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Unit information: Opera & Politics in 2018/19

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Unit name Opera & Politics
Unit code MUSI30129
Credit points 20
Level of study H/6
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 2 (weeks 13 - 24)
Unit director Professor. Hibberd
Open unit status 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 understanding of key scholarship on nineteenth-century opera.
  6. Demonstrate knowledge of the approaches of some modern opera directors.
  7. Show original thinking and an ability to read and evaluate sources critically as appropriate for Level H
  8. Plan, present and defend an argument effectively (as part of your team, for a debate).
  9. Defend and critique arguments effectively in writing as appropriate for Level H.

Teaching details

Weekly two-hour lecture-seminars

Assessment Details

  • 3,000-word essay (60%), ILO 1 – 6, 9.
  • 10 minute presentation (as part of a debate), and accompanying 1000-word handout (40%), ILO 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8

The accompanying handout must include a bibliography for the presentation.

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)