Nineteenth-Century Studies Seminar

Nineteenth-Century Studies Seminar
11 May 2018, 5.30pm - 7.30pm
Gordon Room, G34, Ground Floor, Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HU

Nineteenth-Century Opera 

To coincide with the V&A’s exhibition Opera: Passion, Power and Politics. 

Flora Willson (Lecturer in Music, King’s College London) - 'Nellie Melba and global opera in the 1890s'

By the late nineteenth century, opera had become fundamentally international: transport and communications networks enabled performers and works to circulate more widely than ever before. Within this self-consciously “modernised” operatic culture, the Italian bel canto repertoire—the so-called “Italian tradition”—occupied a problematic position. A handful of works by Rossini, Donizetti, and Verdi continued to be performed; but they were frequently decried as old-fashioned, the vocal technique they demanded seen as obsolete.

The arrival in Europe of Australian soprano Nellie Melba, however, marked a crucial shift. In the early 1890s Melba became not just an operatic star in London and Paris but a mass-media celebrity—one closely associated with that ageing Italian tradition. What’s more, as the singer’s own global trajectory continued with her triumphant 1893 debut at the Metropolitan Opera, Melba-fever led to a repopularisation of bel canto even among New York’s famously Wagner-loving audiences.

This paper explores the tensions between Melba’s status as an explicitly modern media celebrity and the apparently outdated repertoire that she sang. Tracing Melba’s reception in London, Paris, and New York at the century’s end, I explore the complex meanings of one “national” operatic tradition in a self-consciously global context—seeking ultimately to trace the impact of opera’s international mobility on the still-shifting boundaries of the operatic canon.

Kristan Tetens -  'Continental Opera in the Age of Reform: Thomas Monck Mason and the King's Theatre, Haymarket, 1832'

Those wishing to learn about the disastrous 1832 season of the King’s Theatre, Haymarket, also known as the Italian Opera House, have an embarrassment of riches to draw upon: a nearly complete set of scores, libretti, and ballet scenarios; numerous paintings and engravings of performers; reams of newspaper reviews; the vivid accounts of those who had been in the audience; the reminiscences of singers, dancers, musicians, and stage artists; a small mountain of business papers; and boxes of documents generated by the court proceedings that arose both during and after the season.
None of these sources of information is as poignant, however, as a desperate application for financial assistance made on 5 February 1867 to the Royal Literary Fund. The applicant was a 64-year-old Irishman named Thomas Monck Mason. Mason had been the ill-fated manager of the King’s Theatre in 1832, an experience from which his fortunes never recovered. ‘Confiding in your generous sympathy’, he wrote to the fund’s administrators, ‘I humbly venture to submit my case to your consideration for relief under the distressing circumstances in which I have been placed ... I have, by circumstances entirely beyond my control, become deprived of all the means of subsistence upon which I had hitherto relied’. How had Mason, a talented musician and member of a wealthy and prominent Irish Protestant family, come to such a dire pass? 
Musicologists have inexplicably ignored Mason’s season at the King’s Theatre, during which several important Italian, French, and German operas had their London premieres, including continental companies in Bellini’s La Straniera, Pacini’s Gli Arabi nelle Gallie, Meyerbeer’s Robert le diable, and Weber’s Der Freischϋtz. His singers included Antonio Tamburini, Luigi Lablache, Domenico Donzelli, Filippo Galli, Laure Cinti-Damoreau, and Guiditta Grisi. Dancers in the ballets that followed each performance included the stars Amalia Brugnoli, Therese Heberle, and Paolo Samengo. 
Intending to lease the theatre for three years, Mason declared in his season prospectus that the King’s Theatre as a national institution required ‘a treatment very different indeed from that to be pursued in the direction of the other dramatic establishments in this country’. Condemning previous managers’ indifference to the ‘etiquette and elegancies of the fashionable world’, Mason promised significant improvements in the quality of the theatre’s offerings. Although he largely succeeded in this, Mason suffered such severe financial losses that the building’s owners ejected him after only one year.  
Mason’s difficulties were hardly unusual in the highly speculative arena of theatrical management during this period; Mason himself attributed his failure to an unfortunate confluence of factors beyond his control, including ‘the cholera, the passing of the Reform Bill, and the accession to the throne of a Sovereign under whose reign the Court entirely abstained from its wonted patronage of the drama’. Competition had also been a factor. He had started the season with one of the largest subscriptions ever at the theatre; at the end of it, he found himself standing before a commissioner in the Court of Bankruptcy in Basinghall Street. 
This paper incorporates new research to redress a gap in our knowledge of nineteenth-century continental opera in the British capital at a time when grand artistic ambition collided with the ruthless economics of opera production and agitation for political and cultural reform. 

Unless stated otherwise, all our events are free of charge and anyone interested in the topic is welcome to attend. Registration is required for all events. Please sign up using the booking form below.


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