In this introductory course we approach the European intellectual, political, and social history through the prism of a particular type of music making, opera –“an exotic and irrational amusement”, according to Dr. Johnson. We do not aim for a musicological approach, or for an all-encompassing history of opera. What we do is to use opera as a medium for examining the ways in which social and political problems were thought and discussed in particular societies, from the era of the nineteenth century nationalist movements till our own days.
The main loci of our course are Paris, Berlin, Milano, Leningrad, and Moscow. Class, gender, religion, nation, and race questions are discussed throughout, as well as orientalist and colonialist perceptions. We regularly visit the different temporalities combined in each opera performance –its composition time, the time in which the plot is placed by the composer, the internal time of musical moments, the time in which the particular performance is located, the time of the performance, and our own historical and personal time.
Most people think of opera as a musical form corresponding to sensitivites of previous times, with critics such as Slavoj Zizek placing its golden age in the nineteenth century. In our course however we will not focus on important names such as Rossini or Wagner. We highlight the remarkable renaissance of opera today, and the ability of modern performances not only to acquaint us with the politics of the past, but also to speak directly and forcefully to a contemporary audience.
Composers most discussed in our course will be Chaikovsky, Mussorgsky and Rimsky Korsakoff, Debussy and Bartok, Weill and Berg, John Adams, and others. Our directors of reference are Rene Jacobs, William Christie, Alan Curtis, Crzystoph Warlikowsky, and Peter Sellars, while our basic textbook is Richard Taruskin’s Oxford History of Western Music.
No previous familiarity with the world of the opera is expected from the students; a serious interest in it would be enough. In order to make our course more interesting, we do not follow a strict chronological order in presentation, and we articulate lessons around exciting performances of operas available with greek or english subtitles. Since the latter are not always the most interesting ones from a musical point of view, we complement them with excerpts from other musically exceptional performances.
Each three-hour lesson starts with the presentation of an opera, placing it in context. Then we view a landmark performance, and discuss it trying to explain the conditions of its creation, to interpret its multiple meanings in its own era and in subsequent ones, and to present the various ways in which we may view it today.
This course is complemented in a different semester by another seminary course covering the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries, “Music, History, Politics. From Monteverdi to Verdi”.