Uncovering Ideology in Britten's Operas

Lead Research Organisation: Royal Holloway, University of London
Department Name: Music


Britten shows ideology at work in the musical structures of his operas. In them one can hear tensions between individual and society which reveal the ideological commitments of his day. Musicology has presented Britten as a revolutionary fighter for the sexual underdog. This project argues, by contrast, that we should reconsider the ways his operas have obscured a social and philosophical complicity that is is timely - if uncomfortable - to address.

This project adds to close readings of the works by Mervyn Cooke, Christopher Mark, Philip Rupprecht, Peter Evans, and Arnold Whittall, and historical studies by Philip Brett, Christopher Chowrimootoo, Lloyd Whitesell, and Heather Wiebe. It also draws on critical theory by Alain Badiou, Giorgio Agamben, and Slavoj Zizek. My approach is to investigate what 'ideology' means in Britten through six themes across the operas from Peter Grimes to Death in Venice: narratives, love, children, women, violence, and society. Six research questions therefore form the project's backbone.

1. How can the relation of music and ideology be critically analysed in Britten's operas? To probe the project's central question, I will explore the relation between Britten's operatic narration and the structures of his literary sources; establish a method for analysing the dialectical tension between tonal and non-tonal structures; and consider how Britten's operas reflect or critique ideological commitments of his (and our) late-capitalist world.

2. What do Britten's operas contribute to the discourse on love in the twentieth century? Rather than add to the familiar queer focus, I will look instead at heterosexual and non-sexual forms of love in the operas.

3. Which ideological functions do children fulfil in Britten? Many studies have interpreted children in Britten's operas as ciphers for sublimated adult sexuality. I will instead treat them as children, and by analysing them from perspectives including the cultural critique of Zizek and Badiou, will attempt to answer difficult questions about the role of children as ideological figures in society twentieth- and twenty-first-century society.

4. How do Britten's operas reflect changing ideological conceptions of women in 20thC Britain? Britten stresses the psychological basis of the ideological relation of men and women within the social structure, and I will consequently employ an interpretative framework derived in part from Lacanian psychoanalysis, and in part from musical analysis, to unpick the interaction of psychology and ideology in Britten's female characters.

5. How do Britten's operas reflect forms of ideological violence? Here I will borrow Zizek's taxonomy of violence (Violence: Six Sideways Reflections, 2008) to look in music-analytical detail at the ways that subjective violence (violence against the person), systemic violence (violence of the system of law/economics, etc.), and symbolic violence (violence of language/epistemology) combine in Britten's operas.

6. How do Britten's operas treat the relation of individual to society? This question entails a significant revision of current scholarship. By assimilating Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century, 2014, I will bring Britten into contact with central 20thC historical issues affecting capital, labour, and class, and Britten's role vis-a-vis the mid-century retrenchment of the middle class.

My project opens up entirely new topics in the study of Britten's music, and by studying this music from a broad range of methodological perspectives (analytical, historical, critical-theoretical, psychoanalytic), will radically expand the purview of this burgeoning field.

Planned Impact

The principal non-academic beneficiaries, and the core impact, are (1) performers, practitioners, and museums, (2) members of the general public, and (3) school pupils and teachers.

(1) Performers, practitioners, and museums will be engaged by a workshop on *Peter Grimes* and *Billy Budd* with conservatoire students at Trinity Laban, in collaboration with the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich (RE1 in the Case for Support attachment). There will be two main focuses of the event. On the one hand, the PI and the NMM will draw out the interactions between artistic representations at the sea and Britain's island identity (in connection with a major exhibition currently being planned at the NMM) and Britten's operas, to establish a broad historical and aesthetic context. On the other hand, performers at the conservatoire will bring their insights into the works from the practical perspective to bear on questions of musical communication and meaning. The impacts of the event will include potential changes in performance style or direction, and the generation of new ways of thinking about history, ideology, aesthetics, and performance in mutually questioning and informing ways.

(2) The general public will be the target of a public talk in a café environment (RE3 in the Case for Support). The focus will be the broad question 'is opera always ideological?', which will be explored in a range of ways: first through a twenty-minute presentation from the PI, then by two chaired half-hour discussions, one involving the audience and moderators, the other involving the speaker, audience, and moderators. The impact of the event will be an increased understanding of the role of ideology in the composition, staging, and reception of operas. A podcast of the event hosted on the PI's own website and on YouTube and Soundcloud will enable wider dissemination of the impacts. The general public will also be engaged through pre-concert talks, programme notes, articles for magazines, radio broadcasts (including a potential BBC Radio 3 Sunday Feature), and the project's dedicated research blog on the PI's self-hosted website (www.jpehs.co.uk/UIBO). The impact of these additional engagements will, again, be to increase understanding of the role of ideology in the creation and performance of opera.

(3) School pupils and teachers will be engaged by two study days at local comprehensive schools, in collaboration with the Black Cat Opera Company (RE2a/b in the Case for Support). The target of this impact will be schools where resources are too limited to enable this kind of event to take place without external funding, and where pupils are consequently less likely to enjoy the benefits that such study days can bring. The impact of the events will be, first, an increase in knowledge about Britten, twentieth-century music, specific operas, the relation of music and other school subjects (English and Theatre studies), and the practicalities of staging opera. Additionally, there will be fruitful knowledge exchange between the PI, teachers, pupils, and a professional opera company.


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Harper-Scott (2018) Ideology in Britten's Operas

Description My monograph, *Ideology in Britten's Operas*, uncovers the ways that Britten's operatic works both critically engage with and (as often) echo the ideological contexts of his own time. It also explores ways that these manifestations of ideology in Britten's music can help to understand our own ideological situation in the present. I have also presented material from the research at conferences in the UK and USA.
Exploitation Route In the coming years, book reviews and citations in journals will continue the process of the dissemination of ideas from the project.
Sectors Education