly when one considers the very physical acting that they were often asked to do at the same time and the whole enterprise was well supported by the orchestra under Tomás Netopil.
While some opera fans will no doubt decry such manipulation of the opera, it was all in all an intense and exhilarating evening and the audience clearly appreciated it. Unfortunately, on leaving the theatre past the armed police, they needed no reminding that intolerance is still very much with us.
[i] Quoted in Hugh Macdonald, “La Juive”, The New Grove Dictionary of Opera. Vol 2, edited by Stanley Sadie (London: Macmillan Reference Ltd., 1998) , p.926.
[ii] Mark Everist, Giacomo Meyerbeer and Music Drama in Nineteenth-Century Paris. (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate Publishing, 2005), p.221.
[iii] Ruth Jordan, Fromental Halevy. (London: Kahn & Averill, 1997), p.59.
[iv] Quote from a letter to Innocenzo Giampieri in Herbert Weinstock, Donizetti. (London: Lowe & Brydone, 1964), p.108.
[v] “The denouement for which music can do nothing” wrote Donizetti of Scribe’s ending for Dom Sébastien – Zaida and Sébastien fall from the rope they are climbing down to escape – quoted in William Ashbrook, Donizetti and his operas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), p.187.
[vi] Herbert Weinstock Loc. Cit.
One of the most enjoyable elements of studying for a PhD is the fact that it presents many opportunities to travel. Admittedly, these trips can often be less than glamorous; a stay in a dodgy hotel in Hull and getting lost in the wastelands of Taunton have not really been high points of my academic career so far.
However, since I started work on my thesis two years ago, I have been lucky enough to visit several new corners of the UK to work in archives and give papers at universities; I even managed to find a good excuse to visit Venice for a conference last year. None of these adventures, however, were quite as appealing as the prospect of a research trip to archives in New York City and Washington D.C.
I work on opera singers of the nineteenth century and, over the course of my research, it quickly became clear that a significant amount of relevant sources were held in American collections. After compiling a list of these sources that numbered into the hundreds, I applied for funding from the Royal Historical Society and the Royal Musical Association in order to make a research trip possible. I was lucky enough to be successful on both counts and so, armed with my list of sources, I boarded a plane for New York City last month.
This was my first ever trip to the US and I was very much looking forward to experiencing research life stateside. My plan was to spend two weeks utilising various collections within three institutions: the New York Public Library, the Morgan Library in New York and the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C.. My work started several weeks before I left the UK, as a painstaking amount of organisation was needed to arrange access to so many different sources. Within the New York Public Library alone I needed to view material from ten different collections, each of which has its own librarian and several of which are located within different buildings across New York. Because of this, I was a little apprehensive when I turned up at New York Public Library on my first morning in the city.
New York Public Library
I had expected the library to be similar to the British Library, which is where I do most of my research in the UK. The feel, however, was quite different. To start with, the sheer beauty of the New York Public library stands in stark contrast to the far more modern St. Pancras site. Despite this grandeur, though, the feel of the library is much more informal. Indeed, it felt more like a local library than a central library; crowds of tourists wandered around taking photos, community groups and teenagers were using the reading rooms and there was always an interesting event going on in the foyer.
I spent a week at the library and, thanks to many helpful librarians, managed to navigate my way around its various divisions. I found far more material than I had anticipated, including very many prints and (literally!) thousands of newspaper articles about British opera singers I am working on. These newspaper articles, located on a database, proved a little bit of an issue as they were tricky and painstaking to save. I am still working through hundreds of PDFs that I saved to my laptop, but the material they contain is extremely rich. The sheer amount of newspaper sources has led me to re-evaluate my thoughts on the celebrity status of these singers, as they clearly had a far greater international profile than I had previously imagined.
I especially enjoyed my time in the Pforzheimer Collection, which contains archives relating to Percy Bysshe Shelley and his circle. This beautiful room looks like a Victorian gentleman’s study and I loved working at an antique desk, complete with a bust of Shelley to keep me company. As I worked in this area, accessible by appointment only, tourists took photos through a glass door. I also spent a day at the New York Public Library’s Performing Arts division, next to the Met. It was excellent to work so close to the opera house and I especially enjoyed the beautiful items that the library displays, in particular the belt that Sarah Bernhardt wore when she played Cleopatra.
The Met by night
Sarah Bernhardt’s Cleopatra belt
After a week in New York, I travelled to Washington D.C. to visit the Folger Shakespeare Library. I fell in love with Washington, which looked especially lovely with the famous fall colours out in force. A taxi to the Folger took me past several famous landmarks before stopping opposite the Capitol, where the library is very centrally located. This library is also extremely beautiful, packed with fascinating portraits and other theatrical relics. Over a few days, I worked through several collections of important letters, pamphlets and playbills. I especially enjoyed an expedition to the basement, hunting for a dusty old volume; bookcases stretch as far as the eye can see with a phenomenal amount of literature on Shakespeare and the stage. The material at the Folger is extremely rich and I certainly plan to return.
View from the Folger, looking towards the Capitol
The Folger Reading Room
David Garrick’s chair, complete with Shakespeare medallion attributed to Hogarth
The Folger’s cavernous basement
I headed back to New York for my final week, which I spent at the Morgan Library. The list of materials I had requested to see was so lengthy that I almost sent the librarian’s systems into meltdown, but the staff were extremely helpful and I managed to get through mountains of material over five days. These sources proved extremely rich; letters to and from key singers revealed much new information about their personalities and careers. Many of these letters form part of the extensive Gilbert and Sullivan collections held at the Morgan. Some were extremely touching, describing family tragedies and desperate situations. It was peculiar to spend hours engrossed in these letters, written in nineteenth-century London, before walking out onto bustling Madison Avenue. A favourite discovery was an album compiled by one of Queen Victoria’s servants, containing letters to and from the Queen as well as notes from dozens of key figures of the age; these included politicians, authors, artists and society figures. The album even contained a scrap of the Queen’s wedding dress and some of her artwork. After spending a week in the Morgan’s reading room, I spent some time exploring the rest of the library and Museum. The building is stunning with a library that has to be the most beautiful I’ve ever seen, rammed full of rare books and fascinating artworks.
The Morgan Library
My trip to the US was extremely fruitful; over a month after returning, I am still sorting through all of the material that I located! Many of these sources will feature prominently throughout my thesis, but especially in a chapters dealing with the themes of celebrity and touring. It was a surprise to discover just how many sources pertinent to British culture of the nineteenth century are held in America. I would certainly encourage others working on this period to explore what material is held in these institutions. This is very easy to do through their online catalogues, which are detailed and easy to use. I certainly plan to return to the US for future research and have already located certain collections that will be pertinent to my planned postdoctoral research. Watch this space!
New York Public Library by night
If there is one occasion when you hear me sigh: “Sounded like a good idea at the time”, it’s usually when I’ve accepted a conference invitation for mid-semester. Going to a European capital, catching up with old friends and meeting new colleagues are wonderful prospects – six months before the actual event. Back in April, there was optimism a-plenty that I would not just find the time to jet to Vienna and back again, but also to write a fairly original paper on a topic only marginally related to my established research interests in opera and German national identity. Four weeks before the event the flights were duly booked, but the confidence about the presentation had largely evaporated. How did I ever think that I could contribute something meaningful to Christoph Willibald Gluck – Mythen, Bilder, Diskurse, when the line-up featured specialists from the critical Gluck editions at Frankfurt and Salzburg? How would my paper on Gluck and German national opera slot into a programme which also featured presentations on Gluck’s 19th-century biographies, the concept of operatic reform or the image of Gluck as a classicist? I vividly saw myself playing “quotation bingo”: erasing from my paper one quotation after the other as the preceding speakers bagged all the juicy soundbites from Herder, Brendel, Marx et al. So it was with some apprehension that I set out on 22 October for Vienna, my paper completed (or at least written) for better or worse, largely thanks to a kind colleague who had taken on my first-year lecture.
And then it all turned out completely different. The conference itself was impeccably organised by Profs Michele Calella (Vienna), Klaus Pietschmann (Mainz) and Thomas Betzwieser (Frankfurt) and took place in the cosy new rooms of the Österreichische Gesellschaft für Musik (Austrian Society for Music), nestled between the State Opera and the art gallery “Albertina”. As it is customary for symposia on the continent, participation was free, which meant that the conference was attended by a good crowd of students, opera lovers and members of the general public, so conspicuously absent from many conferences in this country because of forbidding fees for bad coffee and limp biscuits. (Actually Michele Calella’s conference assistants spoiled us with home-made muffins.) Discussions were lively, vigorous and well-informed, and we made full use of the 45-minute slots allocated to each presentation. As the topic of Gluck reception was quite new to me, I learned a lot about performances of Gluck in Sweden during the reign of Gustav III (Jens Duffner), Russian culture wars over Gluck (Yuliya Shein), or Debussy’s attempts to erase Gluck’s pernicious Teutonic influence from the annals of French music (William Gibbons).
The highlights for me, however, were two presentations with quite dry-sounding titles: Melanie Unseld’s paper on the Gluck master-narratives in 19th-century biographies of the composer, and Arnold Jacobshagen’s musings on operatic reform and reform opera in 19th-century music historiography. Both speakers took their departure from a special branch of the German intellectual tradition that plays a small role in Anglophone musicology: Begriffsgeschichte, i.e. the history of technical terms and concepts, and Gattungsgeschichte, the history of musical genres. Both historiographical tools have been side-lined in recent years because they seem to sit badly with the myth-busting, hegemony-exposing impetus of the New Musicology, and because in the wrong hands they guarantee hours of unalleviated boredom. (I vividly remember a university seminar presentation I attended as a student where the unfortunate speaker started his analysis of theological messages of a specific Bach cantata by explaining the etymology of “cantata” in the early 17th century, working his way towards the 1720s with excruciating slowness.) The Gluck presentations by my senior colleagues from Oldenburg and Cologne, however, superbly demonstrated how a careful dissection of historiographical concepts illuminates our understanding of music’s place within the wider intellectual tradition of an era.
Melanie Unseld, who has wrote her Habilitation on music history and life writings, investigated a selection of early Gluck biographies, distilling a catalogue of narrative stereotypes (in academic German parlance now called a “Narrativ”, with a long final syllable) such as the humble origins of the artist in a Bohemian village, the misunderstood genius in philistine Vienna, the triumph against adversity in the Parisian querelles. Such narratives sound familiar enough, but Gluck’s “real” life story, as far as it can be reconstructed today, is singularly unsuited to the familiar fairy-tale of the musical genius à la Beethoven. With the help of the narrative tropes, however, the non-Beethovenian aspects of Gluck’s career simply vanish from the storyline: his shrewd business sense (Gluck died a very wealthy man indeed), his uneventful private life (no “immortal beloved” but a marriage that appears to have been as happy as anybody’s), or the fact that he continued writing traditional operas and even ballets after he had allegedly invented reform opera. Melanie Unseld then exemplified her theoretical reflections with a two-page anonymous biography of Gluck written sometime in the 1850s or 1860s, where Gluck is hailed as Wagner’s predecessor but, strangely, his short stay in Copenhagen receives much more attention than decades of Habsburg service in Vienna, playing to the interests of a North-German and progressivist readership.
The title of Arnold Jacobshagen’s paper sounded similar to Unseld’s, but he tackled the operatic reformer from quite a different angle: by tracing the very term “reform” to its origin in late-15th-century theology and church politics. As Jacobshagen argued, thanks to the historiography of the Reformation the term “reform” was understood as a genuinely German form of improving things with gradual and careful steps. In Enlightenment writings, the term was often still used in its French spelling – réforme – but towards the end of the century increasingly construed in opposition – or even as an antidote – to the dangerous French revolutionary tendencies which threatened to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Whereas French music historians customarily hailed Gluck as a revolutionary of French opera, German music historians celebrated Gluck as the master of operatic reform. The dialogue between these seemingly straightforward terms – reform and revolution – suddenly opened up a whole vista of historiographical configurations where not only Gluck, but all 19th-century attempts to push ahead with new artistic development appeared in a new light.
My paper came straight after Unseld’s and Jacobshagen’s, and I have to admit feeling rather self-conscious that my paper lacked a comparable theoretical or methodological foundation, as I placed Gluck in the development of German national opera before and after Wagner. Although no German writer of the 19th century seriously doubted Gluck’s essentially German nationality and national character (see also Eric Schneeman’s inspired blog post about this issue), there was no denying that he had never written a German opera (or even just an opera in German), but concentrated his creative efforts on Italian opere serie and French tragédies. Nevertheless Gluck’s name was often invoked to ward off the dangerous enthusiasm for contemporary Italian opera, playing as it were the bible and garlic to the Rossinian vampires. But that does not mean that his music was a pivotal or even permanent presence on the German stages, nor that young composers invariably looked towards Gluck for guidance and inspiration; Wagner was not the only one for whom Gluck was comfortably dead and buried. Whatever the academic merits of my paper (it can be read in full on academia.edu), at least most of the jokes came off and I introduced a running gag to the conference: Gluck and the German forest. For the published version in the conference proceedings – the organisers will make us work a bit more for the comfortable hotel and the opera tickets – I feel sorely tempted to replace my rather misguided conference title “Zurück in die Zukunftsmusik” with the snappier “Gluck im deutschen Wald”. Side-lining Wagner in a discussion of German national opera is, after all, sometimes not a bad idea.
‘Let the past and its oddness provoke us’ – A day at the Oxford Centre for Life Writing, by Corrina Connor
Biography and life-writing are often central to musicology, and to opera studies in particular. Although my own research does not involve writing a biography of any particular performer, I am investigating the professional – and also the personal – lives of a number of singers who worked at the Theater an der Wien in the 1870s and 1880s. When I saw an announcement for a day workshop called ‘Quest for Materials: Life-Writing Challenges’, run by the Oxford Centre for Life Writing (OCLW), I thought this would be the ideal opportunity to learn techniques for life-writing, particularly as the workshop was directed by Hermione Lee, with Lyndall Gordon, Clare Morgan and Elleke Boehmer, all eminent authors.
I had expected the workshop to explore the nuts and bolts of life-writing: research techniques, or how to search and collate archival finds. Instead, with the participants divided into three groups of about a dozen people, led by Lyndall Gordon, Clare Morgan and Elleke Boehmer, we spent the day in a series of discussions about the challenges – ethical, authorial and paradoxical – of life-writing in a variety of contexts. The participants in my group included researchers from different backgrounds working on biographies, architectural, oral, military and family history. What became obvious was that whether one is working in an academic setting – either as a graduate student or an established academic – or working independently, life-writers face problems which are applicable to musicology. These problems include:
- Finding too much material in archives
- Finding too little material in archives
- Finding vast amounts of material which is not relevant to one’s research, and which takes a lot of time to search with no concrete results
- Feeling lost, helpless and thwarted (by the archive…)
- Finding ‘gaps’ in archival material which can make research feel incomplete or unverified
Then, assuming that the researcher strikes archival gold or even silver (sometimes unexpected or initially irrelevant material can turn out to be ground-breaking), there is the problem of writing it up. Almost everybody in the room said that when writing about a life, they have difficulty in establishing an authorial voice which is appropriate to the subject, and which allows the subject to live. Another problem which arises for many life-writers is that of interpretation. To what extent can the author reflect and interpret their primary source findings? Here, two researchers (PhD students in English Literature and History) commented that reflection and interpretation are one difference between doing a purely academic piece of work – a thesis or journal article – and a biography which might be intended for popular and academic audiences. In the first, an interpretation (as a form of criticism) is imperative for establishing an argument. But, in a published biography, some editors prefer that that ‘facts’ are left to stand by themselves. Of course, the manner of assembling the facts and establishing a narrative is a form of interpretation which is silent, and as subjective as obvious editorialising. Both Lyndall Gordon and Hermione Lee emphasised that as life-writing becomes more experimental in form, there is room for exploring new forms of narrative in which the lives of even the ‘greatest’ people can be approached from creative angles, which require interpretation and criticism to achieve authority.
An example of where interpretation or imagining is necessary could occur in a case where a lucky author finds letters written by their subject and letters written by friends or family of the subject. Such a case allows the author to pick apart the different letter-writers’ view of the subject and his or her thoughts and actions. Even business letters – which may appear mundane and without ‘human’ interest – can paint a compelling picture of a public figure. Our discussion of this topic led to considering how we understand talent, genius or creativity, and – when writing about a creative figure or artist – whether or not to separate the artistry and the person. Everybody in our group had read biographies of an outstanding creative person in which the author’s compulsion to expose every negative characteristic of their subject had made the reader feel uncomfortable. Julia Kavanagh’s Rudolf Nureyev: The Life was cited as an example. Several people in our group had read this book, and agreed that the author’s emphasis on Nureyev’s ‘bad’ behaviour had changed their attitude to his unique talent as a dancer. This was not a sensation that they enjoyed. It was unsettling. At least two of us agreed that this emphasis on Nureyev’s negative traits – whether his poor treatment of colleagues on stage, or his promiscuity – became prurient. It had the effect of forcibly diminishing Nureyev’s extraordinary artistic legacy by not allowing the reader to interpret the material. Hagiography is equally frustrating, but we questioned what was to be gained by writing an exposé
To recover from this passionate debate, practical matters were discussed, especially the most difficult elements of writing anything: how to begin and where to end. All agreed that the beginning is difficult. How to introduce a character, and how to illustrate context are both problems which can halt the momentum of a piece. Lyndall Gordon said there were no magic formulae; she found that choosing a particular moment in a subject’s life – a moment she had found revealing or immediately moving – was often the key. This allows the reader to ‘meet’ the subject. Gordon cited her biography of T.S. Eliot, which opens with a study of Wyndham Lewis’s portrait of Eliot, and her 2005 book Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft which begins with Wollstonecraft’s personal reaction to arriving in revolutionary France and witnessing the Terror at first hand. Ending the story is another problem: a life, paradoxically, does not end with a death. An after-life is often more important, especially in the case of lives cut short (think of Schubert, or Wilfred Owen). The reverberations of a subject’s life are integral to their reception and reputation.
To conclude, a representative from each of the day’s groups, and the groups’ tutors spoke briefly to summarise the discussions in each room. Although some of the points are more applicable to authoring a book, these are ideas which are useful for any piece of academic writing, and the common priorities revealed were:
- Establish who you are writing for, and why.
- Decide the extent to which you will ‘editorialise’ and remain consistent
- Consider your attitude to the past. Do not feel oblige to excuse a subject’s behaviour or attitudes, even if they now seem dated or offensive.
- ‘Let the past and its oddness provoke us!’ (as one participant said).
- What is meant by ‘authenticity’? To what extent do ‘facts’ exist? Mediate between contradictory ‘facts’ about a subject’s life. Never exclude what you don’t like.
- True authenticity lies in the writer’s passionate commitment to (but perhaps not involvement with) the subject.
This is just a snapshot of the day. I recommend attending events run by the OCLW for stimulation, motivation, and the opportunity to meet some remarkable colleagues.