OBERTO Conference 2016: Operatic Acting

Oxford Brookes University, Thursday 8 September 2016

Without acting, there would be no opera. And yet for centuries opera theorists and critics have debated the relative importance of music and drama in the art-form, usually positioning drama as music’s servant. In the past the technical competence of singers, who wanted to ensure a flawless delivery of their vocal lines, was sometimes seen as being at odds with the realistic depiction of actions on stage or the convincing embodiment of a character’s psychological state. ‘Park and bark’ or ‘stand and deliver’ have become bywords for stereotypical operatic acting that – developments in recent decades notwithstanding – still surface in popular and professional discourses about opera. Mark Twain went so far as to claim that ‘there isn’t often anything in the Wagner opera that one would call by such a violent name as acting; as a rule all you would see would be a couple of … people, one of them standing still, the other catching flies.’

The perceived superiority of music over drama is reflected in the focus of much academic work on opera: studies of how singers or even extras and choruses act are few and far between. Yet the subject of operatic acting is a fascinating one, not least because demands on the acting abilities of singers have increased in recent decades. Modern directors and composers often require artists to perform athletic or acrobatic acts while singing, and the ‘stand and deliver’ approach is now largely considered old-fashioned or even unacceptable on the operatic stage. In the wider media, meanwhile, the physical appearance of singers is widely (and sometimes voyeuristically) discussed, but the way in which they bring characters and dramatic situations to life is not.

This conference, organised by the OBERTO opera research unit at Oxford Brookes University, aims to examine the manifold ways in which opera, singing, performance, acting, body image, drama and dramaturgy interact. We invite proposals for individual 20-minute presentations, panel discussions and alternative format sessions such as lecture-recitals or poster presentations. We welcome contributions not only from academics but also from performers and opera industry or media professionals. Past OBERTO conferences have facilitated lively debates between academics, practitioners and members of the general public, and we would like to continue this tradition.

Topics might include (but are not restricted to):

  • Case studies in the history of operatic acting
  • Composers’ / librettists’ conceptions of how particular roles should be acted
  • Varying perceptions of ‘good acting’ in different national repertoires and staging traditions
  • The relationship between opera and spoken theatre past and present
  • The influence of cinema on operatic acting / opera singers in films
  • Critical / audience responses to operatic acting
  • Changing conceptions of dramatic and psychological realism in opera
  • The dramatic demands placed upon singers today: live relays and the ‘close up’
  • Regietheater and acting
  • Drama training for singers
  • The singer’s appearance and its relationship to operatic drama

Please send abstracts of no more than 250 words to Dr Alexandra Wilson at alexandra.wilson@brookes.ac.uk by 1 June 2016. We will endeavour to notify contributors by the end of June and publicise the full programme in early July. The conference website is at: https://obertobrookes.com/conference/