Opera: The Art of Emotions

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Published: 17th September, 2016

Arguably, more than any other art form, opera stimulates our emotions. Through dramatic stories, grand spectacle, and powerful music, singing and words, it has undoubtedly inspired profound feelings for centuries, but how have those feelings – the way they are conceived, expressed and experienced – changed over time and across cultures?

Local and international academics will soon ruminate over that fascinating question at Opera: The Art of Emotions, a conference presented by the Musicological Society of Australia in association with the University of Melbourne’s Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions (CHE). The Australian premiere of a 17th century French opera precede the conference, enabling participants and audiences to really ponder how their emotional experience might differ to those who were present at the first performance in Paris, 1686.

According to CHE deputy director Professor Jane Davidson, the history of emotions is a field of academic research that emerged 20 years ago, and flourished over the last decade. “If you’re reading a Shakespeare play,” she says, “or you’re listening to music of the past, of course you’re always looking at it through your own eyes. What the history of emotions thinks about is how emotions change over time. They’re culturally conceived acts.”

Something very pertinent to this forthcoming conference and performance is her point that there was a long period of disconnection from music of the 17th and 18th century. “It was only really with the 20th century movement towards historical performance practices that people … started to understand the cultural knowledge about how music (of this period) was supposed to move the emotions of the audience in a very direct way.”

Professor Davidson, an academic with a strong performance background both as an opera singer and music theatre director, is reaching for this elusive but intriguing sense of the past as director of a historically informed production of La descente d’Orphée aux enfers. Students and staff of the Con’s vocal department and early music studio present this rare baroque gem by Marc-Antoine Charpentier on 28 and 29 September, with graduate Timothy Reynolds in the lead role of Orpheus.

Professor Davidson is quick to point out that it’s impossible to recreate the 17th century experience, but it can be re-imagined. Through historical treatises, for example, she is able to decide “whether we slur notes together, whether we make a loud-soft effect, how we ornament and decorate the notes, how heavy each beat is.” She adds: “We’re trying to make that musical language very familiar to us so we can use it as a vehicle through which we express our own understanding and emotions about this work.”

Some staff involved in this production are also presenting at Opera: The Art of Emotions, the inaugural conference of the Musicological Society’s Opera Special Interest Group on 30 September-1 October. Professor Davidson continues her exploration of emotions past and present within the context of Voyage to the Moon, the Victorian Opera’s recent baroque pastiche (pictured).

Stephen Grant, who is head of the early music school, considers the text, music and affective delivery of 17th century German composer Heinrich Schütz, while senior lecturer Dr Erin Helyard (also artistic director of Sydney’s Pinchgut Opera) reconsiders 18th century opera audiences’ behaviour. Other speakers include Cornell University’s Professor Neal Zaslaw, an internationally renowned scholar of baroque and classical music.

“All music speaks to emotions,” concludes Professor Davidson. “What this conference and this opera performance will do is make that bridge very clear, and hopefully give audiences new insights.”

More information and tickets available here.