An Italian Sojourn: Transnational Opera

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Earlier this week I had the good fortune to travel to Italy to present a paper at the first Transnational Opera Studies Conference, held at the Department of Arts of the University of Bologna. There are, of course, many international music conferences that feature papers on opera but this is the first large-scale regular conference to be explicitly dedicated to the art form. The idea is that it will take place every other year, and that the host country will vary, along similar lines to the long established Medieval-Renaissance Music Conference.

One of the motivations for the conference’s organisers was clearly to get academics of different nationalities talking to one another. British musicologists work regularly with their North American colleagues but in many cases tend to interact less frequently with their European counterparts. The call for papers had attracted considerable international interest, with 211 proposals received from 27 countries.

Many speakers, however, had also picked up on the ‘transnational’ theme in their papers and none more so than Axel Körner in his opening keynote address. Professor Körner (University College London) is a historian rather than a musicologist, but counts nineteenth-century music theatre among his many interests. In his keynote, he spoke about the problems of studying the past in narrowly national terms, arguing that this is particularly acute in the case of cultural history: national identities do not necessarily remain fixed as artworks cross boundaries. Interestingly, Körner argued that musicologists sometimes write the best history, because they tend to be particularly open to the cross-disciplinary exchange that is so vital for transnational history. (I was delighted that he gave a nod to my Puccini book as a good example of this kind of writing.)

The papers presented during the conference demonstrated the eclecticism and interdisciplinarity of contemporary opera studies, varying widely in chronological range, geographical spread and methodological approach. Speakers discussed such diverse topics as the first performance of Peri’s Euridice in 1600 (Tim Carter, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), hygiene and health manuals produced for nineteenth-century French singers (Céline Frigau Manning, Université Paris 8) and Regietheater stagings of Rusalka (Micaela Baranello, Swarthmore College). There were three sessions running in parallel so clearly it was not possible to hear everything one might have wanted to hear, but I’ll just touch upon a couple of highlights here.

Kunio Hara’s (University of South Carolina) talk about the theme of nostalgia in the early reception of La fanciulla del West seemed to encapsulate the ‘transnational’ concept particularly well. Critical responses to this opera in New York in 1910 are something I have discussed in my own book on Puccini, and the topic has also been addressed in Annie J. Randall and Rosalind Gray-Davis’ Puccini and the Girl: History and Reception of the Girl of the Golden West. I was curious, therefore, to see what new things were left to be said. However, Hara took a very imaginative angle on the topic, examining the opera’s reception in Italian-language papers that were published in New York in 1910. The theme of nostalgia – encapsulated in the character Jake Wallace’s ballad ‘Che faranno i vecchi miei’ – turns out to have been received very differently by the English-language press (where critics found it unconvincing) and the Italian-language press (where it was lapped up and chimed with a wider rhetoric and iconography of nostalgia). Fascinating stuff.

Another very interesting paper for my particular purposes was given by Christy Thomas, a doctoral candidate at Yale, who discussed a different type of ‘boundary crossing’: the boundary between opera and cinema. This is, of course, something that is still being discussed a great deal in the present age. Thomas vividly reconstructed a board meeting of the Ricordi publishing house in 1906, where the company grappled for the first time with the challenges film posed to opera. She had fascinating insights to offer into how snippets of opera were being performed in early cinemas, and how the Ricordi legal team used copyright in order to combat the practice.

Although I hadn’t explicitly set out to incorporate the ‘transnational’ theme into my own paper, it was very much present. I discussed the way in which different national schools of opera were stereotyped by British ‘highbrow’ and ‘middlebrow’ commentators of the 1920s. In a nutshell, from the ‘highbrow’ perspective Italian opera was generally ‘bad’ (unless it was early opera) and German opera was generally ‘good’ (unless it was Strauss) but the ‘middlebrow’ perspective was rather more complex. And speaking in the same session, my colleague Joanne Cormac examined an earlier manifestation of the British love-hate relationship with Italian opera, considering how such works were sent up in the Victorian genre of theatrical burlesque.

Beyond the formal programme of papers, we were treated to two very different musical entertainments. A concert in the Basilica di San Petronio of organ and choral works by Bolognese Baroque composers Maurizio Cazzati, Giovanni Paolo Colonna and Giacomo Antonio Perti placed fitting emphasis upon the local traditions of a city many delegates were visiting for the first time. However, a dazzling and highly amusing lecture recital about Liszt’s Rigoletto Paraphrase by the academic and virtuoso pianist Emanuele Ferrari returned us very much to the idea of the transnational. It was, in fact, almost everywhere you looked, and it’s something I’ll be giving more thought to as I move into the final stages of writing my book.