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Research Colloquium: Flora Wilson
November 28 @ 5:15 am - 6:30 pm
An event every day that begins at 5:15am, repeating indefinitely
Bel Canto Borders: Nellie Melba and the Idea of Global Opera
Flora Willson (King’s College London)
Abstract: By the late nineteenth century, opera had become fundamentally international: transport and communications networks enabled performers and works to circulate more widely than ever before. Within this self-consciously “modernised” operatic culture, the Italian bel canto repertoire occupied a problematic position. A handful of works by Rossini, Donizetti, and Verdi continued to be performed; but they were frequently decried as old-fashioned, the vocal technique they demanded seen as obsolete.
However, the arrival in Europe of Australian soprano Nellie Melba marked a crucial shift. In the early 1890s Melba became not just an operatic star in London and Paris but a mass-media celebrity – one closely associated with bel canto roles (Lucia, Gilda, and Violetta in particular). What’s more, as the singer’s own global trajectory continued with her triumphant 1893 debut at the Metropolitan Opera, Melba-fever led to a repopularisation of bel canto even among New York’s famously Wagner-loving audiences.
This paper explores the tensions between Melba’s status as an explicitly modern media celebrity and the apparently outdated repertoire that she sang. In particular, it asks to what extent Melba’s border-crossings – both between nations and between the operatic past and modern life – might have facilitated her role in the 1890s bel canto revival. Tracing Melba’s reception as a paradigmatic operatic migrant in London, Paris, and New York at the century’s end, my paper ultimately seeks to lay the groundwork for a fuller account of the impact of opera’s international mobility on the shifting internal boundaries of the operatic canon.
Biography: Flora is a Lecturer in Music at King’s College London, having previously held a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship there and a Junior Research Fellowship at King’s College, Cambridge. She is currently writing a book about material connections and exchange in operatic culture in Paris, London and New York during the 1890s. Her previous research – on the place of opera (and music in general) in urban life in the mid-nineteenth century – has been published in journals including 19th-Century Music, Cambridge Opera Journal, Music & Letters and Opera Quarterly as well as in various essays collections. She was co-editor with Carolyn Abbate of the most recent issue of Opera Quarterly on operetta (the journal’s first on the topic!) and is also the editor of a critical edition of Donizetti’s 1840 grand opera Les Martyrs.