Redefining opera for the 21st century

Professor Alexandra Wilson

Opera traditionally has the reputation of being elitist and irrelevant in today’s world. Alexandra Wilson, Professor of Music and Cultural History, is determined to change that.

Over the past 20 years her research on opera’s hidden history as a form of popular entertainment has been instrumental in changing public perceptions and overturning negative stereotypes.

One of the world’s leading authorities on how opera is received and its cultural contexts, her work has also driven change within the opera industry. Company managers, singers and journalists have used her work to respond to challenges facing the industry today, and to find fresh ways of presenting opera to 21st-century audiences.

‘Urgent contemporary relevance’

Carmen opera

Alexandra’s definitive book on Puccini, The Puccini Problem: Opera, Nationalism and Modernity, shines a light on how his operas were bound up with debates at the turn of the twentieth century about Italianness, race, gender and cultural identity. Highlighting the ongoing relevance of these themes, Alexandra regularly works with arts organisations to show how Puccini’s operas still speak to the pressing challenges that we face today. Stuart Leeks, Editor of Opera North, believes she highlights the ‘urgent contemporary relevance’ of Puccini’s work by drawing parallels with present-day debates about nationalism, corruption, race and sexual violence.

Alexandra’s research also explores how opera was categorised in Britain both in the past and today. Her research into opera’s place in 1920s society concludes that it sat closer to ‘middlebrow’ than to ‘highbrow’ culture, thanks to its mixed audience, close relationship with celebrity, and connections with mass media. She uses historical evidence to reveal a rich history of opera as popular entertainment in Britain and to challenge stereotypical views of operatic elitism. 

Reaching new audiences

Calling into question longstanding views and assumptions about opera, Alexandra has established an extensive reach to public audiences in the UK and internationally.

Alongside writing articles for The Sunday Times, The Guardian, BBC Music Magazine and many other national outlets, she wrote and presented a BBC Radio 3 documentary, A Flapper’s Guide to the Opera, as part of the BBC’s 2017 opera season, organised in collaboration with the Victoria & Albert Museum and the Royal Opera House.

Alexandra has presented numerous broadcasts on BBC Radio 3 and been interviewed about opera on BBC Radio 4. She was also interviewed in 2017 during a Royal Opera House live broadcast of Madama Butterfly that was screened in more than 1,000 cinemas globally. Her podcasts include one for Glyndebourne on Madama Butterfly which reached 5,700 listeners, while her ‘lively Twitter account’ (@amwilson_opera) is a key source for music critics like Alexandra Coghlan who writes for The Telegraph, The Independent and other national media.

Together with public talks and programme essays for the Royal Opera House, Opera North and leading international opera companies, it all adds up to an influential body of work that presents opera in compelling new ways, challenging so-called norms and enriching the experience of audiences.

‘A blueprint for today’

Alexandra’s work has also helped the opera industry to bring about change. As well as breaking down barriers to audience accessibility, she has given opera professionals the tools they need to tackle the very real challenges they will need to face in the future, some caused by difficulties resulting from Brexit and the Covid crisis.

For Michael Volpe, founder of Opera Holland Park, Wilson’s research on 1920s opera in Britain reveals ‘a lean, economical, self-supporting opera which thrived in this country in the past and could do so again’. Her work, he writes, provides ‘a blueprint that today’s opera companies can use as they move forward in the post-Covid era’.

The impact of Alexandra’s work is summed up by John Allison of Opera magazine, writing on behalf of the opera industry as a whole: ‘[Alexandra Wilson’s] work matters very much to us all’.

Image credits:

Las Bodas de Figaro - Quincena Musical, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Carmen - Operacomique, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons