Papers from the 2011 OBERTO conference recently provided the inspiration for a special issue of Cambridge Opera Journal on new approaches to reception in opera studies. The issue, published in July 2013, was co-edited by Alexandra Wilson and Roberta Montemorra Marvin (University of Iowa) and features articles by Katharine Ellis, Clair Rowden, Cormac Newark, Carlo Cenciarelli and Alexandra Wilson.
Dr Barbara Eichner’s monograph History in Mighty Sounds: Musical Constructions of German National Identity, 1848 -1914 was published by Boydell & Brewer in 2012. It is available here.
Music played a central role in the self-conception of middle-class Germans between the March Revolution of 1848 and the First World War. Although German music was widely held to be ‘universal’ and thus apolitical, it participated – like the other arts – in the historicist project of shaping the nation’s future by calling on the national heritage. Compositions based on historical events and heroes invited individual as well as collective identification and brought alive a past that compared favourably with contemporary conditions. Eichner maps out a varied picture of these ‘invented traditions’ and the manifold ideas of ‘Germanness’ to which they gave rise, exemplified through works by familiar composers like Max Bruch or Carl Reinecke as well as their nowadays little-known contemporaries.
“This work is a valuable contribution for anyone wishing to chart the trends and developments of German music during a crucial era.” German History
Dr Alexandra Wilson’s The Puccini Problem: Opera, Nationalism, and Modernity was published by Cambridge Studies in Opera in 2007 (paperback edition 2009). In 2008 it won the American Musicological Society’s Lewis Lockwood Award for an exceptional work of musical scholarship by a scholar in the early stages of their career. It is available here.
A detailed investigation of the reception and cultural contexts of Puccini’s music, this book offers a fresh view of this historically important but frequently overlooked composer. Wilson’s study explores the ways in which Puccini’s music and persona were held up as both the antidote to and the embodiment of the decadence widely felt to be afflicting late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Italy, a nation which although politically unified remained culturally divided.
“As accessible as Puccini’s music itself… a book that can engage both scholars and the opera-going public.” Musical Times
Alexandra’s Opera: A Beginner’s Guide (2010) is a book aimed at students and a general audience, which seeks to demonstrate opera’s relevance to everyday life. The book is available here.
Opera is often dismissed as outdated and excessive, and perceived to be characterised by excessive passions, sumptuous costumes, and ill-mannered divas. In reality, however, operas address the most fundamental and universal of human concerns – love, death, jealousy, greed, and power. Revealing the diverse reasons behind opera’s lasting appeal, opera champion and expert Alexandra Wilson provides a lucid and engaging introduction to the agendas that have governed its composition, production and reception over the last four centuries, and explains the reasons behind its enduring appeal.
“In her admirably compact introduction to opera, Wilson outlines the history of this most ambitious of art forms, while going on to place opera in a broad social, political and cultural context… packed with richly resonant material.” Daniel Snowman
Barbara has also contributed articles on ‘German identity’, ‘Lohengrin’, ‘Elsa’ and ‘Ortrud’ to The Cambridge Wagner Encyclopedia, which is available here.
Richard Wagner is one of the most controversial figures in Western cultural history. He revolutionized not only opera but the very concept of art, and his works and ideas have had an immeasurable impact on both the cultural and political landscapes of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. From “absolute music” to “Zurich” and from “Theodor Adorno” to “Hermann Zumpe,” the vividly-written entries of The Cambridge Wagner Encyclopedia have been contributed by recognized authorities and cover a comprehensive range of topics. More than eighty scholars from around the world, representing disciplines from history and philosophy to film studies and medicine, provide fascinating insights into Wagner’s life, career, and influence. Multiple appendices include listings of Wagner’s works, historic productions, recordings, and addresses where he lived, to round out a volume that will be an essential and reliable resource for enthusiasts and academics alike.
Alexandra Wilson contributed an essay on touring opera singers in the 1920s to The Arts of the Prima Donna in the Long Nineteenth Century (ed. Rachel Cowgill and Hilary Poriss, New York: Oxford University Press, 2012). The book is available here.
Female characters assumed increasing prominence in the narratives of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century opera. And for contemporary audiences, many of these characters – and the celebrated women who played them – still define opera at its finest and most searingly affective, even if storylines leave them swooning and faded by the end of the drama. The presence and representation of women in opera has been addressed in a range of recent studies that offer valuable insights into the operatic stage as cultural space, focusing a critical lens at the text and the position and signification of female characters. Moving that lens onto the historical, The Arts of the Prima Donna in the Long Nineteenth Century sheds light on the singers who created and inhabited these roles, the flesh-and-blood women who embodied these fabled “doomed women” onstage before an audience.
Jazz, the Charleston, nightclubs, cocktails, cinema, and musical theatre: 1920s British nightlife was vibrant and exhilarating. But where did opera fit into this fashionable new entertainment world? Opera in the Jazz Age: Cultural Politics in 1920s Britain explores the interaction between opera and popular culture at a key historical moment when there was a growing imperative to categorize art forms as “highbrow,” “middlebrow,” or “lowbrow.” Literary studies of the so-called “battle of the brows” have been numerous, but this is the first book to consider the place of opera in interwar debates about high and low culture. This study by Alexandra Wilson argues that opera was extremely difficult to pigeonhole: although some contemporary commentators believed it to be too highbrow, others thought it not highbrow enough.
Opera in the Jazz Age paints a lively and engaging picture of 1920s operatic culture, and introduces a charismatic cast of early twentieth-century critics, conductors, and celebrity singers. Opera was performed during this period to socially mixed audiences in a variety of spaces beyond the conventional opera house: music halls, cinemas, cafés and schools. Performance and production standards were not always high – often quite the reverse – but opera-going was evidently great fun. Office boys whistled operatic tunes they had heard on the gramophone and there was a genuine sense that opera was for everyone. In this provocative and timely study, Wilson considers how the opera debate of the 1920s continues to shape the ways in which we discuss the art form, and draws connections between the battle of the brows and present-day discussions about elitism. The book makes a major contribution to our understanding of the cultural politics of twentieth-century Britain and is essential reading for anybody interested in the history of opera, the battle of the brows, or simply the perennially fascinating decade that was the 1920s. The book is available here.
Both Alexandra and Barbara have also contributed to BBC Radio 3’s Opera Guides, which can be found here.
Academic articles on opera by OBERTO staff have covered topics as wide ranging as 1950s stagings of Italian comic operas, Wagner in London and allegory in the operas of Richard Strauss.
For a full list of our publications, please visit our staff profiles on the Oxford Brookes website: