NORN: Operatic Immersions, inaugural conference, April 2016

As this was our inaugural conference, it is helpful to remind ourselves of the purposes and functions of NORN. We would like NORN:

  • To be a forum for opera research and for the exchange of ideas between opera researchers
  • To create dialogue between disciplines – all disciplines which can relate to the study of opera
  • To be a forum which considers the integration of practice in opera research – to showcase work, to curate events, but also to contextualise and to theorise existing practice
  • To create links with other research networks (nationally and internationally) and with professional opera companies (particularly in the North of England)
  • To be an instigator of projects – symposia, study days, content for opera companies, journal special editions, jointly authored or edited academic outputs, joint funding applications, blogs, podcasts, etc.


Operatic Immersions

We put out an interdisciplinary call with a contemporary focus and were delighted by the proposals we received – in addition to exciting proposals by scholars from across the British Isles, we received proposals from the US, Germany, Latvia, Czech Republic, China, Ukraine, and the Republic of Ireland. In addition to programming these, we also invited a range of participants from industry (Opera North, Opera North Projects, OperaSonic, RNCM, freelance composers, writers and producers).

The complete conference programme can be accessed here:

Welcome Note

Our network was formed to bring together opera researchers everywhere, recognising the inherent interdisciplinarity of the field, which has made for a rich dialogue between researchers in music, performance, history, sociology, media studies and many others. We are making exciting connections with other research centres and with opera companies, both nationally and internationally. The North of England has a good provision of quality opera, brought through Opera North and its touring activity, but also through smaller companies such as Mahogany Opera and English Touring Opera. Local initiative is also thriving, as we can see through our inclusion of Lorna James’s performance of Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine as part of the conference. With NORN, we aim to provide a research hub which echoes the art form in all its different articulations and which engages regularly with practice and practitioners.

‘Weißt Du, wie das wird…?’ (First Norn to Second Norn, Götterdämmerung, Prelude)

In the current financial and political climate, it is easy to emulate the doom-laden prophecies of the Norns, sung to the ‘fate’ motif. We believe that opera research, amongst lots of other attributes, has the ability to contribute constructively to discussions around opera’s cultural value, its repertoire, funding, perceived elitism, access, and its audiences. The Norns’ narrative examines the past, present, and future of Wagner’s worlds; we want to raise questions about the past, present and future of opera research in all its articulations. Our inaugural conference theme – ‘Operatic Immersions’ – reflects the breadth of the field and relates to musical, spatial, technological, sensory, and phenomenological perceptions and realisations of operatic performance. Opera’s visceral and sometimes overwhelming effects on audiences invite investigation of its own specific immersive attributes. Recent trends in making new operatic work pick up the attraction of immersive environments among practitioners and academics, while historical works are experienced anew with digital technologies, improvisation, audience interaction, and in unconventional and surprising spaces. Additionally, the rise of the opera ‘livecast’ opens up new questions about immersion, mediatised opera, and adaptation.

We were very excited to have the opportunity of addressing some of these perspectives and approaches with our delegates at the inaugural conference, and we hope to be transposing Norn-ish questions about the future into a major key!

Conference Report

The opening panel had a nineteenth-century focus and A. Andries’s paper demonstrated the applicability of ‘immersion’ to various aspects of the operatic experience; particularly spectating and other forms of participation, ways of decreasing emotional distance, increasing familiarity and identification (for example, through adaptation of the protestant chorale in Wagner’s Meistersinger, and various means of working towards operatic absorption, in M. Richardson’s paper). Seductive illusionism was mentioned as a means of compromising critical distance, as were exhaustion after a long performances, and the immersion of the listening and viewing experience, making audiences more susceptible to a work’s political subtexts. Scenographic, particularly lighting considerations added valuable perspectives (S. Palmer’s paper) – including the darkening of the auditorium at Bayreuth, the evolution of light to simulate natural phenomena, as well as the creation of atmospheric conditions (Adolphe Appia).

The first roundtable on the theme of Making and commissioning new work brought two composers (K. Malone, University of Manchester, E. Howard, RNCM), a commissioner of new work (D. Gray, Opera North), and the academic perspective (R. Cowgill, Huddersfield/NORN) together very productively. Different collaborative models between composer, director, and librettist were discussed alongside a view of the current ‘landscape’ of commissioning trends and opportunities. Opera North has created a series of installations where an innovative (immersive/participatory/promenade) production concept was combined with familiar repertoire (Poppea, Four Sea Interludes, folk songs). Collaborations between organisations created more opportunities for new work to be seen (for example, the series of commissions between Opera North, Aldeburgh, and the ROH). Family opera also played an increasingly important part alongside residence programmes and one-off opportunities such as the PRS. Collaborative relationships, including the issue of an artist’s control over the creative process beyond ‘delivering’ the music, were also discussed by the two contributing composers.

The big increase of commissioning and programming opera in ‘alternative’ settings has broadened spaces for and conceptions of opera performance. On the one hand, this trend means that a company will have alternatives to not commissioning new work for its main stage (that is, it can slightly ‘embellish’ the fact that it is getting more difficult to fund large-scale commissions); on the other hand it means that new work actually gets to be commissioned and that opera increases its generic, dramaturgical, and scenographic range.

The second panel dealt with immersion in the context of opera productions, first through an analysis of Stefan Herheim’s Rheingold for the Latvian National Opera in the context of political interpretations of Wagner (L. Mellenia-Bartkevika); then through the example of Luigi Nono’s Prometeo and its ‘sonic machine’, as well as The Bells in Venice, San Lorenzo (H. Höchsmann).

The third panel focused on Wagner; first through examining his own writings on Leitmotifs, also considering and problematising the act of naming and ‘closing down’ their unfolding conceptual complexity (C. Rindfleisch). The Opera Machine, a digital resource commissioned by the Royal Opera House, was introduced as a resource which provides education on the complexity of an opera performance, documentation of its simultaneous processes on- and backstage, and the thrill of performance through witnessing it, but also through encountering alternative ‘backstage’ narratives (K. McKechnie).

The first conference keynote, by Rhian Hutchings, OperaSonic, showcased opera in unconventional spaces, uses of flashmob conventions as an extension of an opera company’s outreach activity, and community-specific work. This was augmented by thoughts on virtual reality and 360-degree projects, opera, and its contributions to ways we think about our lives. The presentation was itself creatively interrupted by a flashmob of ‘Va, pensiero…’ (Nabucco, Verdi) by music students at the University of Huddersfield, meaning that some forms of immersion and social acting were directly experienced by delegates as part of the presentation.

To conclude the first day, La Voix Humaine (Poulenc) was performed in St Paul’s Hall. An intense and intimate performance by Lorna James (Elle) showed immersion as isolation and raised thoughts on the audience and its potentially voyeuristic role, as well the use of new technology to negotiate the monologue situation (Director: Emma Lander, Musical Director: Chris Pelly).

Day 2 started with the second Keynote by Prof. Clemens Risi on ‘Opera and/as bodily participation’. Considering the opera audience perspective first, emotional reactions to operatic performance were analysed in the light of emotional release, co-vibration, co-reaction, physical necessity, that is, the ‘overflow of received sound being channelled through response’, as a relief from a ‘too generously measured transfusion of sound’. The personal relationship between spectator and singer has great dependence on liveness in order for the audience to react to the ‘cost’ of virtuosic singing. Poizat’s definition of ‘jouissance’ and the sexual connotations of the singer were mentioned to scrutinise fans and their erotic fascination, their fetishisation of the singer’s performance. It follows from this that online content denotes the longing for a past live experience and is most appreciated by those who already have an addiction to it.

The first panel of the day discussed opera livecasts/simulcasts with two very different approaches. First, A. Ni Drisceoil made a comparison between sporting broadcast and operatic livecast conventions, considering the ‘toolbox’ for analysis and its transferability (for example, manipulations of what ‘liveness’ means, simulations of ‘having been there’, multiperspectival images). Then, opera was discussed as a hypermedium, drawing on the concept of remediation and synaesthetics vs anaesthetics (Bolter & Grusin), by T. Havelkova. Contemporary intermedial/immersive opera was compared to ideas of the phantasmagoric, and the effects of flooding the senses (Walter Benjamin) were considered.

Practice: I am the Ferryman – a screening of a film made by A. Strickson and L. Bergman. The film is both a response to the Suffolk landscape that inspired Benjamin Britten, and a reflection on Britten’s Curlew River (1964), the first of the three church operas, based on a Japanese Noh-play.

The final panel considered the performer and also new work. D. Rindom discussed Zaza (Leoncavallo), a vehicle for 1920s soprano/film-star Geraldine Farrar, whose ‘own iconography overwhelmed the work she was appearing in’. The following two papers discussed monodrama in many different facets. First, F. Placanica considered the solo (female) performer as a ‘totalising living agency of musical monodrama’, drawing on her own immersive embodied practice. B. Spatz took Wagner’s notion of the Gesamtkunstwerk as a starting point ‘to theorise not the potentially “total” experience of spectators but the extent to which immersion and totality might be applied to the craft and experience of performers’. The final paper introduced K. Malone’s new opera Mysterious 44: An Operatic Sensorium. The work explores and adapts Mark Twain’s ideas of ‘invisibility, religion, science, morality and existentialism’. Involving magic and an invisible super-human, Malone’s work immersed the audience in multi-sensory electronic stimulation.

The closing round table, ‘A Ring for its time and its place’, prepared delegates for their operatic immersion in Opera North’s Das Rheingold later that evening. J. Daniel talked about ‘”Provincial Hope” to “Civic Pride’”’, considering the Ring as performed in Yorkshire from 1911, when Ernst Denhof brought his touring Ring cycle from Edinburgh to the North of England, to the present Opera North Ring, forged between 2011 and 2014 and presented as a complete cycle in 2016. S. Leeks considered Opera North’s ‘concert’ performances in Leeds Town Hall from 2001 onwards, showing how a relocation from the Grand Theatre brought on by refurbishment provided important artistic impulses for the company’s unique Ring.
M. Pickard spoke about Leeds Town Hall as a musical space; the casting, musical preparation, and artistic principles of Opera North’s Ring. K. McKechnie considered the aesthetics and reception of Opera North’s Ring (‘a fully staged concert performance’) and the space it occupies between concert, opera, and film conventions.