Cardiff University School of Music hosted the international conference ‘Opera in Transnational Contexts’ which took place on 22 and 24 March 2023. Organisation of the event was made possible by the partnership between Cardiff University and Universidade Estadual de Campinas in São Paulo, Brazil. It was led by the School of Music’s research centre CIRO (Interdisciplinary Research in Opera and Drama) and supported by the RMA.
‘Opera in Transnational Contexts’ opened with two online papers on Wednesday 22 March, which were followed by a talk by Paulo M. Kühl (Universidade Estadual de Campinas) entitled ‘Spatial Experiences in the Iconography of Opera Boxes’. Kühl provided fascinating examples of how loges have been portrayed artistically and the resulting sense of intrigue, creating physical and social separation from the regular operagoer.
The pinnacle was a full day of talks on Friday 24 March, available in person and online, spanning from Rossini to Adams and South America to China. Paulo M. Kühl returned to the stage for the keynote paper, ‘Styles of Singing and National Identities: Brazil in the Nineteenth Century’, providing further visual stimuli of telling caricatures exemplifying the extremities of national stereotypes in singers.
The many fascinating links that connected the various papers were summarised in the plenary session. The issue of ‘translation’ was a recurring topic of discussion, expertly explored by Yufan Wang (University of York) in her paper on the vocal and cultural considerations in the translations of Western operas into Chinese, which also offered a demonstration of the issues of pronunciation, intonation and vocal technique. Many papers identified the need for deeper exploration of multilingualism in opera, whether as a result of the singers’ native language or their polyglot audience, and how this could be developed in future operatic practice.
Several papers raised the issue of categorisation such as how to determine the true national identity of an opera and whether it is born from the conventional lineage of the opera itself, the language of performance, its new transnational iteration or from the composer’s birthplace. Similarly, there was recognition of the need for caution when labelling a work in terms of genre, such as an opera, operetta, music theatre or, in the case of Francesco Milella’s (University of Cambridge) paper, a Mexican zarzuela, which he encountered as a modification of Paisiello’s Barbiere.
A key unifying element across all papers was the extramusical involvement in the migration of opera from publishing houses and agents to policymakers and opera houses. As indicated by Ben Walton (University of Cambridge), there was a notable absence of musical examples or analysis in the papers, which both highlights the value of the vast network of professions that contribute to transnational opera and the potential avoidance of coming to musical conclusions in the absence of substantial evidential sources.
Perhaps the most promising outcome of the event was the engagement of undergraduate students studying the School of Music’s ‘Nineteenth Century Italian Opera’ module; they asked compelling questions during the keynote Q&A and had the opportunity to gain insights into broad-ranging doctoral research projects.
It is apparent that there remains a rich body of untapped sources to further our understanding of opera in transnational contexts. With the expansion of access to performances through technological advances forced into existence during the pandemic, opera is now more transnational than ever and the importance of a wider appreciation of the musicological considerations has perhaps never been so pertinent.
Kerry Bunkhall is a doctoral candidate at Cardiff University working on Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites.