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OBERTO 2014: ‘Beyond Black Tie and Bubbly: Rescuing Opera from Stereotypes’ by Dr Alexandra Wilson

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.

OBERTO 2014 1

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.

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Top Tips for PhD Students by Dr Alexandra Wilson

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

Tips on publishing for musicology research students by Alexandra Wilson and Jo Cormac

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!

Elitism and the ‘opera snobs’: a response to Katherine Jenkins by Alexandra Wilson

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.

The Ritz

The Ritz, London

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.

 

Opera at the AMS by Alexandra Wilson

The Annual Meeting of the American Musicological Society (AMS) is arguably the most important event in the musicological calendar. Thousands of scholars from around the globe visit a major American city each November in order to debate the latest research in the field. A huge array of papers can be heard in around nine parallel sessions and there are also plentiful opportunities to hear performances, to browse the bookstall and to network. And so, this year, to Pittsburgh.

PTSBRG

The AMS is a generalist conference, with sessions titles this year as diverse as ‘Institutional Cultures in the Middle Ages’, ‘Nineteenth-Century Instrumental Music’, ‘Performance and Aesthetics in Popular Music’, and ‘European Film’. Nevertheless, it would have been possible to construct a personal conference schedule comprising nothing but opera, by choosing from sessions on ‘Opera Displacements’, ‘French Opera, Entrepreneurs and Culture, 1870-1930’, ‘Materializing Puccini’, ‘Restaging Opera’, ‘Opera and Voice in Nineteenth-Century France’, ‘Producing Minimalist Opera’, ‘French Opera, 1680-1790’ and ‘Revisiting the Risorgimento’. So extensive was the operatic programming that several of these sessions clashed with one another and, indeed, with opera-focused papers elsewhere on the programme. (Particularly frustrating, from my perspective, was the scheduling of the ‘Materializing Puccini’ session against the ‘Audio Vision’ session in which my own paper on the use of Puccini’s music in period film had been placed.)

The AMS offers a fantastic opportunity to catch up with the latest developments in your own area of research – or, indeed, to go and learn about something entirely new. This year I opted primarily for the latter approach. Yet even in papers on ostensibly non-operatic topics, opera had a way of making its presence felt. For instance, in a paper by Trevor Herbert (Open University) on music and the British military in the nineteenth century, we learnt about boys plucked from orphanages to be trained as military musicians who would go on to spawn sons of great operatic and theatrical repute (including the tenor Sims Reeves and the composer Sir Arthur Sullivan). Peter Kupfer (Southern Methodist University), meanwhile, drew upon a wide-ranging and fascinating survey he had undertaken of music in American advertising in order to observe that opera is the genre of music used by far the most often for purposes of humour and parody. And Jonathan Glixon (University of Kentucky) whisked his audience away to Baroque Venice, discussing the competing musical delights, both operatic and sacred, that featured in eighteenth-century Venetian guidebooks.

The AMS provides a snapshot of the current musicological discipline in all its rich diversity. Nevertheless, opera’s prominence year after year on the AMS programme is striking and speaks both of its centrality to the discipline and of the ever-expanding array of interdisciplinary critical approaches that scholars from musicology and beyond are taking to the art-form.

‘Staging Operatic Anniversaries’ – Conference Report by Dr Alexandra Wilson

OBERTO 2013: Staging Operatic Anniversaries

2013 is a year of key operatic anniversaries, marking, amongst others, the bicentenaries of Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner and the centenary of Benjamin Britten.  Rather than focus upon the music of an individual composer for our 2013 conference, we decided to interrogate the mechanics of operatic anniversary celebrations past and present, in keeping with the historiographical focus of past OBERTO conferences. ‘Staging Operatic Anniversaries’, held at Brookes on 10 September 2013, brought together scholars from the UK, America, Germany and Italy, postgraduate and undergraduate students, opera critics, and members of the music industry.

The first session of the day, ‘Institutional Politics’ (chaired by Francesca Vella, KCL) opened with a paper by Giuseppe Montemagno (Catania) surveying the Verdi celebrations of 2013 at La Scala, with productions of his operas from Oberto, Conte di San Bonifacio to Falstaff. Marianne Betz (Hochschule für Musik und Theater Leipzig) then looked back a century to examine the rejection by a no less august opera house, the New York Met, of an intriguing opera on the ever-topical theme of immigration, George Whitefield Chadwick’s The Padrone.

The second session, ‘Shifting Memorialisation’ (chaired by Adeline Mueller, New College, Oxford) explored how the commemoration of individual composers changes over time, demonstrating how anniversaries can serve as useful reference points in composers’ reception history. Corrina Connor (Oxford Brookes University) examined four significant dates – 1925, 1974, 1975, and 1999 – in the ‘afterlife’ of Johann Strauss and in so doing raised important broader points about the simultaneous reception of composers as artists and as ‘brands’ ripe for commercial exploitation.  Erik Levi (RHUL) explored how Germany and Austria marked key Mozart anniversaries in 1931 and 1941. Levi drew upon a rich array of primary-source documents in order to demonstrate the diverse and in many cases outrageous ways in which composer anniversaries have been hijacked for political ends.

The conference took on a different pace after the lunch break, when Jamie McGregor (Rhodes University) performed his one-man show, ‘Wagner Reading Wagner’. Complete with tail-coat, waistcoat and period facial hair, McGregor recreated one of the soirées in which Wagner read his libretto aloud to gatherings of friends and supporters in what were clearly staged performances, exercises in self-promotion designed to attract and educate audiences in advance of the completed work. McGregor’s reading from the libretto of Tannhäuser was followed by an opportunity to listen to the scene in question and thence a lively discussion about McGregor’s project chaired by Russell Burdekin (Oxford Brookes).

Jamie McGregor’s act, ‘Wagner reading Wagner’

(Note: this was not filmed at the OBERTO conference)

The fourth session of the day, ‘Monumentalisation and Commemoration’ (Chair, Peter Franklin) retained a primarily Germanic slant. Matthew Werley explored the idea of historicism in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg within the context of recent academic debates about monumentality. This was followed by a paper by Mark Berry (RHUL) on this year’s Wagner celebrations in Germany, which have in many respects adopted an anti-monumental stance. Berry examined attempts to reclaim Wagner as a ‘Saxon’ composer and a shift of interest from the composer’s later to his earlier career. The importance of place in the celebration of anniversaries was summed up by Hugo Shirley (Oxford Brookes) in the last paper of the day. Hugo analysed a range of contrasting anniversary celebrations from 2013, including a production of Britten’s Peter Grimes on Aldeburgh Beach, a Verdi box set emphasising the composer’s links with Parma, and irreverent Wagner graffiti in Bayreuth.

The conference closed with a discussion involving all delegates chaired by Alexandra Wilson (Oxford Brookes) about the broader historiographical themes the conference had raised. The discussion was wide ranging, covering the politics of historical tourism and the commercialisation of anniversaries; anniversary celebrations that have spectacularly failed; and the ways in which anniversaries play a vital – and laudable – role in building audiences for music from the past.