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Unit information: Opera & Politics in 2020/21

Unit name Opera & Politics
Unit code MUSI30129
Credit points 20
Level of study H/6
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 1 (weeks 1 - 12)
Unit director Professor. Hibberd
Open unit status Not open

Technical knowledge of music (ability to read notation fluently is essential; music A level or Associated board grade 8 or equivalent may be required)



School/department Department of Music
Faculty Faculty of Arts


Opera of the long nineteenth-century was a compelling and topical form of entertainment. This unit aims to develop a critical understanding of opera’s relation to aesthetic, social, cultural and ideological issues; to establish a familiarity with some key works of the period; and to analyse the approaches of some leading musicologists and modern opera directors. Specifically, we will consider the ambiguity and fluidity of political ‘meanings’ embedded in individual operas, and examine ways in which the Zeitgeist might be articulated through libretto, music, staging, performance and reception. The themes and case studies will be drawn from the following: Revolution (Beethoven, Fidelio; Rossini, Guillaume Tell); Gender (Bizet, Carmen; Strauss, Salome); Religion (Halévy, La Juive; Verdi, Don Carlos); Race (Verdi, Otello; Puccini, Mma Butterfly); Nationalism (Wagner, Die Meistersinger; Janacek, Jenufa). The unit will tie into repertory at WNO and/or ENO where possible, and include the opportunity to attend a rehearsal and talk to members of the creative team.

Intended learning outcomes

On successful completion of this unit, students will be able to:

  1. Demonstrate a sophisticated understanding of the operas selected for the unit.
  2. Demonstrate an understanding of their socio-political contexts.
  3. Engage closely with operatic texts (libretto, music, staging) and show a sophisticated grasp of how they function
  4. Demonstrate an understanding of the fluidity and instability of opera and its 'meanings'
  5. Demonstrate a sophisticated understanding of key scholarship on nineteenth-century opera.
  6. Demonstrate a mature and focused knowledge of the approaches of some modern opera directors.
  7. Show original thinking and an ability to read and evaluate sources critically to an advanced standard
  8. Defend and critique arguments effectively in writing at an advanced Level.

Teaching details

Teaching will be delivered through a combination of synchronous and asynchronous sessions, including lectures and self-directed exercises.

Assessment Details

  • 3,000-word essay (70%), ILO 1 - 6, 8.
  • Podcast in groups of up to 3 students (30%), 7 minutes per student, ILO 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

Reading and References

Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker, A History of Opera: The Last Four Hundred Years (London, 2012)

Anthony Arblaster, Viva la libertà!: Politics in Opera (London, 1992)

Roger Parker, ed., Oxford Illustrated History of Opera (Oxford, 2001)

Richard Taruskin, The Oxford History of Western Music, Vol. 3: The Nineteenth Century (Oxford, 2005)