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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.
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.
In 1848 Liszt made the controversial decision to give up a highly successful and lucrative career as a touring virtuoso to take up full-time the role of Kapellmeister of the small, Weimar court orchestra. His critics could not have known that he was about to embark on arguably the most fruitful period of creativity of his entire life. The symphonies, symphonic poems, piano works and oratorios from that period are now well known,but Liszt’s work as director of the court theatre and his contribution to the history of opera are still largely unfamiliar.
In many ways, Liszt and Weimar were unsuited. The traditions of the court were stuck in the past, particularly in their treatment ofmusicians. Liszt saw artists as priest-like figures with an important role to play ineducating society. Grand Duke Carl Friedrich, on the other hand, saw artists as members of the payroll.They were required to wear uniforms, they would fulfil commissions for court birthdays, anniversaries and other celebrations, and they would entertain the court or give music lessons when desired. In this respect, Liszt’s position was not so different from Haydn’s at the court of the Esterházy family almost a century earlier. Nonetheless, Liszt insisted on retaining the title, Kapellmeister in Extraordinary, which allowed him some freedom from Weimar. He described his position as ‘voluntary’ and only received a modest, sporadic salary. All of this allowed Liszt freedom from Weimar for extended periods when he would leave the theatre in the hands of a deputy.
Despite quarrels with other members of the artistic staff, the mediocre orchestra and dismal chorus (amusingly described by Berlioz in 1841 as‘a rabble of unimaginable incompetents, bawling their way through the score with a contempt for the conventions of pitch and rhythm such as I have never heard equalled’) and despite the miserly attitude of Grand Duke Carl Friedrich towards funding the arts, Liszt’s achievements were considerable. He took risks in programming new works, providing an important platform for contemporary composers. The premiere of Lohengrin was given by Liszt in Weimar at a time when Wagner struggled to persuade theatres anywhere to stage performances of his work. Liszt also gave early performances of Tannhäuser, Der fliegendeHolländer, Schumann’s Manfred, Genoveva and Scenes from Faust, and Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini among many others.
Perhaps less well known is the role Liszt played in nineteenth-century Gluck rehabilitation. Wagner, Berlioz, and Strauss are often associated with 19th-century Gluck revivals. Nonetheless, Liszt mounted an earlier revival of Orphéein Weimar,“updating” the opera with his own music, whilst at the same time attempting to stay true to Gluck’s orchestration choices and style. In his published writings, Liszt was also an early voice in the growing ‘authenticity’ movement, and he was instrumental in publicly decrying outdated performance practices, such as entr’actes. In the 19th century it was common for a soloist or an orchestra to play a short movement in between the acts of a play or opera, whilst the audience happily chatted away. Liszt, having experienced this from the perspective of both performer and conductor, despised the practice. Perhaps most importantly, however, he contributed to increased rigour in performance standards with his meticulous rehearsals. He took piano rehearsals, coaching the singers individually, he took sectionals at time when this was uncommon to say the least, and he worked closely with the Regisseur and the composer (where possible) overseeing almost every aspect of production.All of this repositions Liszt as a formidable influence on theatre practices whose legacy deserves to be reassessed.
The following is a statement that Barbara Eichner contributed to the ‘Mastering the Mix’ conference:
Advocating an interdisciplinary approach to opera studies seems like carrying castrati to Naples. For the last 400 years this form has combined different arts – music, visual art, dance – and social phenomena with an enthusiasm that is hardly matched elsewhere, forming a unique entity. To quote the Italian musicologist PierluigiPetrobelli: “In opera, various ‘systems’ work together, each according to its own nature and laws, and the result of the combination is much greater than the sum of the individual forces.” Or, to look at it from the perspective of the recipient rather than the producer: In opera the distinction between “text” and “context” is more obviously blurred than in other types of music, to an extent that begs the question whether opera is actually a “type of music” or “musical genre” at all, rather than a medium in its own right that happens to involve music. So what role should musicology play in mastering the specific “mix” of opera?
To be honest, musicology as a field shied away from opera for quite a long time, the efforts of individual scholars notwithstanding. The diverse nature of the art form was seen either as a distraction – these pesky singers getting in the way of serious contemplation – or as a weakness: Because opera was this all-singing, all-dancing spectacle, it had no need to develop a sustained musical interest, thus offering little that serious musicologists nurtured on Bach or Brahms could get their teeth into. If they ventured into these dangerous waters, they were happiest with Mozart or Wagner, especially since the latter’s insistence on the symphonic nature of his music offered a convenient model for analysis. Thus for a long time it was an uphill struggle to argue even that opera was worthy of musical investigation, never mind celebrating it as an interdisciplinary free-for-all.
As a consequence, opera studies was one of the great beneficiaries of the rise of the so-called “New Musicology” from the mid-1980s onwards, since here the new ideas imported from literary criticism or cultural studies could be brought to fruition quite easily. Arguing that Verdi’s Aida betrays an exoticist Euro-centrism is more straightforward than deconstructing the post-colonial string-quartet. The new openness worked so brilliantly that Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker felt compelled to justify their analytical and canonic focus in their 1989 book Analyzing Opera. Many of the seminal texts of the “New Musicology” were written by non-musicologists, such as the notorious The Queen’s Throatby literary scholar and confessionally gay opera fan Wayne Koestenbaum, or the esoteric The Angel’s Cry by psycholinguist Michel Poizat. And it was especially their quirkiness, their unabashed enthusiasm that felt like a welcome breath of fresh air to a discipline that considered itself stifled by critical editions and Schenker graphs. Whereas some musicologists might have felt protective towards “their” opera, most of them have taken the invasion with good grace, for example by establishing an interdisciplinary forum in the journal Cambridge Opera Studies.
So while many disciplines, plus a sizeable number of well-versed amateurs, are now happy to claim opera as a favourite playground, this large circle of friends and admirers has still left the field of “opera studies” as an “orphan without a home”, as of literature Herbert Lindenberger bemoans in his recent book Situating Opera. Institutional restrictions continue to apply: Funding councils, peer-review mechanisms and hiring policies dictate to some extent the disciplinary approach of the individual scholar. As Lindenberger stresses, each of the many disciplines that could potentially get involved in opera studies has its own history, conventions and customs and is loath to cede any ground to new heresies or new heretics. This means that many collaborative projects still feel the need for a bit of special pleading. Take, for example, the blurb that series editor Roberta Marvin wrote for the newly-established Ashgate series Interdisciplinary Studies in Opera:
When I first arrived at the University of Iowa in the late 1990s, I was greeted with a cadre of colleagues from various disciplines including Classics, French, German, Comparative Literature, Religious Studies, History, and so forth, whose research focused on opera and others who were knowledgeable about the genre and had become avid opera-lovers. … As a result of that experience and my firm belief that research on opera is not just for music scholars, I quickly seized the opportunity to prepare a series for Ashgate on interdisciplinary opera studies.
Interestingly most books in the series are actually written or edited by musicologists, which begs the question whether they – or we – don’t just use the catchphrase “interdisciplinary” to do a bit of fashionable window-dressing to sell our books to a wider audience or at least more libraries. The general “decentring” of academic disciplines, which was so optimistically predicted in the 1990s, has simply not happened, so for the time being good old collaboration seems still to be the order of the day.Likewise the establishment of a dedicated field of “opera studies” on a par with “film studies”, which is advocated in some circles, hardly seems to be the way forward, since it would just result in a further splintering of the humanities into ever smaller sub-disciplines.
So what should the specific contribution of musicologists be when it comes to mastering the particularly messy mix of opera? All too often we get defensive when comparing ourselves with the more glamorous offerings from media studies, film studies or literary criticism: We are embarrassed of our lingering interest in the “music itself” that nowadays seems to be implicated in all kinds of unsavoury ideologies like nationalism and colonialism, unless we somehow redeem it by hiding behind “the sonic” or “the body”. Shouldn’t our relationship to the other disciplines be rather a humble plea to be instructed and enlightened, since we still seem to limp behind the sister humanities or up-and-coming fields like music psychology or performance-as-research? Well, this question was clearly rhetorical! Without embarking on a whole-sale defence of historical musicology I would only offer the followingtwo points for consideration: First, while some contributions from historians or literary scholars offer new and exciting angles, others revisit well-trodden ground but claim that musicologists have neglected to engage with that particular angle. A few years ago I spoke at a history conference in Italy where the organiser – an ex-journalist and historian – seriously claimed that the concept “music and politics” was news to musicologists! Similarly, at a recent opera conference, two speakers gave a key note address on Wagnerian traces in Verdi and Puccini that might have been cutting-edge in medical circles, but not for an audience that had kept up with recent publications. Thus the plea for interdisciplinary instruction works both ways: Everybody who wanders into a new field should have the good grace to read at least the equivalent of the discipline’s Lonely Planet guide.
My second point: Colleagues from other disciplines often make an excellent job at ignoring the music altogether when thinking about opera. Maybe they simply feel not qualified to puzzle over half-diminished seventh chords in Parsifal or are not very interested in the genre conventions that have shaped Figaro. Alternatively they approach the musical side of opera with a distorted vision: Because it is the main source of the pleasure they derive from the art form – and we don’t have to go as far as Koestenbaum’sorgasmic response to Rosenkavalier –and because music got them “into opera” in the first place, they are often reluctant to have this pleasure somehow spoiled or displaced by academic rigour. Music becomes once more, as for the Romantic poets of the nineteenth century, the ineffable source of beauty and fulfilment that spurns and transcends the written word. So maybe it is less our knowledge of harmonic procedures and voice types that is an asset to an interdisciplinary approach to opera studies. It is our unflinching willingness to apply this knowledge even to the most beguiling coloratura by our favourite opera star.