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The sixth annual OBERTO conference took place on 8 September 2016, welcoming to Oxford Brookes a diverse international mixture of more than 50 academics, singers, directors, critics and members of the public. This year’s theme was operatic acting and the conference set out to examine the manifold ways in which acting, singing, movement, body image, drama and dramaturgy interact on the operatic stage.
Ben Davis (Cardiff University) began with a paper about the concept of realism in opera, which drew upon the writings of Stanislavski in order to establish a theoretical framework that would prove useful throughout the day’s discussions. Davis drew upon his practice as an opera director, with Written on Skin as his case study, shedding light upon the ways in which directors mark up an operatic score as part of the production process. Kara McKechnie (University of Leeds) also reflected upon personal experience of her work as a dramaturg at Opera North in a paper on the ways in which singers ‘perform’ when backstage and during the rehearsal process, as shown in ‘behind-the-scenes’ documentaries.
Six historical case studies followed, organised into two parallel sessions. In a session with a nineteenth- and early twentieth-century focus, Helen Metzelaar (University of Amsterdam) told the fascinating story of the Devries family, a dynasty of Dutch opera singers who established considerable success across Europe during the nineteenth century, creating some landmark roles and drawing comparison in their interpretation of them with the great tragic actresses of the day. This established a link to the paper by Enza De Francisci (University College London), who compared the contemporaneous reception of the Italian actress Eleonora Duse and the French opera singer Emma Calvé, who both performed the role of Santuzza in London at the same time, in Verga’s play and Mascagni’s opera respectively. Alexandra Wilson (Oxford Brookes University) moved the discussion into the twentieth century, examining how star singers of the 1920s adapted their performance style (both on and off stage) in response to early film.
The parallel session was opened by Clemens Risi (Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nuremberg), who demonstrated that typical gestures displayed by singers – which have often been criticised for being stereotypical and repetitive – are rooted not only in 18th- and 19th-century ideas of rhetoric and acting, but also in vocal coaching techniques. Mark Berry (Royal Holloway, University of London) drew a parallel between two ‘singing actresses’ past and present: Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient, who inspired Richard Wagner’s operas and theoretical writings, and Waltraud Meier, one of the outstanding Wagner singers of the present. Laura Moeckli (Basel) introduced the concept of ‘disjunction’: as French treatises on acting show, the option of acting against the grist of the stage action or plot situation was already an option in the early 19th century; compositional traces can be found in Meyerbeer’s operas.
After lunch, drama tutor Norman Cooley showcased some of the techniques he uses in training singers to act, a session that was made engaging through audience participation. A lively discussion followed in the subsequent session on ‘bodies’. In a memorably titled paper (‘Fat Butch Orfeo’), Heather Hadlock (Stanford University) analysed the idea that mainstream body norms and beauty standards do not apply in the operatic world, concluding that the rare fat butch figure in opera retains a genuinely subversive, anti-normative energy. Hugo Shirley’s (Gramophone) paper continued the theme of body image, revisiting the so-called ‘Dumpygate’ controversy that surrounded the reception of Tara Erraught’s performance as Octavian in the Glyndebourne Festival production of Der Rosenkavalier in 2014.
The discussion then turned away from individual to collective acting, with a session on the chorus. Ryan Minor (SUNY Stonybrook) amused everyone with his anecdotes of wooden chorus acting at a certain well-known American opera house, before looking back to the eighteenth century to take a historical perspective on the problematic question of group acting. Katarina Aronsson then discussed some innovative directorial choices at the Royal Swedish Opera, where she is dramaturg, which were designed to showcase the chorus in innovative and convincing ways.
Singers Adriana Festeu (L) and Sally Burgess (R)
The conference ended with an ‘in conversation’ panel, in which mezzo sopranos Sally Burgess and Adriana Festeu discussed their experiences of operatic acting, and the ways in which they prepare for a role. The discussion focused particularly upon acting the role of Carmen, recently sung by Adriana and a signature role of Sally’s, and it was a treat to watch video clips of both in action. The session was ably chaired Karen Henson (Frost School of Music, University of Miami), who brought her historical knowledge of the singer who created the role of Bizet’s anti-heroine to bear upon the conversation.
Throughout the day, there was much opportunity for lively discussion, both in response to the formal presentations and informally during the breaks. Thanks to the diverse mix of participants, there was a lively intermingling of historical perspectives on operatic acting, theoretical analyses and pragmatic sharing of experiences – something that has become a trademark of the annual OBERTO conferences.
OBERTO staff were delighted to welcome Michael Volpe, General Director at Opera Holland Park, to Brookes on 20th June to receive an Honorary Doctorate in Music.
Michael Volpe with OBERTO staff Alexandra Wilson (left) and Barbara Eichner (right)
Michael Volpe joined the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea in 1989, where his role was to promote local cultural institutions. Within a few years he had persuaded the Council to start its own opera company. Opera Holland Park is now one of the UK’s most thriving, respected and artistically innovative opera companies. As General Director, Michael’s numerous duties include repertory choice, strategic planning, fundraising, communications and all general aspects of creating the festival infrastructure.
Michael is a powerful advocate for the transformative nature of education. He attended an unusual state boarding school, which took inner city boys and gave them an education rich in music and drama. Since then, he has dedicated himself to promoting opera as something everyone can enjoy. He is a regular voice in the national press and his recent memoir Noisy at the Wrong Times is a passionate plea for the arts to be taken seriously in schools. Michael has spoken at several OBERTO conferences and we look forward to collaborating with him again in the future. We consider him to be a superb role-model for our students. The full text of Michael’s speech can be found below.
Michael Volpe: Honorary Doctorate acceptance speech
Oxford Brookes June 2016
It is with great surprise and pleasure that I come here today to accept this honorary doctorate, the giving of which is met with more pride than I can actually express. To be recognised by an academic institution is not something I ever thought possible as I grew up. My two oldest children have achieved far more than I have in academia, but, as a competitive Dad I just want to say to them…erm, Doctor?!
I am also honoured to be here on what is a great day of achievement for all of you and I have been asked to speak to you with the intention of inspiring you. Perhaps the best thing I can do is ask you to look at yourselves for inspiration: I can say that all of you, by dedicating yourself to your degrees, by showing the commitment and desire, have already achieved a great deal more than I ever did. You have much to feel proud of yourselves for and if it helps to use my own failures as inspiration, I am happy to allow you to do so.
The question is, what kind of a world are you going out into, and more specifically, given the subject of many of your degrees, what kind of an arts and cultural world are you entering? It is a tough one, I won’t lie.
Over the next ten years, our children, and thus your future audiences, customers or collaborators will leave school less cultured and knowledgeable of the arts than ever before. The proposed new eBacc doesn’t encourage careers in the arts and as a nation, the country of Shakespeare, we don’t truly put the arts alongside other subjects. We are making it extra-curricular. And the world is largely an electronic one, which may encourage you to go into media arts, or become social media gurus. I suppose that you are all children of the digital age too. But don’t despair at any of these realities, which I am well known for doing a lot of moaning about. The world is still full of human beings. They may communicate in different ways but our emotions and our responses haven’t changed. Our chemistry HAS survived Twitter.
Having taken an arts degree, you may still end up doing something unrelated, as do many people in the working world, but I contend you will be better at it. I was lucky enough to attend a school that put cultural education at the very heart of its academic life, with the highest standards possible. I was the world’s worst pupil, but not when I was on stage, or singing or drawing. I came from a poor Italian family who came to this country in the fifties. Neapolitan songs were our house soundtrack, a bit of opera by Mario Lanza perhaps. The effect that theatre and music had on me as a truculent teenager was startling in its transformative power. And when I used to go to football matches at Chelsea, I might have been the only person there who knew that the abusive song we were all singing was based on the Libiamo from La Traviata. It felt good knowing that.
And culture defines our histories. We recognise decades and centuries largely by the culture of the time. Culture is at the core of humanity, it isn’t just a hobby a few of us have. Every single person on the planet is touched by the creativity of others, whether the most rapacious business that needs a beautiful logo and a well written brochure or the most primitive tribes on the planet who sing together around the fire. The fact that we spend so much of our time in the arts trying to make this point to the government is actually absurd. The irony of it struck me last week when the Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, was a guest at Opera Holland Park. Now, she was our guest, on a rare night off, and it wasn’t appropriate for me to voice my opposition to some of her policies too heartily, but she was keen to read my book about the school I went to, and my inscription to her in it was restrained and genuine. But I offered my services should she want to discuss the issue of cultural education. She was eager to read the book on her summer holidays, so perhaps in September, we will see some surprising policy reversals from the government.
But there we were, a poor, immigrants’ son, with a party that included two distinguished lawyers, a government minister, the leader of the wealthiest council in the country and a distinguished former chair of the V&A friends, at an accessible opera festival that I founded and which has generated millions for the local economy – and they were all very pleased that I had taken the time to visit them at their picnic table. I think the irony of it may not strike the minister until she has read the book, but I have always been amazed at how what I do, rather than divide classes, actually brings us together in collective appreciation of something beautiful.
In fairness, I think the government believes what it says about the arts, but ultimately, it isn’t something they can control or do much harm to. The world cannot exist or function without the creative industries. I think – and hope – that people like you will always follow your hearts and gifts and talents. It is something we don’t, and can’t, control.
If you do pursue a career in a creative industry, I will always encourage you to engage in work that speaks in a human way to your audience, but above all, whatever you decide to do in the years to come, your over-riding aim should simply be to believe fully in what it is you are doing. And don’t chase what someone else tells you is what the ‘audience’ or market ‘wants’. Always do your best to expose them to more, to the new, to the challenging. You yourselves can determine how your work, your efforts and your passions will affect the lives of others.
As for your careers and how to negotiate them, there is no great secret to it. I will offer a few pointers to if not success, then a comfortable sense of honest endeavour. The lavishness of any consequent success is up to you and your talent.
- Believe in yourself. One of my favourite sayings is “if you don’t blow your own trumpet, someone else will use it as a spittoon.” So blow your trumpet. Sometimes, blow it more quietly – but blow it nevertheless.
There is a difference, however, between blowing your own trumpet and blowing someone else’s for them. The world is full of egomaniacs who will want to take credit for your achievements, for your creativity, your talent. Be secure in the knowledge they have done it because they want the reflected glory. That is your reward, along with the satisfaction of the achievement.
- However, when YOU reach a position of leadership and authority. Never take credit for the achievements of others. Well, we have to stop the cycle somewhere.
- Generosity of spirit towards those around you will ensure you are far more likely to learn more from them, and in turn make you better at what you do. This is not to say you shouldn’t stand up for yourself – you should, most firmly. But don’t be an arse about it.
- Integrity is an overused word. People with the least integrity I have ever known have been very fond of using the word. It is hard to know what it means in every context. I think of it in quite a simple way. You set yourself basic rules and you stick to them. If you are being challenged or criticised, you need to be able to look that person square in the eye, without flinching, and to either accept that criticism, or dispute it. Integrity will help you do that fearlessly. You must always be fearless.
- Never, ever give up. You can eventually admit defeat, but that is distinct from giving up. Meet your challenges fearlessly, honestly, with integrity, passionately, with humility and collaboratively. If you do that, your talents will shine through.
You have all achieved a great deal already. But you have so much to learn. That isn’t meant to patronise you, because if you are clever, you will realise that you never, ever stop learning. All the best among us would agree with me.
Congratulations on your graduations and good luck.
The OBERTO opera research unit at Oxford Brookes University acts a mechanism by which to stimulate, support and promote staff and postgraduate research in opera studies. But it also has a more outward-facing ambition, which is to encourage people from outside the University to debate current issues in opera studies, whether they be other academics and students, opera industry professionals or members of the general public.
With this latter aim in mind, OBERTO hosted a free study afternoon at Senate House in London on 28 November entitled ‘Popular Opera in Britain, Past and Present’. The event considered opera’s status as a form of popular entertainment and its connections with other types of popular culture, with the aim of scrutinising whether the term ‘highbrow’ is appropriate when discussing opera.
A full podcast of this event is available here!
In the first half of the afternoon, two speakers transported listeners back in time to the beginning of the twentieth century, recreating British operatic culture in colourful detail. Dr Paul Rodmell (University of Birmingham) demonstrated that opera was regarded as genuinely popular entertainment during the Edwardian era, arguing that ‘opera came within reach of a greater proportion of the population than either before or since’. In large part this was due to the activities of touring opera companies such as the Carl Rosa and the Moody-Manners. These companies were constantly on the road, performing popular operas at popular prices in towns and cities up and down the land, as Rodmell illustrated vividly with interactive PowerPoint maps. The press of the day focused almost exclusively on Covent Garden, but Rodmell demonstrated that the real operatic picture of the years up to World War One was far more varied.
Dr Alexandra Wilson (OBERTO) then picked up the baton with a specific focus on the 1920s. During this decade, opera’s cultural status began to change and it is here that we can find the roots of some of the present-day attitudes towards opera. Intense debates about whether forms of culture were ‘highbrow’, ‘middlebrow’ or ‘lowbrow’ took place in Britain during the 1920s, in what has often been called the ‘battle of the brows’. Wilson demonstrated, however, that opera was very difficult to categorise, being regarded by some middlebrow commentators as too highbrow but by many music critics and intellectuals as not highbrow enough. Opera was still very popular among all classes, but the decline of the touring companies meant that opportunities to hear live opera were fewer than before the War. Opera mingled in interesting ways with new forms of popular culture: opera singers tried to carve out careers as film stars, jazz bands pinched melodies from Wagner and Puccini operas, and opera composers were the protagonists of best-selling novels. On the other hand, there were growing attempts to ridicule it by setting it up as something antithetical to the everyday.
These historical papers presented vital cultural background for the second section of discussion, which focused upon the present day. Four speakers who are involved in performing, researching and writing about opera took part: Anastasia Belina-Johnson (Royal College of Music), Benjamin Hulett (tenor), Cormac Newark (Guildhall School of Music) and John Snelson (Head of Publishing and Interpretation, Royal Opera House). The speakers were each asked to present a five minute response to the question of whether ‘highbrow’ is an appropriate word to use when discussing opera today; a lively round-table debate with questions from the floor then ensued. The speakers approached the question from a variety of different angles and it soon became apparent that the answer to it was far from clear cut: ‘highbrow’ seems in some contexts to be a dirty word, yet has the potential to be reclaimed in more positive ways. Discussion ranged widely, covering connections between opera and musical theatre, confrontations between opera and sport, and ways of promoting opera to new audiences that place an emphasis upon the simple factor of its being enjoyable.
Enjoyment was certainly something that characterised the study day itself and audience members commented on Twitter that they found it ‘thought provoking and intelligently led’ and ‘great but too short!’ One attendee remarked afterwards: ‘The comments on the current opera scene were very illuminating – it is good to have this kind of information from people who are actually involved, rather than just journalists and critics.’
We are very grateful to the British Academy for its generous funding of this event and the Institute of Musical Research for kindly providing a room at Senate House.
School of Arts
3 years full-time fees will be paid by the University.
Bursary: £7,000 pa (with no inflation increase).
Deadline: The closing date for applications is 22 December 2015.
Interview date: Interviews will be held in week beginning 4 January 2016.
Start date: April 2016
To mark its 150th Anniversary, Oxford Brookes University is pleased to offer this 3 year full-time PhD Studentship in the opera research unit OBERTO within the School of Arts, starting in April 2016.
The successful applicant will receive an annual bursary of £7,000 for three years (with no inflation increase), and fees will be paid by the University. The candidate will need to demonstrate that they have sufficient additional means to complete the programme successfully in full-time study.
Topic of research: Opera and Politics
Opera and politics have been intimately connected since the birth of the art-form. Political agendas may be present in the way in which operas are conceived, staged and received, whilst opera’s place in society is invariably political, as demonstrated by omnipresent debates about the funding of opera and about accessibility. The field of opera and politics is a growing one but countless topics in this area, both historical and contemporary, remain to be explored.
This project will allow the recipient of the doctoral award to investigate the issue from one of many potential angles, including (but not restricted to):
Politics as represented on the operatic stage
- The politicised reception of opera
- Opera and society: gender, race, national identity and class
- The politics of opera staging
- The contemporary politics of opera: new audiences; stereotypes; funding
- Opera and politics on film
The recipient of this doctoral award will be supervised by Dr Alexandra Wilson (Reader in Music), whose work in this area includes: the politicised reception of Puccini’s operas; operatic politics in early twentieth-century Italy and Britain; opera onstage and in film; and contemporary debates about cultural categorisation, accessibility and opera stereotypes.
Informal enquiries may be addressed to firstname.lastname@example.org and further information about Dr Wilson’s research interests can be found at: http://arts.brookes.ac.uk/staff/alexandrawilson.html
The recipient of this award would be expected to contribute proactively to the activities of the OBERTO opera research unit. Further information about OBERTO can be found athttps://obertobrookes.com/
If you would like to apply you should request an application pack email@example.com, quoting ‘Opera and Politics’ in the subject line. Fully completed applications must be sent to the same email address by 22 December 2015.
Please be advised that the selection process may involve an interview in the week commencing January 4 2016, and the successful candidate would be expected to commence the research degree programme in April 2016.
Popular Opera, Past and Present
Saturday 28 November 2015, 3-5pm
Room 261, Senate House, Malet Street, London, WC1E 7HU
This study afternoon, open to members of the public, will consider opera’s status as a form of popular entertainment past and present. The aim of the event is to scrutinise and challenge stereotypes about opera being an ‘elitist’ activity.
In the first half of the afternoon Dr Alexandra Wilson (Oxford Brookes University) and Dr Paul Rodmell (University of Birmingham) will recreate the British operatic culture of a century ago, demonstrating that in the early twentieth century opera played to all social classes, enjoyed close connections with a range of different types of popular culture and resisted being pigeon-holed as ‘highbrow’ art. In the second half of the afternoon they will be joined by Dr Anastasia Belina-Johnson (Royal College of Music), Benjamin Hulett (tenor), Dr Cormac Newark (Guildhall School of Music and Drama), and Dr John Snelson (Royal Opera House) for a round-table discussion of opera and popular culture today, debating whether the term ‘highbrow’ has any valid currency in the operatic context.
This OBERTO event has been organised in association with the Institute of Musical Research and funded by the British Academy. Attendance is free but places are limited. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org in order to reserve a place.