The operatic canon

Lead Research Organisation: Guildhall School of Music and Drama
Department Name: Research and Enterprise


Everybody knows that what is often described as 'classical' music is old, and getting older. More than twenty years ago, the problem was summed up in the title of a well-known study by a philosopher working in the field of music history: The imaginary museum of musical works (Goehr 1992). But Goehr's thesis, which depends on the idea that, at a given moment, composers and listeners alike began to think of music as residing in inviolable 'works', is unable to account at all satisfactorily for the history of opera, where the concept of inviolability (even of the musical work as such) has never had the same importance.

Nevertheless, opera is now even more restrictively canonical than concert music: of the 2415 operas produced professionally worldwide in 2012-13, only around 200 enjoyed more than a dozen productions, while the top ten, all more than a century old, boasted almost 7000 between them ( This project addresses the problem of when, where and in what terms opera became focused on canonic repertoires, one that has received remarkably little consideration among scholars: while we now know a lot about how symphonies, sacred works, and string quartets stayed in concert repertoires, little systematic effort has gone into determining the practical or aesthetic pressures shaping long-term opera repertories--issues that are of urgent concern to today's opera industry.

Perhaps the clearest difference between canons in opera and concert music is that opera production has always been more deeply involved with commercial considerations. Historically, even though concerts usually had to break even, far more capital was required before production of a new opera began. On the other hand, during the nineteenth century sales of opera extracts were on a much larger scale, and had much greater potential for profit, than those of symphonic classics; lucrative publishing enterprises came to exert extraordinary control over opera houses and musical periodicals, hence critical discourse, as the century progressed. In the days when such a thing was still possible, opera culture valued the making of profit, and spoke freely and approvingly about it, as was emphatically not the case in concert life.

Musicologists, historians, journalists and others have been slow to discuss this and other differences in part because no over-arching aesthetic evolved around older operas as was the case with older works on the programmes of concerts during the nineteenth century. The researchers in the proposed network, who are not only musicologists, historians and journalists but also economists, cultural theorists, arts administrators and opera directors, will, among other things, seek to demonstrate exactly how the canonic repertoires that emerged in the opera world, as well as the terms in which people thought about them, were separate from those in concert life, stimulated in large part by the ways creative teams used and reshaped ageing works.

The planned workshops and public debate will be devoted to exploring the roles of these teams and other key figures in opera production and consumption, outlining competing and complementary conceptual and methodological approaches to the subject and comparing tendencies found in different countries and regions within countries. The overall framework of the research will be chronological, ranging from the mid eighteenth century to the present day, but there will be cross-cutting themes: metropolitan vs provincial, geographical spread, contiguous genres such as musical theatre, the influence of performers, and what all this means for the opera industry now. With academic contributors from various countries and traditions (individual researchers and collaborative teams, acknowledged experts as well as the most promising post-docs), industry practitioners and policy-makers, this project aims to set the agenda for scholarly and practical interaction with the opera canon for years to come.

Planned Impact

The Oxford Handbook of the Operatic Canon has been designed with input from the opera industry (both practitioners and critics are represented among the contributors), and, as a research output, it will reciprocate with benefits to industry as well as those outlined under Academic Beneficiaries. But it will be the network activity that arises out of work on the Handbook (and that forms the object of the present application) that really maximises the value of the research: not just for the industry, but for funders, policy-makers and administrators too. At an especially significant historical moment, when many are predicting the end (e.g. Abbate and Parker 2012; for more background, please see the Case for Support), the detailed, long historical view proposed here addresses precisely the questions of repertoire stagnation, historicist trends, new media of dissemination, and new economic realities that are at issue for companies and funders world-wide.
Impact beyond the academic community will begin gradually, through the connections our academic contributors have with opera house publishing departments (as dramaturges, historical consultants, authors of programme essays and deliverers of pre-performance talks) all over the world; work coming out of the project will thus, indirectly, start to reach a non-academic readership in the form of opera audiences even before the publication of the volume.
Much more important, though, will be the second phase of the project: a boundary-crossing public event, part conference presentations, part workshops, and part public debate, that will bring together scholars, practitioners, opera houses and companies, arts administrators, public-service broadcasters, Arts Councils, government departments and other funders. The programme will comprise keynote addresses, individual and panel presentations, roundtable discussions and plenary debate by a mixed group of participants from across these constituencies. The aim will be to generate fruitful interaction in a hitherto untried mix of participants: the only (slightly) comparable previous events have been within either academia or industry, not encompassing them, and often without input from government and private funders. By virtue of taking place in the iconic location of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and involving high-profile individuals (see Pathways to Impact document), the event will serve to launch the research beyond the scholarly community.
More generally, this event will stimulate new debate across the academia-industry divide, covering issues such as
- the place of opera in civil society and national discourse;
- relationships between the relevant institutions (i.e. not just companies and houses but also 'the' canon) with public funding and the sponsorship of elites;
- opera-going and sociability vs respect for those institutions; the specifically late-nineteenth-century nature of current conventions of audience behaviour;
- the historical contingency of relationships between repertoires, institutions and vocal style.
It will also provide the basis for future interaction between researchers and stakeholders in the form of further, non-academic, publications (as a first step, we are currently in discussions about this with John Snelson, Commissioning Editor in the publications department at the Royal Opera House) and further workshops with individual opera houses and companies. Ultimately, the sense of historical context and the view of the operatic canon as a shared European cultural asset that will surely be among the disseminated outcomes of the project will be further disseminated-by the media, in the form of reportage and programming coming out of the event; by the opera companies, as part of education and outreach activities; and by the funders, as part of their advocacy with government departments and business. In this way the network's activity will influence debates and public opinion well beyond academia.
Title Lecture-recital by Trio Sospirando 
Description Lecture-recital by Trio Sospirando at the Musee Fabre, Montpellier 
Type Of Art Performance (Music, Dance, Drama, etc) 
Year Produced 2018 
Impact audience education 
Title Lecture-recital by Trio Sospirando 
Description Lecture-recital by Trio Sospirando on 19th-century operas at the Théâtre Liger in Nîmes 
Type Of Art Performance (Music, Dance, Drama, etc) 
Year Produced 2015 
Impact audience education 
Title Lecture-recital by Trio Sospirando 
Description Lecture-recital by the Trio Sospirando at the Musée Fabre in Montpellier 
Type Of Art Performance (Music, Dance, Drama, etc) 
Year Produced 2017 
Impact audience education 
Description Following an industry-facing event at the Royal Opera House in October 2019, which doubled as a pre-launch for the main publication due to come out of the project, The Oxford Handbook of the Operatic Canon, conversations have begun with major and minor opera companies regarding our findings.
First Year Of Impact 2019
Sector Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural

Title RH Russian opera database 
Description Database of Russian operatic repertoire for my own research, drawing on a number of printed sources (the Yearbooks of the Imperial Theatres [1890-1913]; A.I.Vol'f, Khronika peterburgskikh teatrov [1826-1855]; Vasily Fyodorov, Repertuar Bol'shogo teatra [1825-1889] 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2017 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact To be made available generally, for instance through DANS or our local CREATE project 
Description IRCL (Institut de Recherche sur la Renaissance, l'Age Classique et les Lumières) 
Organisation National Center for Scientific Research (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique CNRS)
Department Institute for Research on the Renaissance, the Neo-classical Age and the Enlightenment
Country France 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution Workshop/research group
Collaborator Contribution Workshop/research group
Impact not known yet
Start Year 2015
Description RR: CREATE project 
Organisation University of Amsterdam
Country Netherlands 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Dataset of Dutch operatic repertoire
Collaborator Contribution As above; see
Impact See
Start Year 2017
Description 'The operatic canon: Past, present and future' an industry-facing event on Thursday 17 October 2019 in the Linbury Foyer, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact Welcome and introduction to the event, featuring live musical examples (courtesy of students and fellows of Guildhall School of Music & Drama) and discussion of the general issues addressed by the project. Short summaries of some key findings of the project by contributors to the forthcoming 'Oxford Handbook of the Operatic Canon', the main research output from the project. Concluding debates, based on pre-circulated questions/provocations and leading to general discussion.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
Description CC radio broadcast 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Invited radio broadcast on France Musique about the circulation of operas; it may be downloaded as a podcast from the France Musique site "'Un air d'histoire' 16 octobre 2016, 13 heures"
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016