Centre for Research in Opera and Music Theatre (CROMT)

The Operatic - Abstracts


John Storey. Opera in Cultural Studies

The focus of my paper is the culture of opera. To understand what I mean by this, and why I became interested in opera and the operatic and the extent of my interest, it is first necessary to explain what cultural studies means by culture. Once I have done this I will draw from my own research on opera to suggest what opera might look like as an object of study in cultural studies. My research has tended to gravitate to two historical moments, the 1990s and the nineteenth century. As I hope to demonstrate, this historical focus enables me to locate opera and the operatic in the critical concerns of cultural studies, especially the relationship between culture and power.

John Storey is Emeritus Professor of Cultural Studies and former Director of the Centre for Research in Media and Cultural Studies, University of Sunderland, UK. He has published extensively in cultural studies, including twelve books. He is currently working on a thirteenth book, Utopian Desire, to be published with Routledge. His work has been translated into Arabic, Chinese, Dutch, German, Greek, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, Persian, Polish, Portuguese (Brazil and Portugal), Russian, Serbian, Slovenian, Spanish, Swedish, Turkish and Ukrainian. He is also on editorial/advisory boards in Australia, Canada, China, Germany, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Spain, the UK and the USA, and has been a Visiting Professor at the universities of Vienna, Henan, and Wuhan, and a Senior Fellow at the Technical University of Dresden.



Annette Davison (Edinburgh University). Glamming it up: Brian De Palma’s Operatic Phantom.

Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise (1974) transplants Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera into the popular music domain of the USA. The Paradise is an opulent new popular music venue planned by Swan, an unscrupulous producer “drawn from the legends of both Phil Spector and Dick Clark” (Hampton 2004, 261). This satire of the music industry is played out against a backdrop of glam rock and surf music, Faustian pacts, lightning bolts and psychedelic orgies. Operatic and kitsch? Certainly. In its presentation of the notion of the artist versus the system it is also downbeat and cynical. 


Maria Euchner (Edinburgh University). Life and its Discontents: Richard Wagner’s Tristan in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia.

Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011) is accompanied by a soundtrack that limits itself to the prelude of Richard Wagner’s 1859 Tristan und Isolde, although it is never played in its entirety. The film is not only presented in an “operatic” way, but von Trier employs many of Tristan’s major themes and symbols – a reluctant bride, night-time in a garden, the blurring of individual identities, a longing for death and the annihilation of all suffering in the ultimate Liebestod – to tell the story of the end of the world as it plays out for the depressive Justine, her sister Claire, and Claire’s son Leo. The tedium of everyday life is mirrored in the repeated playing of sections of the prelude.     


John Greyson (York University, Canada). Once is Not Enough: Lyrical Repetition and the Operatic.

Why say it twice? The incessant repetition of a lyric phrase (spoken or sung) has been a foundational touchstone of 'operatic' creation (defined here broadly as interdisciplinary spectacle) across cultures and millenias, from Greek choruses and Indian ragas to Robert Lepage's Lipsynch and Drake's latest Vine memes. Anthems in stadiums may leverage lyrical repetition for purposes of nation building, but artists like Gertrude Stein repeat 'pigeons on the grass alas' to purposely unbuild fixed meanings.

The Baroque compositional tradition (think Handel's Hercules) may have mind-numbingly insisted on singing every line a dozen times (the better to demonstrate bravura vocal dexterity), and Caryl Churchill may sub out in every word of her play Blue Kettle until the text becomes nothing but a rich tapestry of 'blue kettles' -- but both are only participating in a wider cross-cultural tradition across disciplines that says it twice for varied aesthetic tactics of emphasis and abstraction, polyphany and cacaphony, performative complexity and expressive repression. Freud identified it as the 'repetition compulsion', focusing on our repressed need to name what is unheimlich (un-secret) again and again, with unheimlich elaborating that paradox of repression and expression (the 'undecidable' in Derrida's sense) that engages the uncanny. However, artists as diverse as Glass, Beyonce, Lepage, Cork/Blythe, and Steyerl all employ lyrical repetition in their operatic spectacles in ways which exceed the unconscious.

This idiosyncratic survey of varied examples from the 'operatic' will be counterpointed with brief examples from my own recent digital opera-documentaries which likewise engage with lyrical repetition, often through formal innovations: Fig Trees, Last Car Jericho and Towel. Fig Trees features an oratorio of four overlapping short sung loops tattooed onto four necks that endlessly repeat with no beginning nor end. Last Car (a murder mystery about transgender and transit issues) obsessively returns to the haunting Eurydice refrain and lyric from Gluck's classic counter-tenor aria, but the meaning of the words changes with each repetition. Towel operatically performs the same official police press release four times, repeating the claim that the Somali refugee did not suffocate from the towel that police held over his mouth for ten minutes.


Justin Grize (University of Sussex). Space Opera: Opera as Speculative Fiction.

By the late eighteenth century, the notion of wonder had become literally synonymous with the experience of opera, through the merveilleux, representations of the impossible through technological means, which blurred the boundaries between science and magic.

This essential element of the operatic, viewed with suspicion or derision by the rational Modern, would find an equally fitting, equally paradoxical home in SF, where the sense of wonder has become a critical commonplace.

Efforts to garner more serious critical attention to the genre have led commentators to dismiss such wonders, unsubtleties, and extravagances as “space opera”, a term that invites exploration of the shared heritage of these two seemingly unrelated forms.

Operatic dramaturgy, in which the boundaries between thought, speech, and song, between music and silence, do not apply, posits an alternate universe along classic SF lines. The very term “space opera” acknowledges indispensable low-culture elements that the elitist social context of opera cannot conceal.


Juliana Hodkinson (Composer, Copenhagen). The spectacular and the everyday: Operatic Gaming.

Every day millions of gamers immerse themselves for hours in imaginative audio-visual events situated far away in time and space, pursuing long-drawn-out heroic quests against dramatic backgrounds. Technologies of augmented and virtual reality create transformative emotional experiences whose aesthetics and dramaturgies mature year by year. Meanwhile opera in the 21st century has undergone the same transformation as public service radio, its large institutions changing from powerful state propaganda tools to commercial assembly-lines for standardized products; all scope for novelty seems manageable only for a fragmented and peripheral network of independent creatives. Apparently, it is always time to recall and reassess critiques of mass media and the spectacle, while looking to the everyday to find engaging artistic responses to the question of how to resist the instrumentalisation of the spectacular.


Lena van de Hoven (University of Bayreuth). The Operatic as Cultural Practice in South Africa: Moving Images from The Isango Ensemble.

With the end of the Apartheid era opera, that symbol of Western dominance/colonial imposition, seemed to be dead in South Africa – but in fact it flourishes as something of an anachronism. While western contemporary cultures often borrow forms of the “operatic” as a pejorative or othering adjective, to signify categories of the “high” or the “kitsch”, my paper will show that the South African contemporary culture uses the concept of the operatic differently. Operatic elements in fact serve as a point of reference to locate indigenous South African identity, because operatic singing practices are considered to be deeply rooted in the black community in South Africa. As a case study I will present different “transculturational” (James Davies 2010) attempts by the Isango Ensemble to bring the operatic into moving images and to present opera themes as contemporary South African narratives. Through the further examples of the well-known U-Carmen eKhayelitsha (2005), Unogumbe – Noye’s Fludde (2013) and Breathe Umphefumlo (2015),  I will argue that opera “lives on as the un-dead”, opening up a new perspective on the potential of the “operatic” in post-colonial cultures.


Jelena Novak (Universidade Nova, de Lisboa). Out of the Comfort Zone: Installing the Operatic.

Looking for the traces of opera out of its common world is intriguing and rewarding adventure. The state of being out of its own institutional frame discovers some new strengths, possibilities and tendencies. It becomes more clear what operatic is when it is found out of the opera. Encounter with the operatic (understood here as 'being of the opera') in a series of installations pertaining mainly to visual arts brings fresh meanings and poses relevant questions about the status and function of (post)opera in contemporary Western society.

 Series of recent 'operatic installations' that come from/in the context of visual arts and that I would like to discuss include staging of "Einstein on the Beach"(1976) as an installation conceived by Berthold Schneider and Veronika Witte (2001, 2005), "Opera for a Small Room" by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller (2005), "Sirens Taken for Wonders" (2009) by Paul Elliman, "The Opera of Prehistoric Creatures" (2012) by Marguerite Humeau, desk opera "Remember me" (2012) by Claudia Molitor and video installation - AAA (Mein Herz), (2016) by Katarina Zdjelar. I will make an attempt to define what is undeniably operatic once when opera is installed as its own signifier. 


Cormac Newark (Guildhall School of Music and Drama).  The opera(tic) ghost.

Among the most stubborn revenants of the operatic is the Phantom, despite the narrator’s prayers over his remains at the end of Leroux’s 1909-10 novel Le Fantôme de l’Opéra: he is a walking repository of clichés about the art form in subsequent novels, plays, musicals (of course) and films. This paper will examine how the notion of the operatic in popular culture changed as the Phantom of the Opera migrated to different cultural traditions and media over the course of the next century, from the Paris Opéra to, for example, Mexican lucha libre (Santo vs El Estrangulador, 1963) and Bollywood song and dance (Om Shanti Om, 2007).


Takayuki Nitta (Tokyo University). The Critically Operatic in Contemporary Opera Staging

In contemporary opera staging, the directors tend to get rid of the "operatic" offered by conventional productions, especially by the beautiful costume and set design. But some of them emphasize the "operatic", in this case the kitsch. Most interestingly, the Norwegian director Stefan Herheim critically reinterprets the defining elements of opera. His mise-en-scene blurs the identities of characters by enhancing the power of operatic allegory, originally caused by the voice which neither belongs to the singer, nor to the character. The story narrated by Herheim in flashback is a postmodern version of Orpheus, the archetype of operatic narrative.


Thanos Polymeneas (University of Sussex). The Operatic Bot.

In this presentation I will talk about a scene from my latest immersive music theatre performance A Magnificent Crossbreeding of Protein and Tinplate  to initiate a discussion about  operatic processes, aesthetics and voices in the postdigital era. The  scene I will talk about did not involve any performers; the only performative aspect of the scene was a form of computational technology  based on a generative  algorithm, which controlled Virtual Studio Technology Instruments (VSTi), i.e. sound library instruments and vocal synthesizers (also known as Vocaloids). The result was  an operatic scene without singers, musicians or performers, but with computerised disembodied voices instead. This presentation will start  by examining  notions of posthumanism in current music production practices, which in turn define contemporary music aesthetics, while pointing to  the music practice of the future., I will  demonstrate how I have employed those into my music theatre work; and how my practice engages with   operatic aesthetics and voice from a posthuman perspective.  Reflecting on Žižek and Dolar’s argument on the contradiction between opera’s death and the way cultural institutions have “zombified” opera, this presentation asks  whether an approach to the operatic voice that is in tune with the current technoscience could be more sincere in an ever-expanding  posthuman context.


Julia Sirmons (Columbia University). History and the “Cinematic Operatic” in the Work of Patrice Chéreau.

This paper defines “the operatic” in the cinema of Patrice Chéreau. Directing opera for the stage, Chéreau “revivified” opera through a process of historical excavation; from the 1976 Ring onwards, his operatic productions sought to represent the historical gaps between text and spectator within the mise-en-scène. Strange, then, that his cinematic historical drama Queen Margot (1994) approaches this same challenge not by deconstructing myth and melodrama, but by using an expressive visual style to heighten them. Through this “histrionic” use of cinematic tools, Chéreau crafts an operatic mode within cinema, in which markers of camp and excess promote a dialectical spectatorship, thematizing the subject’s place in history and time.


John Snelson (Royal Opera). The Phantom of the Operatic?: 80 years of dissemination and distortion in ‘Phantom of the Opera’ films around the world.

Through film, The Phantom of the Opera has been disseminated around the world, faithful in varying degrees to Leroux’s source novel. Yet all versions preserve a duality perceived as inherent to the nature of opera: the natural and authentic in opposition to the constructed and false. This has its summary expression in the Phantom, whose identity hovers between perfection and deformity. Almost a century of Phantom films illustrate how the operatic has been interpreted and distorted as the films range through a shopping mall, a deserted Chinese theatre, glam-rock at its most camp and opera at its most coloratura clichéd. 


Donato Somma (Capetown University). White Elephant or Gift Horse: a site-specific reflection on the operatic in 21st century Africa. 
Opera houses continue to play a role in at least two major African cities. Cape Town and Cairo both feature second incarnations of their nineteenth-century opera houses. In Cape Town today the Artscape Complex battles to reconnect to the city through the façade of the alienating, Apartheid-era Nico Malan Theatre, exclusionary and intimidating by design. Cairo's famed house, risen from the quite literal ashes of its first iteration, struggles under the weight of 'command performances' of Aida to a contemporary, largely expatriate elite who now occupy the pasha's former pleasure island of Gezira. 

I argue that both houses are caught between two conceptions of what a modern opera house can be: the first is a largely unreconstructed perception of opera, its works and culture, as unapologetic privilege, the accessible end of 'high art', virtuous in and of itself and not requiring any justification for its existence and funding. The other conception speaks to the 'operatic', the dispersion of the signifying power of opera into contemporary life. To varying degrees in Cape Town and Cairo this informs a shift in the role of the house, seeking new voices, stories and vernaculars to occupy and recode the symbolically loaded opera house in the heart of each city. Opera houses in Africa continue to operate and signify between the extremes of each conception, in some ways continuing the historic work of the opera house to signal power through cultural capital, but also providing the space for expanded views of what counts as opera in rapidly changing postcolonial states. 

With the vibrancy of its afterlife now the subject of scholarly research, the material relics of opera loom as disquieting spectres. This paper explores two African houses' continuing search for relevance. 


Sid Wolters Tiedge (University of Bayreuth). The "operatic" in cabaret songs.

The presentation will try to show the complex relation between the operatic and some musical numbers from British comedy and German Kleinkunst. If going beyond the reproduction of clichés like conceited opera singers, songs may evoke an entire evening in the opera including intermission chat (Georg Kreisler: Opern-Boogie), or develop an improvised cadenza into a full-blown opera scene for two (Annamateur); thus, following Bakhtin, laugh at opera and subvert it. At the same time, apart from mere criticism of the high-brow, the use of operatic devices shows an assimilation of the mechanisms of art music.