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Review: Gossip and Celebrity in the Age of Handel by Anna Maria Barry

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!

Handel House, London

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!

Royal Musical Association Research Students’ Conference 2014

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:


University of Birmingham


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.

V&A Theatre and Performance Archives by Anna Maria Barry

The V&A is renowned for its world-famous collections of art and design, but perhaps you didn’t know that it also houses a substantial Theatre and Performance Collection. This fantastic collection contains everything from costumes, architectural plans and financial records to portraits, playbills and even puppets!

From 1987 these collections were housed at the V&A’s Theatre Museum in Covent Garden, but unfortunately this was forced to close in 2007 due to a lack of funding. In 2009 the V&A Museum opened its dedicated Theatre and Performance Galleries, where many of the collection’s highlights are on permanent display. However, much of the material remains in storage. The good news is that all of this material can be accessed through the V&A’s Theatre and Performance Archives which are held on a separate site in Kensington Olympia. Over the summer I have been using these archives for my PhD research, and am pleased to report that they hold a great deal of material relating to opera.  I will share a brief summary of my experiences, in the hope that it will be useful to others who wish to navigate this brilliant collection for operatic research.

My current research concerns the British opera singer John Braham (c. 1774 – 1856), so I began my exploration of the V&A collections by searching for him in the collection database. This database only contains the part of the Theatre and Performance Collection that can be classified as objects and works of art – the V&A defines such items as “costumes, paintings, designs, ceramics and other museum objects.” A search for John Braham offers three pages of results (mainly portraits) with high quality images and further information on each item.


John Braham as Don Alfonso

V&A Theatre Archives

My next step was to search the National Art Library Catalogue where archives, books, manuscripts and audio-visual items from the collection are listed. A search for John Braham produces various results, including playbills and sheet music. I also searched for the names of his productions, which produced further results; it is always a good idea to search around your main subject! The Theatre and Performance Collection contains many archives of institutions and individuals; they are all recorded in the National Art Library Catalogue, but the most important of these are also listed in greater detail here, so it is worth looking through this list too.

My final step was to visit the Theatre and Performance Archive in Olympia. A conversation with a very helpful archivist had made me aware of the ‘Production Boxes’ held at the Archive. I was advised that for every theatre in London (and many major theatres in the provinces) the Archive holds a box for each year it was active. I wanted to find out which roles John Braham had performed at different points during his career; although I knew which dates he was working at certain theatres, I did not know which performances he had been in. So I requested, for example, the box for ‘Theatre Royal 1811’.


Playbill for John Braham’s Benefit Night, Theatre Royal, 1811

V&A Theatre Archives

These huge boxes contain a seemingly random range of different materials relating to the productions in a given year. The boxes I looked at contained a huge number of playbills covering almost every single day of the year in some cases. These playbills always featured a cast list, so they allowed me to find out which roles John Braham had performed on given dates. The playbills for some performances, such as the one above, list additional popular songs that Braham had chosen to perform in addition to the main performance. In some boxes I was also lucky enough to find items such as reviews, contemporary accounts of performances and even a few images.


Catalani and Braham share a bill – Theatre Royal, 1807

V&A Theatre Archive

My research has only used a selection of the Theatre and Performance Collections; there is so much more material to explore. The V&A offer their own advice on Researching Theatre and Performance and also have a whole section of their website devoted to opera; this contains a range of useful articles and reading lists.