‘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.
Oxford Brookes University
150th Anniversary PhD Scholarship
Edgar Degas, The Ballet from Robert le Diable, 1871
OBERTO are very pleased to offer a three year full-time PhD scholarship to a new student commencing in January 2015. 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 in addition to the scholarship other funding is available for them to successfully complete the programme in full-time study.
The successful candidate will work within the School of Arts under the supervision of Dr Barbara Eichner.
Topic of research: Religion and ‘the Church’ on the Nineteenth-Century Stage
This project will investigate the manifold ways in which religion, spirituality and ‘the Church’ were represented on the nineteenth-century (operatic) stage. The ‘long’ nineteenth century is often characterised as an era of secularism, rationalism and materialism. Despite this – or perhaps as a counter-reaction to it – religion, rituals and mysticism continued to fascinate composers, librettists and singers. The nineteenth-century stage offers particularly rich pickings in this area, from the use of chorales as musical markers of historical distance to the salacious nuns’ ballet in Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Robert le diable.
This project will allow the recipient of the doctoral award to investigate the representation of religion on the nineteenth-century stage from a number of angles, such as (but not restricted to):
- musical historicism and the sounds of religious music
- religious roles and voice types, from the ethereal nun to the evil cardinal
- influences from other genres, such as oratorio, cantata or liturgical music
- church criticism, parody, blasphemy and censorship
- staging religious rites
- contemporary church politics
- encounters with non-Christian religions and atheism
The scope of the project is not limited to a particular national ‘school’ or geographic area; it will build on the prior knowledge and interests of the recipient of the scholarship. However, a comparative approach is strongly encouraged, and at least one of the major traditions (Italian, German, or French) should be included.
The recipient of the scholarship will be part of the thriving research culture of OBERTO. All our staff and PhD students are working on topics that concern opera’s relationship to broader cultural debates and questions of identity during the long nineteenth century. The recipient of the scholarship would be encouraged to take a pro-active role within the research unit, and to communicate their research findings to wider audiences.
Further information about the OBERTO research unit can be found at www.obertobrookes.com.
For information about the prospective supervisor, Dr Barbara Eichner, consult her profile on http://oxfordbrookes.academia.edu/BarbaraEichner. Informal inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org are welcome.
If you would like to apply you should request an application pack from Ms Zane Kalnina email@example.com, quoting ‘Religion in Opera’ in the subject line. Fully completed applications must be sent to the same email address by 31 October 2014.
As part of the application you should submit a CV, a research proposal (maximum 3 pages), together with a supporting statement summarising your reasons for undertaking this project, preparation undertaken for your project, as well as a summary of your previous research experience.
Please be advised that the selection process may involve an interview on 13 November 2014, and the successful candidate would be expected to commence in the research degree programme in January 2015.
At the end of our recent conference Beyond Black Tie and Bubbly: Rescuing Opera from Stereotypes, I tried to kick off the general, final discussion with the following ‘alphabet’ that unites beloved buzzwords, common clichés and time-honoured tropes.
A is for accessibility: opera is more accessible today thanever before in its history – something that’s easily forgotten
B is for bums on seats: the bottom line of the impresario
C is for crossover: way forward or cul-de-sac?
D is for dumbing down: the pet hateof the conservative establishment
E is for education: can we be taught to love opera?
F is for fan base: who are they, and what keeps them happy?
G is for government funding: predictably enrages ‘the taxpayer’, though considerably lower than in many other European countries
H is for HD Cinema Broadcast: currently the Holy Grail in reaching audiences beyond the opera house
I is for impact: the persistent need to prove that opera and opera studies are relevant to society
J is for journalists: is it them who won’t let the clichés die?
K is for Katherine Jenkins: you know, the opera singer (or is it ‘opera singer’?)
L is for luxury: see also class
M is for marketing: hype, hype, hype
N is for new audiences: what’s wrong with the old ones?
O is for outreach to ‘ordinary people‘: the group that allegedly would never go to the opera
P is for privilege: see also class
Q is for quality versus quantity
R is for Royal Opera House versus Royal Variety Show
S is for sexing it up: see also dumbing down
T is for taste: is opera an expensive acquired taste?
U is for Unterhaltungsmusik: indeed, opera was and is still part of that
V is for Victorian popular opera: when did opera stop to be enjoyed by the many in seaside resorts, music halls and brass band concerts?
W is for working class: does it make some people feel apologetic about liking opera?
X is for X-Factor: plenty of opera there, but is it the ‘real thing’?
Y is for Why do we worry about operatic stereotypes?
Z is for …
… at this point the discussion took over, and a long, spirited and fruitful discussion it was!
On a sunny day in early September, over fifty delegates travelled to Brookes from the United States, Ireland, Germany, Italy and all over the UK for the fourth OBERTO conference. The aim of this year’s conference was to examine critically the idea of opera as a socially exclusive and intellectually forbidding genre, and to consider ways in which it might be presented in more positive, interesting and productive ways.
The stereotype of opera as an ‘elitist’ pursuit for the snooty rich, who dress up to enjoy fat ladies singing loudly in opulent surroundings is not new; however, it is one that has been perpetuated much more vigorously in recent decades by a media hungry for hits and happy to fan the flames of controversy. Concerns about the squandering of public funds are never far from the surface of the debate. The premise of our conference was that the negative stereotypes surrounding opera are profoundly damaging, inhibiting potential new audiences from engaging with opera by telling people it is ‘not for them’.
We were delighted to welcome to Brookes not only academics who have approached this issue from a variety of historical and critical perspectives, but also opera house professionals, critics and singers who have to confront the negative stereotypes that are attached to opera in their daily lives. This mixture of different types of delegate led to some extremely productive discussion. A summary of the day’s papers is provided below. For a thoughtful commentary on the conference’s broader conclusions, see Michael Volpe’s blog post here.
In the first session of the day (‘Opera and Class’), David Kennerley (University of Oxford) and Paul Rodmell (University of Birmingham) challenged the notion that opera in Britain has always been for an elite. Kennerley discussed a Chartist rally in Bradford in 1841 at which operatic excerpts were performed as a revolutionary call-to-arms, while Rodmell demonstrated that the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century touring opera companies played to socially-mixed audiences up and down the country.
Our thoughts turned in the second session to the ways in which opera is marketed: Aoife Ni Drisceoil (NUI Maynooth) debated the pros and cons of opera companies’ use of social media, while Michela Ronzani (Brown University) demonstrated how savvy the Ricordi opera company was at advertising its operas as ‘products’ at the turn of the twentieth century. John Snelson (Royal Opera House) offered a critique of hyperbolic marketing materials that tell audience members how they ‘ought’ to react to opera and, in so doing, set the response bar too high.
After lunch, delegates’ thoughts turned to opera’s interactions with contemporary popular culture. Rupert Christiansen (The Telegraph) discussed the rise and institutional mechanics of the ‘crossover’ movement, concluding that the audience for crossover artists is static and that listeners are unlikely to make the leap into attending operas. Hayley Fenn (Harvard), meanwhile, analysed the ostensibly unexpected success of quasi-operatic acts on Britain’s Got Talent.
In the subsequent session on international perspectives, Tash Siddiqui (The Wagner Journal) returned to questions of class in her discussion of the Krolloper, an avant-garde opera house set up expressly for the proletariat in Weimar Germany. Turning the focus to the United States, Laurel Zeiss (Baylor University) asked why operas based on actual events (often with a strongly political focus, such as Dead Man Walking) currently make for such good box office.
The final formal session of the day was devoted to the role played by education in creating audiences for opera. Andy Doe (King’s College Cambridge) pursued a sceptical line, querying the need for plot summaries and programme notes. In contrast, Michael Volpe (Opera Holland Park) drew upon his own childhood experiences of being introduced to opera and other forms of culture ‘without fanfare’ at an unusually progressive school. Volpe stressed the importance of presenting opera, to children and to adults, as something ordinary, not as something extraordinary. His paper can be read here.
Each formal session contained a substantial period of discussion time and there was further general discussion at the end of the day. The conversation ranged widely across many topics: strategies for getting newcomers to attend their first opera; the pros and cons of striving to make opera ‘relevant’; crossover singers being sold as ‘the real deal’; and a hostility towards opera among the political classes, certain sections of the media and even some working in education. Although our conclusions were not entirely gloomy, two things were clear: that there is a great deal of work to be done in changing perceptions of opera; and that we can only do it effectively if opera professionals and academics work together.
We very much hope that a publication will result from the conference in due course. In the meantime, Barbara Eichner’s ‘Opera Stereotypes Alphabet’ from the final discussion session will appear here soon.
The first Opera Research Students’ Conference took place at Brookes on 17 June 2014. For a separate report on the conference, see here. The day concluded with a talk by Dr Alexandra Wilson on career development for PhD students and early career researchers. Alex has distilled her talk down into a list of ‘top tips’, which can be found below.
These are hard times for young academics. Realistically, there have probably never been enough academic jobs for everyone who wanted one, but things seem to be getting more difficult for each successive generation: there are, to put it bluntly, fewer and fewer jobs and more and more people with PhDs. To be in with a fighting chance of making it onto a shortlist, every student therefore needs to arm him- or herself with a sort of ‘tool kit’ of skills and experiences, either before finishing the PhD or shortly after.
First it is worth summarising the main types of employment Music PhDs typically enter after graduating:
- Oxbridge Junior Research Fellowships. The holy grail of early career academics: three years with (in most cases) little or no teaching, in which to work on a new research project of your own choosing. These are fearsomely competitive: hundreds of people apply and you’re competing with applicants from around the world.
- British Academy and Leverhulme postdocs. These also give you a period of several years in which to undertake a new research project. For these awards you need to find an institution to ‘host’ you and you need to demonstrate that there’s a good fit between you and the institution in question. Again, they’re very competitive.
- Postdoctoral research assistant positions. These are often the result of a senior academic making a funding bid to a research council. Unlike with the above, the topic will be stipulated, so your specialism has to be the right fit.
- Short-term early career researcher posts in individual university departments. There were lots of these strategic appointments pre-REF but don’t expect to see many being advertised for the next few years.
- Short-term teaching posts covering senior academics’ research leave or maternity leave. A very common first job nowadays, this type of post is likely to be heavy on both teaching and administration. Nevertheless, this can be an extremely useful stepping stone to the next thing: you are essentially thrown in at the deep end and expected to prove your mettle.
- Freelance jobbing, picking up bits and pieces of teaching here and there: this is not a particularly desirable course but the reality for many people, and some are successful in eventually securing a permanent post.
- Finally, there must still be a few people who manage to walk into a permanent, full-time job straight out of a PhD but this route is now unusual.
Below I have outlined the main things an aspiring academic needs to get on their CV, while taking great care not to be distracted from the main task in hand: completing the PhD on time.
1. Have one good publication accepted (if not in press/print) before you graduate
Some supervisors will tell you that you should concentrate on your PhD and wait until after finishing it to write an article. I couldn’t disagree more. The REF pressure may be off (slightly) for a few years, but departments still want to see that you’re going to be able to produce a good return for the next one.
An early-career researcher, entering their first job, usually needs to submit only one article for the REF. This counts for as much as a more senior academic’s four items. Thus, an early-career researcher with an excellent article can be a very hot ticket for a department. But it has to have been published somewhere that is deemed to be good. For all the REF panel may say about an equality of media, there is still a firmly entrenched belief that where you publish counts: that certain journals score more highly and that peer-reviewed articles rank higher than chapters in edited books. It’s worth aiming to place your work in one of the more highly esteemed peer reviewed journal articles to be on the safe side.
The shrewd thing to do, time wise, is to adapt a PhD chapter, or to use some material you haven’t been able to fit in as the basis for an article, rather than writing something entirely new. And get someone to read your work before you send it off. Yes, this is daunting, but anonymous peer reviewers don’t know that you’re a graduate student and will not pull their punches, so it’s worth making use of the feedback of friendly academics to make your work as good as it can be before submitting it.
I’ve written more about the publishing process here.
2. Get some teaching experience
Teaching experience may be relatively unimportant for some of the JRF posts but the majority of first jobs are short term posts that involve covering somebody’s teaching and you need to be able to convince a committee that you can hit the ground running.
There are many different types of teaching and they all require different skills, so it’s worth doing a small amount of lots of different types rather than a lot of one. Tutorials on the Oxford model are quite different to giving large lectures, and seminars where you’re effectively supporting a more senior academic are different to devising your own module. I think departments ideally want to see that you’ve done a bit more than just assisting someone else with a few seminars so any evidence you can provide of having helped devise a course or assessment experience can be a very good thing. Any postgraduate teaching you can get (even just the odd class) can also mark you out from the crowd.
Do be wary of taking on too much teaching experience: the result may be that you drag your PhD out for an extra year.
3. Present your work at conferences
This is like asking for feedback on an article – it helps you to hone and refine your work (and your presentation skills) – and conferences are the best place to make valuable new contacts in the field. Conferences also look good on the CV and every graduating PhD student should make sure they’ve spoken at a couple: it’s a good idea to start out with a student conference and then try to get a paper accepted for a ‘grown up’ conference like the RMA, or one of the specialist conferences in your field. But again, don’t go so overboard with conferences that you get distracted from writing your PhD.
4. Consider taking on a small administrative role
Administration sounds dull but it’s certainly something every academic has to deal with these days. Having some administrative experience is probably going to be neither here nor there if you’re going for an Oxbridge JRF. However, if you’re up for a temporary teaching job, some administrative experience could give you the edge. You can pick up a certain amount of administrative experience as part and parcel of taking on teaching, or you might want to seek out some extra responsibility, such as serving on the RMA committee as a student rep.
5. Start thinking about sharing your research with the public
Impact matters these days and a willingness to engage with wider audiences is likely to be regarded as an asset by most departments. Activities like writing programme notes, talking on the radio or giving pre-concert talks can also help us to hone our academic skills, making us better lecturers and better writers. It’s also possible to talk about your research with a wider audience via blogs and social media but beware of giving away your actual research findings. I have written more about what impact is and how to get into it here.
6. Network, network, network.
You need to get to know senior academics early on in your career who are not your supervisor, who will be on your side as your career develops and whom you can ask to write references for you. A typical JRF application requires you to nominate three referees and they have to be senior academics from well-respected institutions. Having international referees can also be extremely valuable. Networking can be daunting but you can’t afford to be shy. Develop a network among your peers as well: friends made at this stage can be a vital source of support for years to come.
Armed with this tool kit of skills you should be able to approach the job market with a reasonable amount of confidence, but every aspiring academic, however brilliant, still needs to tick the last box on my list, which is: have a Plan B… and preferably a Plan C.
On Tuesday 17th June the inaugural Opera Research Students’ Conference was held at Oxford Brookes University, hosted by OBERTO. This conference, organised by OBERTO postgraduate students, attracted 14 speakers from the UK and beyond. The speakers spoke in 6 sessions, encompassing a diverse range of approaches, from economics and psychology to composition and archaeology.
Things kicked off with two parallel sessions, one of which was entitled ‘Performance Practices’. The first speaker in this session was Matteo Paoletti (University of Genoa), who spoke about the career of director Giorgio Strehler and his pursuit of a ‘lyrical theatre of art’. Strehler believed that for this ideal to be attained, singers had to be ‘theatrical animals.’ Strehler died during the rehearsals for his 1998 production of Così fan tutte and no one has ever studied his work. Paoletti’s fascinating paper was followed by one from Anna Koukoullis (Oxford Brookes University), who spoke passionately about the evolving role of acting on the operatic stage. She showed clips from different productions of Carmen to highlight the change from ‘presentational’ to ‘representational’ acting, and considered how acting is taught to young singers in conservatoires today.
Meanwhile, in the parallel session ‘Production and Creative Process’, we heard two more speakers. First up was Emma Higgins (NUI Maynooth), who spoke about the status of the mezzo-soprano in early Third Republic Paris. The truth seems to be that the ‘mezzo’ as a category did not exist in name at the Paris Opéra (although singers were expected to perform mezzo roles): the most prestigious female vocal categories were those of the soprano and contralto. Next, Simone Spagnolo (Trinity Laban) discussed Italian experimental opera in the second half of the twentieth century, using Berio’s Opera and Bussotti’s Passion Selon Sade as examples of alternative narrative forms which can mean many things (or nothing at all) according to the multiple interpretations of the audience. Spagnolo also discussed his own opera It Makes No Difference in the context of the ‘open work’. This paper, overall, demonstrated that the creation of an open work requires ingenious planning, and it was fascinating to see the difference intellectual processes which are necessary for creating a ‘convincing’ open work.
After a short break, delegates came together for a three-paper session entitled ‘The Business of Opera’. Alessandra Palidda (Cardiff University) got things started with a highly amusing paper on La Scala in Napoleonic Milan. Just one of the republican-flavoured works that was performed during this period was the ballet Il general Colli in Roma which featured a dancing Pope on stage and became known as ‘the Pope’s ballet’. Next, Matthew Elliot (Emmanuel College, Cambridge) brought the finances of French Grand Opera alive, with a look at the finances and funding of the Paris Opéra. The amounts of money it took to keep the art form alive were staggering, and losses were abundant; not helped by the bizarre condition that stage sets could not be re-used for subsequent productions. The last speaker in this session was Annabelle Lee (RHUL), who offered a fascinating insight into the Metropolitan Opera’s social media strategy. Lee ultimately concluded that we should be rather wary of claims that social media strategy is able to bring new audiences to the opera house. Some of her figures were surprising; for example, audiences over 55 are more likely to experience opera via digital media.
Following lunch was another session of three papers, entitled ‘Cross-cultural reception’. The first speaker was Corrina Connor (Oxford Brookes), who gave a colourful account of the 1876 arrival of Die Fledermaus in London. Particularly interesting was the way in which social and political events had an impact on the reception of this opera, and its subsequent revival in 1895. Next, Zara Barlas (Heidelberg University) gave a fascinating account of Edward Soloman’s operetta The Nautch Girl. This opera reflected colonial anxieties about Indian dancers, who were erroneously seen as prostitutes. Barlas demonstrated how this opera might be viewed through a colonial lens, offering new perspective on transculturality during this period. The final speaker in this session, Catherine Hutchinson (Goldsmiths), spoke of the lavish 1860 production of Sémiramis at the Paris Opéra. Particularly fascinating was Hutchinson’s description of how recent archaeological finds from Assyria, displayed at the Louvre during this period, were reflected in the sets of the production.
After another short break, delegates split for two more parallel sessions. One of these was entitled ‘Psychology and Listening.’ First up, David John Baker (Goldsmiths) shared the fascinating research he is undertaking as part of the ‘Transforming Musicology’ project. Baker has been working with many listeners, testing which factors affect their recognition of Wagner’s Leitmotifs. This study has so far yielded some surprising results, and Baker’s paper offered some intriguing insights into how the brain processes music. The last speaker in this session was Sebastian Bolz (LMU Munich), who offered an examination of the operatic chorus in Germany around 1900. This understudied area, Bolz argued, can offer a new perspective as a medium for group dynamics.
The final parallel session was entitled ‘British Literary Adaptations’. The first speaker, Russell Burdekin (Oxford Brookes), illustrated the lurid origins of Loder’s opera Raymond and Agnes, which was derived from the sensational Gothic romance The Monk (c. 1795) by Matthew Gregory Lewis. Burdekin explained that as theatre productions were subject to censorship in the early nineteenth century, it was necessary for stage adaptations of The Monk to tone some of the most scandalous aspects of this book which also had a plot too convoluted to be easily enacted on stage. Michael Tippett’s The Knot Garden was also derived from an earlier literary source, in this case Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Michael Graham’s (RHUL) paper focussed less on Tippett’s adaptation of the story than it did on the significance of ‘Der liebe Farbe’ – a song from Schubert’s cycle Die schöne Müllerin –which two of the opera’s characters (Flora and Dov) sing in Act II. Graham discussed the significance of the song for the ideas of gender mutability which pervade The Knot Garden.
The conference finished with a brilliant keynote from OBERTO’s Dr. Alexandra Wilson who offered much practical career advice for opera studies students, as well as sharing her own experiences and top tips. Alex began her talk by saying how pleased she was to see so many diverse and imaginative approaches being taken to opera studies and by noting that ‘The field is clearly in good health!’ Students found it especially useful to be able to ask questions and discuss topical issues such as public engagement and the REF. Please see Dr Wilson’s seperate blog post about this talk, where she shares her ‘top tips’. Delegates then held a short discussion about the future of the Opera Students’ Network, and many suggestions were made including regular social events, a new blog and website, and collaboration with singers and opera houses. We will be meeting shortly to discuss how to take some of these ideas forward – watch this space!
After the conference everyone headed to a local pub, where mutual areas of interest were discussed and new friendships were forged. It was extremely valuable to bring opera research students from around Europe together to discuss their research, as people working in disparate areas were able to come together share their work and ideas in a fun and dynamic environment. We eagerly look forward to next year’s conference!
London Nineteenth-Century Seminar Graduate Conference: Reflections from an Opera Studies Perspective by Corrina Connor
The London Nineteenth-Century Studies Seminar takes place regularly on Friday evenings at the Institute of English Studies at Senate House Library in London. The Seminar also organises a day conference for graduate students researching the long nineteenth century, and this year – generously supported by UCL and QMCUL – the conference took place on 26 April in the Court Room at Senate House. While there were no musicological papers in any of the panels, there were contributions from graduate students at MA and PhD level in history of art, English literature, history, and modern languages; their incredibly diverse areas of research filled a day that illustrated many extraordinary aspects of nineteenth-century culture.
The day began with a keynote from Professor Cora Kaplan, whose lecture ‘Loving Dickens and Dickens in Love’ asked ‘what do we mean when we say we “love” an author?’ Kaplan explored the problems of biography for an author who is acknowledged to be a ‘cultural icon’ and ‘national treasure’. She also discussed the public images which Charles Dickens created for himself, the breakdown of his marriage and family, and his relationship with Nelly Ternan. There is huge conflict between these aspects of his life, and late twentieth and early twenty-first-century attitudes towards marriage and family, particularly if we read his fiction as autobiographical. Kaplan reminded us of the difficulty of separating the man and the writing, which is a problem which also affect musicologists; in opera studies especially it is even more tempting to read autobiographical references in a composer’s choice and treatment of libretto. The second part of Kaplan’s lecture discussed how a modern audience deals with melodrama and realism in nineteenth-century literature (specifically Dickens), and her comments on the collision between melodrama and realism in his fiction, as well as in biographies and the recent film The Invisible Woman were pertinent to understanding better some of the more improbable – and to our minds sometimes repellent or misogynist – aspects of later nineteenth-century opera.
The student panels began with a session on ‘The Body and Representation’, which included papers on corsetry and photography (Beatrice Bazell, Bickbeck), parallels between narratives about childhood by Stephen King and in David Copperfield (Katie Bell, Leicester) as well as ‘enforced maturation’ in Lewis Carroll and how Tenniel’s illustrations enhance these themes (Jasmine Jagger, Cambridge). Jessica Hancock, a DPhil student at Oxford University, spoke about musical training and performance as expressions of masculinity in William Morris’s Sigurd the Volsung– his rewriting of the Poetic Edda and Volsunga Saga – which created an indirect link between Morris’s exploration and re-casting of these Norse legends and Wagner.
After lunch we moved away from the matters of the body for the second panel, ‘A Culture of Paper and Print’. Here, the birth of the ‘New Journalism’ epitomised by the bold style of W. T. Stead in the Pall Mall Gazette (a style and a paper both admired and decried by Matthew Arnold and Edmund Yates) was dealt with by Philip March (Birkbeck) in the context of the religious views of these three men; Melissa Score (Birkbeck) also discussed the ‘New Journalism’ but in an examination of newspaper taxation and press regulation. Ideas about increasing readership and accessibility, the social and political importance of newspaper journalism, and a perceived bias towards sensation and celebrity are all relevant to opera studies scholars, as newspapers are an important source of material about opera reception and celebrity culture. Alexandra Ult (UCL) spoke about ‘Victorian Media Hierarchies and the Printsellers’ Association, 1840-1912’, revealing the relationship between prototypes (in this case John Everett Millais’s Minuet), replicas made by Millais, and engravings of the picture which were immensely popular. Engravers were considered artists in the own right, the engraving and printing industries were vast enterprises carefully regulated by the Printsellers’ Association, and prints were the means by which ‘ordinary’ people could enjoy ‘art’ at home. Again, the issues about intellectual property, copyright, and the dissemination of art in society had parallels with the ways in which images of singers were disseminated in the nineteenth century and arrangements of operatic music which could be played at home. Finally, there was a fascinating paper from Kathleen McIlvenna about occupational pensions for “Old and Worn Out” workers in nineteenth-century Britain. I cannot, despite a lot of hard thinking, make any connections between the Civil Service Superannuation Act of 1859, how white-collar and working class employees of certain companies and organisations (in this case, the East India Company and the Post Office) were supported in old age and decrepitude by their former employers, and issues pertinent to opera studies. However the paper illustrated fascinating aspects of nineteenth-century working lives and legislation, and is relevant today, when pensions, welfare, and the retirement age are still politically contentious.
I couldn’t stay for the third and fourth panels (‘Perceived Places’, and ‘Experiential Space and the City’), or the Plenary from Matt Rubery (QMCUL), but the programme can be found here. The Nineteenth-Century Seminar is a valuable resource for anybody studying nineteenth-century culture, and I plan to attend more of their regular Friday afternoon sessions.
In February, a group of OBERTO staff, undergraduates, MA students and PhD students attended English National Opera’s new production of Rigoletto, directed by Christopher Alden, at the London Coliseum. Below three students respond to the production.
‘With many details of James Hepokoski’s chapter ‘Staging Verdi’s Opera: the Single “Correct” Performance’ from Alison Latham and Roger Parker’s Verdi in Performance fresh in my mind from the morning’s MA seminar, I was eager to see and hear the extent to which Christopher Alden would deal with the four elements of dramma which Verdi had wished to have ‘interact with exquisite balance: text, music, vocal display, and stage picture’. In fact, I made a conscious effort to think about how these elements worked together throughout this performance of Rigoletto. Although my ability to do this was inconsistent, so was the interaction of elements. While the stage picture was almost always pleasing, it was also confusing: having one basic set made it difficult to discern which location we were in – the Duke’s court accommodation, Rigoletto’s own home, or the inn where Sparafucile is going to kill the Duke – and the contrast between these locations seems important, especially as Gilda’s apparent complete separation from Rigoletto’s life at court is fundamental to the story.
Some aspects of Alden’s production affected me especially, and even after seeing three more productions (on DVD) since, these particular strengths remain significant. The appearance of the tableau which opened Act I brought to life the colours, light, and aspects of composition of two paintings I saw recently: Jean Béraud’s La Salle de rédaction du Journal des débats (1889), and Henri Fantin-Latour’s Hommage à Delacroix (1864). Both of these paintings depict closed, all-male groups in a way that is unique to the nineteenth century. While both these pictures are representative of completely different social situations to that of the Duke of Mantua’s court in Rigoletto, the staging at the beginning of Act I was powerfully evocative of the nineteenth-century milieux of these paintings. In this context the manner in which the women of Rigoletto deported themselves, and their interaction with the men, was reminiscent of Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe (1863), although in this particularly production of Rigoletto, remarkably, nobody on stage was ever quite naked. Here, the mise-en-scène was ingeniously suggestive of social situations in which the veneer of propriety is very, very thin, reminding us that particular forms of hypocrisy which now we may associate with the nineteenth century may not be so foreign after all. Happily, these qualities of the production compensated for the blinding chaos at the end of Act II, and the inconsistencies at the end of Act III: Rigoletto and Sparafucile’s discussion of how and where to dump the body in the river lost a lot of its significance, and the moment of horror and despair when Rigoletto hears that the Duke is not dead was diluted by the unambiguous presence of the Duke, sauntering across the stage. These objections aside, this production of Rigoletto was an engaging and disturbing approach to an opera whose themes have a contemporary resonance’.
‘The set was innovative and for the most part it worked with clever use of lighting but I thought that at the end in the final scene in which Gilda dies, the set lacked the intimacy that I have seen in other productions and which is important to the emotions being conveyed. Also when Sparafucile murders Gilda at the Inn, it was difficult to imagine an important change in location given that the set was the same’.
‘The sets were visually very impressive, evoking the atmosphere of a nineteenth-century gentleman’s club very effectively. The way that space and time were depicted within this set, however, did get a little confusing at times. Most impressive was the far simpler staging of the final scene, with Gilda lying on a plain white sheet in the centre of the stage. I found the contrast to the scale and detail of the previous sets very effective, and this made for a moving and powerful final scene’.
One of the most rewarding aspects of running OBERTO is having the opportunity to help early career researchers and PhD students to develop their academic careers. In early February, Dr Alexandra Wilson and Dr Joanne Cormac ran a workshop for OBERTO PhD students (joined by a PhD student from the Brookes Popular Music Research Unit) on publishing their work. Below are some of Alex’s and Jo’s responses to the students’ questions.
Is it better to publish a PhD as a book or series of articles?
There’s no right or wrong answer to this question. We know colleagues who have taken both approaches and gone on to achieve successful academic careers. In part, the decision would be guided by what type of PhD you write: a PhD that has a strong sense of a narrative arc would lend itself better to publication as a book, whereas a PhD that takes a case study approach might lend itself better to articles. Some people feel that they have had enough of their PhD topic by the end of their studies and find that a new topic offers fresher challenges. Other PhD topics cry out to be adapted as books.
Potential academic employers like to see that a book is on the way, but it needn’t necessarily be an adaptation of your PhD. One thing is for sure, however: you should try to get an article out before finishing your PhD, especially if job-seeking in the UK market. British Universities will always have the REF upper-most in their minds when hiring and will want to be able to submit your outputs. Early career researchers often only need one item for the REF, so having one article in a top journal can make you a really attractive prospect. It is a good idea to start thinking about this when you are roughly halfway through your doctoral studies. At that point, you should (hopefully!) have something you could work into an article. Beginning the publishing process at the mid-point of the PhD should allow enough time for the article to appear as you finish (remember even once it’s been accepted your article will not be published immediately). Of course, you also need to be careful not to become too distracted from your PhD studies.
How would you go about getting your PhD published as a book?
The first thing you need to do is select a publisher. Have a look at the other sorts of books that they have published and see if you think your PhD would be a good fit. Cambridge University Press is a very popular choice for many musicology PhDs and they have some excellent series (e.g. Cambridge Studies in Opera), for which your topic may be an ideal fit. Oxford University Press is a similarly prestigious academic press but also publishes music books with a more popular appeal (and at lower price) so can be a good choice if your topic would lend itself to a wide dissemination. US university presses with good music lists include California, Chicago and Harvard: there are many more. Other popular presses for music books in the UK include Boydell and Ashgate.
Having chosen your publisher, you would need to make contact with the commissioning editor for Music, either by email or in person. (If you’re lucky enough to be able to attend the AMS, there are opportunities to meet representatives from all the major presses.) As with other aspects of academic life, networking is important. The editor will want to see a substantial proposal and a number of chapters, possibly even the complete manuscript. You can find detailed guidance on most publishers’ websites regarding what to include in the proposal. Make sure you read these thoroughly. Be warned that the process of getting a proposal accepted can be quite lengthy: perhaps up to two years from the initial point of contact to the final ‘yes’.
If you do publish your PhD as a book, what changes would have to be made?
Publishers can sometimes be wary of publishing books that have been PhDs (although many books do originate as PhDs). In your initial pitch, you need to make it very clear that the book will be a different beast. You will probably need to remove the ‘clunkier’ methodological sections and you may need to write additional chapters to ‘round out’ your narrative. You’ll need to pay attention to matters of tone in order to make the book as ‘readable’ as possible and your title may need to be a bit punchier: academic presses publish academic books but they are still keen to sell as many copies as possible!
How would I approach a journal about an article and how does publishing an article in a journal work?
Most musicology journals now have online submission systems and provide clear instructions to authors regarding how to submit their work. Once you’ve submitted your article, it will be sent by the journal’s editor to a number of peer reviewers (often three) who will read your article and send a report containing feedback. The process is anonymous, so they don’t know who you are and you won’t know who they are, although sometimes it is possible to guess (on both counts)! This process usually takes around three months, although it can be longer – and note that you are not allowed to send your work to several journals simultaneously (or, at least, it is very much frowned upon). The result may range from a definite yes to a straight no, but there are many shades of grey in between: very often an editor will ask you to rewrite the article taking into account the reviewers’ comments. The comments can sometimes be rather harsh but more often these days they are constructive. If you receive an offer to ‘revise and resubmit’, it is often a good idea to explain briefly in an email how you have engaged with the reviewers’ feedback. This will demonstrate that you have considered their comments carefully.
Which journal should I choose?
Our advice would be to aim as high as possible and go for a really top quality journal: this will stand you in very good stead for the job market. We had our first publications published in Cambridge Opera Journal (Alex) and 19th-Century Music (Jo). That said, it might be a little unrealistic to send your first attempt to The Journal of the American Musicological Society, which publishes a small number of long articles in each issue and is the journal of choice for (the very large number of) American musicologists. It’s always a good idea to discuss the choice of journal with your supervisor.
You need to make sure that you choose a journal that actually publishes work that is ‘like yours’. Then you can choose between a niche journal (e.g. Cambridge Opera Journal, The Opera Quarterly) or go for a generalist journal that publishes on a wide variety of topics (e.g. the Journal of the Royal Musical Association, Music & Letters). Whether you publish in a British or an American journal doesn’t matter too much: it’s an international market these days.
You will need to check the word count of each journal (typically anywhere between 8,000 and 18,000 words, including footnotes). You will also need to adhere to their ‘house style’ in terms of referencing: neglect to do this and the editor may not take you seriously! If you have images you will need to pay for the reproduction and copyright costs yourself, although there are various funding bodies and charities you can apply to for assistance with such costs.
To conclude, although the publishing process can be stressful at times, the final outcome always makes it worthwhile. It’s an incredibly rewarding feeling to see an article – and particularly a book – in print!
On Saturday 25th January a small group of OBERTO students attended a talk at Handel House entitled ‘Gossip and Celebrity in the Age of Handel’. The talk was given by Adrian Teal, a caricaturist who has recently written The Gin-Lane Gazette, a marvellously funny volume that Teal describes as “a Georgian Heat Magazine”. In this book, designed in the style of an eighteenth-century newspaper, Teal shares a wide range of weird and wonderful Georgian news stories, all illustrated with his excellent cartoons. Although many of these stories are truly astonishing and sound unlikely, they are in fact all true!
Teal shared many of the best stories during his talk, bringing the London of Handel vividly to life. The city in the eighteenth century, he argued, was akin to a “sexual theme park” where both sex and drink featured prominently. His anecdotes certainly supported this claim; some of my favourites concerned extremely unusual bets – one involved a particularly adventurous gentleman having sex in a hot air balloon “one thousand yards from Earth” and yet another resulted in an unfortunate horse being launched from an upstairs window. Perhaps unsurprisingly, musical personalities featured highly in Teal’s stories. He spoke of the notorious castrato Tenducci (who gave Casanova a particularly intriguing explanation of how he had been able to father children) and of the remarkable career of Handel’s contralto Susannah Cibber.
The talk brought eighteenth-century London brilliantly and hilariously to life. I purchased Teal’s book and cannot recommend it enough – it is a treasure-trove of historical gems. From Charles James Fox’s essay on ‘farting’, to the woman who claimed to have given birth to 17 rabbits and the lover of Beau Nash who lived in a hollowed-out tree, it will keep me amused for a long time! Bring back the eighteenth-century I say; our so-called ‘celebrities’ aren’t half as entertaining!
I’ve already mused elsewhere on the benefits or otherwise, in terms of programming, of the Strauss anniversary this year. In this post, however, I’d like to examine briefly how anniversaries (the theme of last September’s Oberto Conference) seem to affect the broader popular discourse regarding composers, and how, it seems, the extra exposure that anniversaries–very much double-edged swords–bring can, arguably, be helpful.
Of course, new exposure to a wider audience is to be welcomed. But the challenge is surely to bring renewed exposure that is not automatically simplified. Anyone following the great anniversary face-off in 2013 between Wagner and Verdi must have wondered, for example, if it was entirely necessary for those two composers to be pitted against each other in the way that they were. We see this conflict presented (and clearly satirised, too) in unsubtle allegorical form in this still (above) from a Bavarian State Opera publicity film.
In Britain, however, one could barely move for ostensibly more high-minded debates that, in trying to assess the very different forms of greatness of each of the composers, inevitably became reduced to a game of slinging standard, negative slurs: Wagner was an anti-Semitic megolamaniac whose works were overblown, bombastic etc. etc; Verdi, though admittedly a nicer chap, churned out tunes without ever much intellectual engagement. At its worst, the debate dissolved into barely-masked, centuries-old xenophobic stereotyping, with Wagner and Verdi there only as token representatives of their nations. Of course the media have to balance subtlety with the sort of headline-grabbing contrast and conflict that will draw readers in, but it seemed as though neither composer ever came out of the debates very well.
I’m concerned, too, that similar polarisation is at play already in the Strauss anniversary. Although, in this case, it’s the pitting of two aspects of the same composer against one another. This tweet from Radio 3’s In Tune sums it up:
A think piece in the Guardian, meanwhile, was called: ‘Richard Strauss: Profound Genius or Gifted Entertainer?’, with Tom Service further asking, ‘Is his description of himself–“I may not be a first-rate composer, but I am a first-class second-rate composer”–mere modesty or the simple truth?’
First, of course, the idea in itself of the ‘simple truth’ is not, well, as simple or truthful as we’d like to think. Second, Strauss’s own descriptions of himself seemed, in my view, calculated specifically to undermine any attempts at canonization, the need to rank and rate composers, to place them within a convenient narrative. (Another earlier and more easily verified quotation along these lines comes from a piece by Strauss, asking, significantly, ‘Is there an Avant-Garde in Music?’, which he wrote in the first issue of new Berlin Journal, Der Morgen, in 1907. ‘Nachdenken ist immer unangenehm’ [thinking is always unpleasant], he claimed there, mischievously and provocatively.)
Strauss, of course, avoids such narratives, and the revisionist assessments of the composer over the last couple of decades have, in some ways, only emphasized how slippery and, to use a favourite word, enigmatic the composer remains. One commenter on the Guardian piece rightly asked whether or not a composer can be a profound genius and gifted entertainer. And whatever one might feel about ‘the music itself’, surely this composer’s interest and fascination lies in the fact that he was both. Perhaps the anniversary discourse should move onwards and upwards to examine that.
Last week the ‘classical crossover’ singer Katherine Jenkins held a reception at the Ritz in order to promote her new record deal. The event might have gone unnoticed by all but Jenkins’ (admittedly sizeable) fan base, had it not been for the provocative headline under which The Telegraph reported the event: ‘Katherine Jenkins: why classical music snobs are wrong’. A storm swiftly erupted in the Twittersphere.
Jenkins apparently stated: “There will always be a small number of critics who want to keep [opera] to themselves and an elite, but I’ve always been of the opinion that classical music is for everybody and I want to make it as accessible as possible – I’m from a normal background”.
Jenkins’ comments were, presumably, intended as a swipe at those who do not like her style of crossover music, nor the way in which she is often labelled an ‘opera singer’, nor the fact that she was recently awarded an OBE for ‘services to music’. No public figure enjoys negative press, of course, but for Jenkins to accuse those who criticise her on musical grounds of ‘want[ing] to keep opera to themselves’ is deeply disingenuous.
Who, indeed, are these so-called music ‘snobs’? The term hardly seems applicable to today’s opera critics, many of whom reflect regularly on issues of accessibility in their reviews. Opera companies, meanwhile, expend vast amounts of energy organising education and outreach projects, taking opera into such diverse settings as schools, shopping centres and prisons. And even opera scholars are, these days, to be found regularly sharing their research with the public and trying to expand the audience for opera through pre-performance talks, radio programmes, blogs and podcasts.
Just like Jenkins, all of these groups are committed to the idea of opera being ‘for everybody’. Where they differ from her, however, is in their confidence that opera can stand on its own terms without needing a helping hand from popular music. Sometimes the juxtaposition of opera with other genres produces interesting results. However, to imply that ‘ordinary people’ need opera to be packaged as pop is insulting, just as it would be insulting to imply they could only understand a classic novel if it were presented in comic-strip format.
With her faux naive comment about being ‘from a normal background’, Jenkins (who had the privilege of being educated at the Royal Academy of Music) is doing her fellow musicians a profound disservice by stoking the flames of a debate about the ‘e-word’. When opera is discussed in the British media it is, almost without fail, crudely styled as the antithesis of popular culture and all things ‘ordinary’. It’s a mischievous conceit and one that actually sets up barriers: indeed, one might argue that it is the press stereotype of opera that makes opera appear ‘elitist’ rather than the art form itself.
All of this smacks of a peculiarly British unease about opera that has long and complex historical roots. Look back to nineteenth-century discussions about opera and you will find comments aplenty that smack of xenophobia on the one hand (foreign opera singers ‘coming over here and stealing jobs’) and an inferiority complex on the other (British composers couldn’t hold a torch to the Italians or Germans). In the early nineteenth century, opera-going was undoubtedly dominated by a foppish aristocracy the middle classes had little desire to emulate. But by the end of the century, as Paul Rodmell has demonstrated in his excellent new book, more British people had access to live opera than at any time before or since, thanks to a flourishing culture of touring opera. As the twentieth century went on, however, something fundamental would change (a development I plan to investigate in my next research project), until the point where the pernicious assumption that opera is ‘elitist’ had become the default setting in the British media.
In the opera courses I teach, I make sure that I get the ‘opera and elitism’ conversation out of the way in the first week. I ask the students to list all the respects in which opera could be considered ‘elitist’ and then ask them to challenge their assumptions. We usually agree that there are certain ‘trappings’ of opera that might smack of wealth and privilege (although why should red velvet curtains and gold paint be called ‘elitist’ when super cars and high fashion are considered ‘aspirational’?). However, when asked to consider how operas themselves might be meaningfully labelled elitist, either in terms of plot or music, the students inevitably struggle. Are operas ‘elitist’ because they sometimes tell stories about kings and queens? Or because they demand a reasonably long attention span? Since the same applies to many a popular historical film, these lines of argument swiftly go nowhere.
How ironic it is then that Katherine Jenkins should have bought so wholeheartedly into the luxurious ‘trappings’ of opera with her promotional event at the Ritz, while simultaneously alluding to stereotypes that do considerable harm to the image of an art form for which she claims to speak. One can only speculate at her motive for perpetuating the myth.
Dr Alexandra Wilson, Reader in Music at Oxford Brookes University, has presented opera broadcasts for BBC Radio 3, given educational talks for ENO, the Royal Opera House, Glyndebourne and the Proms, and written programme essays for the Royal Opera House, Wexford Festival Opera and opera companies across Europe. Her book, Opera: A Beginner’s Guide, seeks to demystify opera and demonstrate its relevance to contemporary life.
Immediately after attending the RMA Research Students’ Conference (see last OBERTO blog post), I boarded a train for Oxford and the British Society for Eighteenth Century Studies conference at St. Hugh’s College. The theme of this year’s event was ‘Pleasures and Entertainments’; the immense scope of ideas and research which the speakers contributed within this theme was astounding, including everything from the elite women athletes of the long eighteenth century to ‘spiritual alchemy’ and the pleasures which could be gained from writing and hearing sermons. Naturally, opera was a significant form of pleasure-seeking and entertainment in the eighteenth century. Opera, singers, celebrity, theatre design, opera-going and opera criticism in England and abroad were all topics of papers and discussion.
The first panel I attended was ‘Opera, Court Cases and Scandal’. Olga A. Baird spoke about the late eighteenth-century composer Antonio Casimir Cartellieri and his ‘mysterious patron “Count Oborsky”’ and their activities in the Habsburg territories. A significant part of this paper concerned Count Michal Kazimierz Oginski, who was a patron of musicians in Vienna. At his palace in Slonim, Belarus, Oginski had his own theatre, a ballet company, and singers for regular opera performances. As a youth Obarsky spent time at the palace at Slonim, and through his association with Oginski he became a ‘pseudo-count’ and patron of musicians and composers, although he remains an enigmatic figure. Oginski’s remarkable theatre at Slonim, however, is evidence of the many places of opera performance based in remote provincial centres, purely for the entertainment of particular aristocratic patrons and their households.
After this, Bruce Alan Brown’s ‘Opera in France, Italy, and on the Moon, as Viewed by a Frenchman, Financier, and Philosophe’ examined another mystery – this time the authorship of the Lettresur le Mechanisme de L’Opera Italien (1756). This Lettre makes comparisons between Italian opera buffa and French tragédie lyrique, and questions whether Parisian audiences wanted Italian opera, if they knew why they wanted it, or if perhaps they feared it. The paper touched on the difficulties inherent in interpreting pseudonyms in opera criticism, and deducing whether this Lettre was written by an Italian or French critic. Bruce Alan Brown’s research also provides an alternative perspective on La Querelle des Bouffons, and how debates about operatic styles functioned as a substitute for more direct political debate in 1750s France.
Still in the 1750s, but moving over the Channel, Cheryl Duncan illustrated how records of court cases give us a remarkable insight into London’s musical life. The legal disputes between violinist Felice Giardini and John Cox – engraver, publisher, and perhaps also an instrument repairer – demonstrate what varied ‘portfolio’ careers musicians enjoyed or endured during this period. The main operatic link was through Giardini’s involvement with the King’s Theatre.
On Thursday morning I took advantage of being at such a diverse interdisciplinary conference by listening to Peter Radford speak about the astounding exploits of elite women athletes during the long eighteenth century, as well as Carolyn D. Williams’s paper on ‘card games and women’s “Intellectual Capacity”’, before attending the Mason Lecture. This year’s lecturer was Dr Jérôme Brillaud, whose ‘Parisian Pleasure Domes: Theatre Architecture and Sensory Pleasures in Eighteenth-Century France’ charted the changing design of French theatres between 1634 and 1784. In the seventeenth century, the examples of the Hôtel du Marais and the Hôtel de Bourgogne demonstrated the rectangular arrangement of these seventeenth-century theatres: sightlines (particularly in the loggia boxes) were compromised, and made the theatrical experience confrontational rather than creating the circular flow of energy which an amphitheatre style would encourage. Not until the late 1740s and 50s did French architects study ancient theatres, and the theorists’ fascination with Greek theatres stimulated a move towards creating theatres in France which would stimulate all the senses. Cochin’s 1765 grand plan for an auditorium with a truncated oval shape, promoting physical comfort for audience and actors alike, was never realised, but his design proved influential.
The amphitheatre design improved acoustics and sightlines, democratising – to an extent – the experience of attending the theatre, and provoking changes in acting technique. Brillaud then showed, with a series of exquisite slides, the private theatre of Mademoiselle Guimard (1772), Victor Louis’ theatre at Bordeaux, as well as the new ComédieFrançais. He pointed out that as the external design of theatres became important, their civic significance was consequently enhanced. As a civic monument, the theatre became more politicised, and inside the improved sightlines meant that the entire audience (almost) had a ‘unified sovereign perspective’ in the absence of a ‘royal box’. While Brillaud’s lecture did not extend to the experience of opera audiences, he demonstrated the significance of audience experience, and this is equally relevant to studies of opera-going culture. Ideas about energy flow and communication within the auditorium, and the interaction between audience and performers are also pertinent to opera.
Later in the afternoon, after I’d presented my own paper –in a session on ‘Salons, Circles and Polite Societies’ – I had my first experience of chairing a panel: ‘Ballads, Songs and Flute Concertos’. In this session, we were back in the world of London’s pleasure gardens and theatres. In Heike Nasritdinova’s ‘Pleasure and Art: The Vauxhall Songs from John Worgan and T. A. Arne to J.C. Bach’, we saw how the composers of the Vauxhall songs used particular techniques to ensure the popularity of their songs, and integrate pleasure with art, rationalism with entertainment. J. C. Bach also adapted re-used arias from his operas in his songs for Vauxhall. Meanwhile Patricia McCann’s ‘“A much better Ballad-maker, than Play-wright”: A study of Thomas D’Urfey’s song collections’ took us back into the world of the seventeenth-century theatre, and the rich musical world of which D’Urfey was a part. It was bad luck, to an extent, that D’Urfey was a contemporary of Purcell, and his songs have been somewhat eclipsed by Purcell’s, but this paper demonstrated that D’Urfey’s remarkable song collections had a strong following. Heike and Patriciaare PhD students, at Universität Regensburg and Queen’s University Belfast respectively, and so this was an opportunity to form links with more graduate students. I was also glad that I’d been to a conference which was not exclusively musicological, and I hope to attend again in 2015. The Society also has an Annual Postgraduate Conference, which this year will be held in Venice, in association with Ca’ Foscari, University of Venice.
This year’s RMA Research Students’ Conference took place at the University of Birmingham from 6th – 8th January. Two OBERTO PhD students, Anna Maria Barry and Corrina Connor, attended to give papers. Here they share their thoughts on the conference:
The RMA Research Students’ Conference was a great experience. With as many as five parallel sessions at a time, there was a significant number of students and lots of interesting papers on subjects as diverse as music in video games and Egyptian hip-hop.
I particularly enjoyed Monday’s session, ‘Music in 18th and 19th Century Britain’, where papers included an examination of the 1842 English production of Semiramide (Catherine Hutchinson) and a discussion of national identity as imagined in the programme notes of the Crystal Palace Concerts (Bruno Bower). These topics were particularly relevant to me, as my research focuses on opera in nineteenth-century Britain, and it was great to meet others working on similar areas. Another particularly interesting session on Monday was ‘Social Analysis – 20th Century England’ where papers included an examination of music publishing during the inter-war period (Kirstie Asmussen) and a fascinating discussion of Holst’s Indian operas (Zara Barlas).
On Tuesday I enjoyed the session on ‘Opera’, where OBERTO’s Corrina Connor gave an excellent paper on the figure of Strauss’ Prince Orlofsky and another paper offered a fascinating insight into Shostakovich’s Hamlet (Michelle Assay). My own session was ‘Performance in the 19th Century’ on Tuesday afternoon, where I gave a paper on tenor John Braham, examining how he constructed a British identity. Other papers in this session included a consideration of the politicised reception of prima donna Marie Delna (Emma Higgins) and a discussion of Brodsky’s concert career (Geoff Thomason).
My first visit to the RMA Students’ Conference was a great experience – I hope it won’t be my last!
Because our interests largely coincide, I found myself at many of the same panels that Anna also attended, and in various ways opera or opera-related papers were prominent in many other sessions. On Wednesday morning in the ‘Analysis – Baroque’ panel, Dionysios Kyropoulous (Cambridge) spoke energetically about ‘Reviving period stagecraft in Baroque opera today’, and drew attention to the fact that in many productions of Baroque operas, the musical aspects (orchestral and vocal) are ‘historically informed’ while the art and rhetorical significance of physical gesture is largely ignored. The next session was the Jerome Roche Prize Lecture, ‘The Turn of the Screw, or: The Gothic Melodrama of Modernism’, given by Christopher Chowrimootoo (who was an OBERTO Early Career Research Fellow last year). His lecture illustrated how Britten’s Turn of the Screw incorporated aspects of gothic melodrama and some of the purer aspects of modernism. I enjoyed especially hearing about the range of critical responses to Britten’s opera after its premiere, and the ways in which critics felt Britten had remained ‘faithful’ to James, or diverged from the source text (to good or disastrous effect).
On Tuesday morning there was a session dedicated to opera, as Anna has described. I was delighted that Charlotte Bentley (Nottingham) was also speaking about operetta in ‘Satire and the status quo: Offenbach’s Grande-Duchesse in Second Empire Paris’. Charlotte emphasised the differences between satire and parody in Parisian operetta, and how the political aspect of operetta functioned as a form of substitute for more open political debate. Opera and politics were also part of Marco Pollaci’s ‘Analyzing Verdi: pedagogic traditions between innovation and politics’. Here we learnt that the Neapolitan system of harmony and counterpoint in which Verdi was educated was so distinctive that Verdi’s use of these pedagogic formulae in his operas were an audibly recognisable political statement. After my own paper, Michelle Assay (Sheffield/Sorbonne) had some useful comments about Russian aristocracy in the early nineteenth century, and their movement throughout Europe.
In addition to hearing so many diverse and fascinating papers, another valuable aspect of attending this conference was to see the different ways in which people presented their research. It is very tempting to cram as much into a conference paper as possible, but I found that I learned the most from those papers in which the speaker dealt with just a few points, but in greater detail. I hope to incorporate what I observed into future presentations.
Did you know that both the Royal Opera House and English National Opera offer brilliant benefits for students, with many cheap tickets available?
The Royal Opera House runs a fantastic Student scheme – free for all students to sign up to online. Once they are registered students get an advanced booking period, making it easier for them to purchase cheaper seats before they go on general public sale. In addition, 20 of the cheapest seats for every performance are now reserved for students only – these can cost as little as just £4! There are also several dedicated student performances every season, and students are offered discounts at the bar and on programmes. In addition, the ‘Student Standby’ scheme offers unsold tickets to performances for just £10. Student booking for the Spring season opened at 10 am this morning – sign up quickly to get tickets for some fantastic productions!
English National Opera has a scheme called Access All Arias for students and those aged under 30. Under this scheme, students are able to buy heavily discounted tickets for every performance – these cost as little as £10 each. Programmes are also half price and cheap, last-minute tickets are often made available.