Brookes Musicologist hosts successful Opera study day

Tuesday, 08 December 2015

Puccini's Gianni Schicchi 1918

Dr Alexandra Wilson, Reader in Music at Oxford Brookes recently organised a study day for the general public at the Institute of Musical Research in London, entitled Popular Opera in Britain, Past and Present (28 November 2015).

The aim of the study day was to discuss opera’s status as a form of popular entertainment. It was the latest in a series of events organised by the OBERTO opera research unit at Brookes, which have sought to challenge media stereotypes about opera being an ‘elitist’ activity. 

The relationship between opera and popular culture has always been closer than you might think. In the 1920s, opera singers tried to carve out careers as film stars, jazz bands pinched tunes from Wagner and Puccini, and opera composers were the heroes of best-selling novels.

Dr Alexandra Wilson, Reader in Music, Oxford Brookes University

The first part of the event transported the audience back in time, as Dr Wilson, joined by Dr Paul Rodmell from the University of Birmingham, recreated British operatic life of the early twentieth century. Between the years 1900 and 1930, touring operatic troupes performed ‘popular operas at popular prices’ to large audiences drawn from all social classes. 

Opera was performed in variety halls and cinemas and had close connections with various types of popular culture. Dr Wilson said: "The relationship between opera and popular culture has always been closer than you might think. In the 1920s, opera singers tried to carve out careers as film stars, jazz bands pinched tunes from Wagner and Puccini, and opera composers were the heroes of best-selling novels."

The second half of the event consisted of a round table debate about opera’s popularity today. Guest speakers were asked to consider whether the word ‘highbrow’ has any currency when discussing opera. Discussion ranged widely, covering the relationship between opera and musicals, how much opera costs, performances of opera in pubs and ways of promoting opera to new audiences as something that is simply enjoyable.

The guest speakers were Anastasia Belina-Johnson from the Royal College of Music, Cormac Newark from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, John Snelson, Head of Publishing at the Royal Opera House and Benjamin Hulett, tenor and alumnus of Oxford Brookes University, who studied an MA in Music.

Dr Wilson continued: "The study day attracted a lively and enthusiastic audience, and we received some great feedback, with many commenting that they found it illuminating to hear about the current opera scene from experts in the field."

An even wider audience followed the discussion via live tweets at @ObertoBrookes. A podcast of the study day is available to listen  online.

The study day was generously funded by the British Academy in conjunction with a Mid-Career Fellowship awarded to Dr Wilson to work on a major project on operatic culture in 1920s Britain. You can read more about this in Research Forum magazine.

Image credit: "2011 DOT Gianni Schicchi 023" by Cebula - Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.