- The Cambridge Companion to Opera Studiesed. by Nicholas Till
The primary goal of The Cambridge Companion to Opera Studiesis to encourage the growth of opera studies as an interdisciplinary field of research, an approach that is particularly important for theatre scholars since theatre studies commonly but irrationally excludes opera. As Nicholas Till astutely remarks in [End Page 169]his introduction, "if opera has proved a troublesome stepchild for conventional musicology, which sidesteps the problem by pretending that opera is not theatre, it has proved no less delinquent to conventional theatre studies, which has consistently ignored opera as a theatrical form" (7). In order to mend this oversight, the Companionskillfully provides theatre scholars with the methodological and interpretive tools necessary to engage with opera. Till simplifies his task by dividing the Companioninto four sections: I) "Institutions," about the business of performing opera, II) "Constituents," about the individual elements of opera, III) "Forms," about the genre and dramaturgy of opera, and IV) "Issues," about opera and cultural studies. Together, these four sections provide excellent fodder for the fight against opera criticism that "is explicitly unhistorical … , implicitly assumes that the values of one's own culture are universal, and takes no account of the different subject positions that people occupy as the result of culture, gender, class, race, [and] sexuality" (2).
Till's Companionunabashedly seeks to rectify the stultified field of opera criticism by foregrounding the political aspects of opera beginning with its origins in "Part I: Institutions," which analyzes the politics behind producing and funding opera throughout the centuries. Thomas Ertman's and Nicholas Payne's essays both sharply examine the political differences between state and private funding, utilizing a methodology that is equally applicable to theatre. Nicholas Till, meanwhile, perceptively analyzes the location of the audience (both physically/architecturally and figuratively) in regard to the personal and national politics discussed in the first two chapters.
From institutional politics in Part I, the Companionmoves to internal politics in "Part II: Constituents." Despite the extent to which the media of opera are so clearly intertwined, most scholars prefer to separate opera into its constituent parts and then exclusively analyze the elements with which they are most familiar. Christopher Morris wisely corrects this approach, evaluating the ways in which the music and words are dependent upon each other, the ways in which that dependence can be tested, and the extent to which either can be altered in performance (98). Susan Rutherford furthers this methodological approach by incisively arguing that operatic media unite in the singers who should be considered actors, not simply instruments: "[t]he singer is the defining feature of opera: the living crucible in which music, drama and spectacle coalesce into a single art form" (117).
The brilliant premise of Part II, exemplified by not only Morris and Rutherford but also Simon Williams and Nicholas Ridout, is that the constituent parts of opera must be united for any coherent (let alone successful) discussion. Williams effectively defends the notion "that opera is a genre of theatre" (139), demonstrating that the theatrical apparatus is integral to opera and does not "deface" it (139). Ridout's equally persuasive argument for an integrated approach to opera studies cleverly dissects operatic stage technology from the earliest baroque opera through [End Page 170]Wagner's Bayreuth theatre and contemporary productions, explaining that "[w]hen opera emerged from the courts and into the public theatres of Venice in the late 1630s it did so as a spectacular entertainment, in which the effects which could be achieved by means of stage technologies were as significant a part of the production as music or singing" (159).
For theatre scholars, the most useful breakdown of the parallels and differences between operas and plays probably occurs in "Part III: Forms," since this section utilizes methodologies drawn from theatre studies and applies them to opera. Laurel Zeiss astutely analyzes the dramatic elements of opera, while Alessandra Campana intricately scrutinizes the genre of opera—or rather the many genres to which opera...