Opera on the Stage of London - 1700-1800
New College, Oxford
The course `Opera on the Stage in London - 1700-1800' deals with the staging of English and Continental opera in 18th-century London theatres, both in the playhouses and in the opera houses. It takes directions from late 17th-century theatre, and makes reference to the first half of the 19th century, up to the remodelling of the Covent Garden theatre as an Italian opera house in 1847. The course combines a number of theoretical disciplines essential for the understanding of opera in London, including architecture, lighting, scene painting, costume design, theatrical dance, and theatre orchestras, with practical aspects of staging opera, such as staging of arias and the marking up of a libretto, aspects which are addressed in specific tasks. Although centering on London, the city offering the greatest variety of operatic activity in Europe, it will also require study of Continental techniques, many of which were imported into England.
The purpose of the
course is threefold. Firstly, it is intended to develop basic research
skills in handling the multitude of sources
opera history - libretti, scores, dance, music, and acting treatises,
separately published music, theatre accounts, and architectural,
and costume designs. Secondly, it requires the application of the knowledge thus gained to practical exercises
in historical staging. And thirdly, it offers a basis for `reading'
that goes beyond, but also compliments, the study of the artefact on
one hand, and the examination of reception history on the other. It
the opera analyst to ask what the audience
The course, which requires good literary and visual skills as well as an understanding of operatic music, is designed to fit into an Oxford term of eight weeks, with a paper to be taken in the Final Honour School Examination in June, the last examination of the Oxford undergraduate degree. The months between the first part of the course - Weeks 1-4 - and the second part - Weeks 5-8 - are designed for the candidates to read all outstanding material, and to familiarise themselves with the sources, both theoretical - the treatises, criticism, and so on - and the practical - the libretti and musical sources.
The course falls into two parts. Part I will involve four 2 hour lectures in Michaelmas Term (usually the first four weeks of October), while Part II will involve three 2 hour practical classes and one 2 hour revision class in Trinity Term (usually the first four weeks of May).
Week 1/1 - I: Bibliography and issues of libretto.
Week 5/1 - Preparing a libretto.
A volume of extracts from original sources will
be made available, but candidates should be aware that all original sources
required for the course are available in the Bodleian Library. As well,
much of the secondary bibliography of this subject is source based, and
should not be ignored because it is secondary or because it is `old'.
It is also vast, and the week by week reading should be honed as the candidate's
interests develop. Below is a list of compulsory background reading, knowledge
of which will be assumed in the second part of the course, and in the
Week 1/1 - I: Bibliography and issues of libretto
Week 2/2 - II: Theatre design and staging implications
The material in the second seminar will deal with
the design of the London theatres, in particular the issue of the forestage.
Unlike Continental theatres, those in London possessed a forestage, a
large stage which protruded beyond the proscenium arch. This feature was
altered several times in the 18th century, and had a profound influence
on staging, acoustics, and the orchestra. It will also touch on the issue
of the on-stage audience, and the growing division between the stage and
auditorium. Sources discussed here include architectural plans of the
King's, Pantheon, Drury Lane and Covent Garden theatres.
Week 3/3 - III: Set and costume design
The third seminar will deal
with the history of stage design as it relates to London, touching
on moveable scenery, the
move from formality to informality, changes in attitude to costuming,
and the development of the concept of `production'. No complete sets
designs survives for London, but material which will be used to re-construct the picture will include the Thornhill drawings for Arsinoe,
Queen of Cyprus, material by de Loutherbourg, and designs by Clarkson
Week 4/4 - IV: Evidence for performance
The fourth seminar will address what material we
have which gives us clues to contemporary performance. Among the issues
that will be discussed are rehearsal techniques, gesture used by the singers,
and musical ornamentation in arias. It will also consider to what extent
the changing styles of acting - the more fluid style of the 1730s, the
subsequent style of Garrick, and a later more `natural' style - influenced
opera performance and repertoire. Source material here includes Gilbert
Austin's Chironomia, and London arias, including those with ornaments
Week 5/1 - Preparing a libretto.
The first practical seminar will require the preparation by the participants of a marked up libretto, as though recorded by an 18th-century London prompter. The knowledge required for this task includes an understanding of 18th-century plots, an ability to read and interpret stage directions, knowledge of scenic requirements, and in particular, extra cast members not specified by the libretto. Candidates should consult Judith Milhous and Robert D. Hume, `A prompt copy of Handel's Radamisto', Musical Times, cxxvii (1986), 316-21.
Week 6/2 - Plotting an aria.
The second practical seminar will require the selection of an aria from an opera performed in London, and the preparation of a plot to show how it might have been staged. Knowledge required for this task includes the conventions of staging such as entries and exits, the positioning on stage of the singer, and historical background material including theatre design, positioning of the audience, and the relationship of the performers both physically and musically to the orchestra.
Week 7/3 - The use of gesture.
The third practical seminar will deal with the application of the theories of gesture to the musical text of an aria. This requires the selection of an aria, and the preparation of a set of gestures which might have been used in its performance. The candidates are free to develop their own notation for gesture, provided that a key is supplied with the exercise, but it is suggested that a set of figures similar to those used by Gilbert Austin, in his Chironomia... (London, 1806) are employed.
Week 8/4 - Revision.
The final session will cover bibliography revision, further preparation for the technical questions to be answered on the final paper, and the discussion of sample examination papers in the subject. Candidates will be required to prepare a mock Final Honour School Examination paper for group discussion.
Candidates for this paper will be required to produce exercises for three 2 hour practical classes. The examination will consist of one 3 hour paper, on which candidates will be required to answer two compulsory questions, and a further essay selected from a number of questions on a theoretical topic. In the first compulsory question, the candidate will be presented with an unseen facsimile of an 18th-century London libretto, with the original parallel translation where appropriate. They will be required to plan a contemporary production. In the second question, the candidate will be given an unseen facsimile of an 18th-century published aria, and be asked to prepare a stage plot for performance, to include musical ornamentation and gesture.
Examination Paper sat at Oxford 2000
SECOND PUBLIC EXAMINATION
Final Honours School in Music
OPERA ON THE STAGE 1660-1800
Answer question ONE, question TWO, and one other. Significant duplication of material should be avoided.
Candidates are advised to allot their time carefully.
1. Attached is Act II from the libretto of Handel's Amadigi. Make suggestions as to what you think will be required in the way of scenery, stage machinery, and other production details for a 18th-century staging. You should also mark up the libretto to make a prompt copy to show what singing and acting forces you might employ.
2. Attached is the music for a section of Act II of Handel's Amadigi. Using the translation and copy of the libretto supplied for Question 1, prepare a staging plot with commentary, showing clearly - using a stage plan - how you would plot the aria, and cue these moves into the musical score. You should include a brief discussion of the position of this music in the history of staging.
3. `Staging, as a collaborator in the total [operatic] event, must do nothing to hinder musical synchronization'.
4. Consider how the changes in dance style meshed with developments in opera.
5. `He must always be interesting, even when silent; and even in a difficult role, if he drops the character to become merely a singer, he is just a musician on stage and no longer an actor.'
What are the performance issues Rousseau is addressing?
6. To what extent can the impresario be said to be a `producer'?
7. The theatre in the via della Pergola in Florence listed in its scene inventory `Tents of different sizes enough to make an encampment', `A seaside with a port', `One Pyramid and some tombs', `A courtyard', and so on. What do such descriptions tell us about how the production and management of scenery was organised?
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