Wednesday, 14 September 2011

OBERTO (Oxford Brookes: Exploring Research Trends in Opera) Inaugural Conference: ‘Beyond Press Cuttings: New Approaches to Reception in Opera Studies’, 13 September 2011

Held at Oxford Brookes University, this study day stood in the shadow of technological as well as intellectual developments, the former most obviously highlighted in a round-table session entitled ‘The Audience as Critic’. Are we now dealing, a point with which Katharine Ellis in her thought-provoking final response agreed, with the death of the (professional, newspaper) critic in an Internet age? (Ellis cautioned that what might be true now should not dictate our response, for instance, to nineteenth-century musical life.) Hugo Shirley and Simon Evans-White drew attention to burgeoning online criticism, sometimes, as John Snelson pointed out, stretching to reviewing the reviewers. But, and this would be a persistent refrain throughout the conference, on what authority, and with what ‘validity’ (a word whose employment Roger Parker criticised)? Olga Pantaleeva focused on a particular production, the Bolshoi’s 2006 Eugene Onegin, replacing a 1944 predecessor, to sometimes personal and sometimes nationalistic controversy. What does ‘fidelity’ mean, and to what, if any, ‘original’ might the term justly be applied?

Reception refers not only to audiences in the opera house, nor only to performance. Charlotte Purkis’s discussion of poetry inspired by Rutland Boughton’s once-wildly-popular The Immortal Hour complemented Cormac Newark’s treatment of various cinematic treatments of The Phantom of the Opera. Other visual responses to opera ranged from Clair Rowden’s survey of Parisian ‘cariculture’ during the 1890s, not least the predictably virulent hostility towards Wagner and a production of Lohengrin, to Carlo Cenciarelli’s probing treatment of opera film paratexts, that is, those things lying upon the threshold of the ‘text itself’. Cenciarelli’s posited friction between medium and context led us from nineteenth-century tableaux vivants to visual and musical techniques employed in DVD presentations of Don Carlos. Flora Willson presented Meyerbeer’s funeral and memorial arrangements as an historical text, culminating in the reception of the composer himself at the Paris Opéra: at the end of the fourth act of its 398th performance of Les Huguenots, the cast, within a performance of the work, crowned with laurels a bust of the composer, previously honoured by massed choirs and orchestras at the Gare du Nord, prior to the return of his remains to Berlin.

Has everything, then, become ‘reception’, and has the term therefore reached its sell-by date? Ellis suggested we might wish in that respect to rid ourselves of the legacy of musicologists such as Carl Dahlhaus. To what extent, if any, is musicology to be distinguished from other cultural criticism? There seemed, however, in the closing, discussion, to remain some hope for the musical work, and not only as a nineteenth-century concept: for, if we do not treat with it, who will?

For more information on OBERTO, click here.

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