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Popular Opera in Britain Study Day by Dr Alexandra Wilson

Caruso with record

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.

Follow OBERTO on Twitter @ObertoBrookes. A Storify of the day’s events can be found here.