Professor Suzanne Aspden

Associate Professor; Fellow and Tutor, Jesus College; Lecturer at Lincoln College

How I came to study Music

I grew up in what, in English terms, would be seen as a lower middle-class community in Wellington, New Zealand.  I did a lot of music as a kid – singing in choirs (school and church), piano, violin, and related activities (dance, theatre) – but I couldn’t really take Music at my state secondary school until the 6th form (by which time it was too late).  So when I went to university it was initially to do a degree with a double major in English and Drama, with papers in Music (and also Psychology and Italian) as sidelines.  But I quickly realised that I wanted to explore my extra-curricular love of music (singing especially) in an academic context.  Fortunately, the NZ university sector allows students to grow and change direction, and by the end of the first year I had switched to a double degree: still with an English Lit and Drama double major for one, and Music for the other.

I particularly enjoyed the synergies I found when approaching, say, the 16th and 17th centuries from the different perspectives of literature, theatre and music, and knew I wanted to explore these kinds of connections further in postgraduate work.  Ultimately, this led me to specialise in opera, which brought all these interests together.  (Although actually, my choice at the time would have been ethnomusicology, but in those days Pākehā (European-descent) New Zealanders were deterred from working in a field that wasn’t ‘ours’.)  I came to Oxford to continue my research at doctoral level, and shifted focus from the 17th century to the early 18th, with a doctorate on ‘Opera and Nationalism in mid-Eighteenth-Century Britain’ (1999).

Since then, my interest in the expression of identity in music has led me to write a book on two opera prima donnas, The Rival Sirens: Identity and Performance on Handel’s Operatic Stage (Cambridge, 2013), and edit a volume on Operatic Geographies (Chicago, 2019), as well as write numerous articles and essays.  Opera, especially in the UK, is still strongly tied to ideas of elitism.  Exploring modes of representation (from the personal to the national) through opera helps address that perception critically.  My current research projects include a book on the development of musical nationalism in 18th-century Britain, and another on the culture of immersive and country-house opera in the present day.  I also have another edited volume under way on 18th-century opera’s representation of consciousness and the mind.

I have been fortunate to hold Research Fellowships at Robinson College, Cambridge (1999-2002) and the Beinecke Library, Yale University (2002-2003), as well as visiting fellowships at other institutions in the U.S. and at Jadavpur University, Kolkata.  I taught at the University of Southampton (2003-2005) before returning to Oxford as a University lecturer.

My own history and my interest in identity and cultural elitism has an impact beyond my research: aside from helping to found and run the Music in the Community course and teach a course in Dance Music, I am Access and Outreach officer in the Faculty, and volunteer in various ways at the state primary school my son goes to, in one of the most diverse areas in Oxford.