15 Minutes with … the Dent Medallist (Interview with Gundula Kreuzer)

Continuing our series of interviews with RMA prize winners, Patrick Huang interviewed the 2019 recipient of the Dent Medal, Professor Gundula Kreuzer, after her keynote lecture at the 56th RMA Annual Conference held online by Goldsmiths, University of London in September, 2020. Among other things, we asked Gundula about her current focus, future research, and any advice for students. Note that this post is a slightly abbreviated version of the full interview.


Photo: Kathleen Cei

Prof. Gundula Kreuzer studied musicology, philosophy, and modern history at the Universities of Münster (Westphalia) and Oxford, where she earned her Master of Studies and D.Phil. in musicology. She held a Junior Research Fellowship at Merton College, Oxford, before joining the Yale Department of Music in 2005. Her specializations include the history and theory of opera, with a special focus on staging, technology, and mediality; contemporary “indie” opera; screen media; music historiography; music and politics; and German and European cultural history since 1800.

PH: Could you tell us a bit more about your current research focus and ongoing projects?

GK: I’m a little bit in between projects, and currently I’m doing a number of things. Many of them have been slowed down by the pandemic. There are various clusters [of projects] – one of them is to finish up a number of smaller items on Wagner. I’m thinking through Wagner and technology for a companion on Wagner in Context, but also [through] gender issues. I got really interested in Kundry and gender questions: I’m trying to compare Kundry and Cosima Wagner in a paper which I’m calling “Wagner’s Last Women”. So that’s one of the smaller clusters of work on Wagner.

Then I have a project on Hindemith and historical amnesia, which is critical of the ways in which post-WW2 musicologists have treated the Western European canon, especially the German canon that was disrupted by Nazi censorship. And so that disrupted canon has led to [historical] amnesia of a lot of pieces that were still common before 1933. That has led to a myopic vision on the influence of composers and compositions during the Third Reich. One example of a longer piece I’m working on is Hindemith’s opera Mathis der Maler – and I was thinking about a companion piece and turning that into a larger project.

Also, my recent interest is in contemporary opera, which I feel is thriving here, in the U.S. Many seemingly smaller opera houses actually do some really interesting work in terms of staging new works and getting more women and BIPOC composers out there, but also topics of the time. I’m really interested in that phenomenon of opera as a way of dealing with contemporary issues – with questions of race, politics and inclusivity. And so I founded an opera studies working group last year [2019] and have been running that once a month, and within Yale I want to bridge [the gap] between the Humanities and the professional art schools: the School of Music and the School of Drama. That has been very fruitful – and I am using this chance to bring together opera goers, scholars and practitioners from the wider region. And also, a year and a half ago I started an initiative I called YOST (Y Opera Studies Today) with an annual conference on contemporary opera and contemporary issues. The first one was on the phenomenon of “Indie Opera”, the second one in May this year was on Opera in the Age of #MeToo, dedicated to women composers. And the next one is to be on Opera and Race, which was supposed to be the second one, but some people I had invited couldn’t make it, so they deferred to hopefully next year – it would have to be online. With my Dent Medal lecture I started to put my toe in that area publicly for the first time, and that’s really where my interest is right now. So I am thinking of a number of smaller projects to start my research in that area.

PH: What attracts you towards investigating such a broad range of musical cultures?

GK: I have always been interested in connecting music to its social and political contexts. And even though I am interested in the inner workings of music, what seemed to me more relevant since my student days was to think through: what is the relevance of music; why are some people drawn to this particular type of music; why do some composers succeed more than other composers; and how has this music operated on a social level – what has it told people, how has it been used at certain times, etc.. And then, having been brought up in Germany, I have this very strong interest in political uses and abuses of culture, and that is possibly why I am interested in contemporary opera. And I have also been placing music in the context of other media and how it collaborates with other art forms. Opera is the most expensive musical genre and the most wide-ranging musical multimedia before the rise of film. So: it is a great genre to bring together these interests. But again, similar to my interest in indie opera and contemporary politics, the question is what was opera in its own time? Can it be compared to the emergence of films and video games and VR in our times? And I’m interested in all the different interactions between technology and the opera stage, and vice versa.

PH: What are the most and least favourite aspects in your job?

GK: I often say that I love every aspect of my job. I’ve been Director of Graduate Studies for many years and have been taking on other administrative functions in my department. There has been an increasing number of demands, like writing tenure recommendation letters or serving on committees, being on editorial boards, doing peer reviews, reviewing book manuscripts. There’s an increasing number of tasks, each of which is interesting and brings me new skills and requires different aspects of my work.

But I think what I’m not always prepared for is the extent to which the administration [workload] can take over, especially during an intense semester. Sometimes there are big administrative tasks to be solved and somehow everything else is supposed to work alongside at the same pace. So, I would say that the challenge is that it’s not always predictable what tasks may fall on my desk while I’m committed to doing other work.

PH: What would be your most important advice to doctoral students?

GK: I would say follow your heart – which is not easy, especially in these times as the job market for culture is generally having a difficult time. Nobody is questioning why we should have medical students, but a lot of people – politicians, administrators and university leaders – are asking why we need this many people working on culture. I think following one’s heart is really important, as well as being committed to thinking through why this is important, why somebody should care, and why it’s important that we’re doing what we’re doing.

My second advice is to make more connections with your peers, because those connections will last. They will nourish you at certain points, so that one day you may become mentors yourselves without training, so it is really helpful to have a lateral network of friends to exchange ideas, or at least experiences.

PH: If you hadn’t become a musicologist, what other jobs would you have liked to have done instead?

GK: Within music, I knew that a job in academia was not at all guaranteed, so I actually pursued music journalism. I wrote music critiques for the local papers for a while, took internships and did some freelance work at radio stations, which I really enjoyed.

I am quite happy that the perception of journalism within academia has changed, and there is now more emphasis on what is fashionably called “public musicology”. Since receiving tenure I have been able to do more of that work once again, which I had to put aside for the pursuit of my scholarly research.

My parents actually wanted me to study law, but I switched to music after one year. I knew it would be difficult to get a job, but my heart was in music. So, had I not studied music at all, I would probably have pursued law, or considered theology or medicine.

PH: Have you had any mentors or colleagues that have inspired you?

GK: In terms of a mentor, absolutely – Roger Parker. I came to Oxford as a visiting student from Münster in Germany, and I had all these questions that I mentioned at the beginning [of this interview], on music in larger socio-political contexts, and at my home university, most teachers mainly focused on music as hermetically closed works. So, when I came to Oxford and attended one of Roger Parker’s seminars, I had this “aha!” moment. Finding someone who was raising the questions that I’d been interested in and actually addressing them – that’s the reason why I decided to stay in Oxford for a second year, and everything came together from there. I decided to continue my PhD with him and became an opera scholar. So, I would say that he has had the greatest influence. Without him, I would never have become an Anglo-American musicologist and I would be somewhere in Germany. My music career was definitely significantly changed by his mentorship.

Another important influence was from my time as reviews editor for Opera Quarterly, and that was an exchange with likeminded and more senior opera scholars during the annual editorial board meetings, which was also a very formative influence.

PH: Where do you see your research going in the future?

GK: I think I will engage more with contemporary opera projects, and I’m hoping to do an edited volume, maybe also write something about it. I’m more interested in collaborative work and working across disciplinary divides – at this moment this is between scholars, composers, performers, and directors. So that’s one of my current interests.

Patrick Huang

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