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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.
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.