The Operas of Thomas Adès

Lead Research Organisation: University of Leeds
Department Name: Sch of Music


In the past several decades, the field of opera studies has developed numerous methodological approaches for the analysis and interpretation of the diverse signifying systems to be found within an operatic performance. Nevertheless, these approaches are frequently felt to be incompatible, leading to scholarly engagement that privileges certain aspects of the operatic design over others. The proposed research in this Fellowship is innovative, for it moves beyond the word-music relationships to be found in the score (an approach typical of much traditional opera analysis) to consider theoretically the relationship between the constituent categories of words, music and production. As such, the research acknowledges recent trends in opera studies to give greater weight to opera as event, but goes further by offering innovative readings incorporating all three categories, thereby offering the potential to transform existing academic and public conceptions of operatic meaning construction and its interpretation.

In order to demonstrate the theory, the Fellowship will examine the stage works by the British composer Thomas Adès (born 1971). Adès's operatic aesthetic foregrounds the dynamic interaction of operatic media: he has spoken approvingly of the 'mysterious thing that happens when you set actions to music: a third shape that emerges when something non-visual like a musical score is acted out by people moving on a stage'. This mystery has perhaps discouraged scholarly enquiry into Adès's three operas ('Powder Her Face' (1995), 'The Tempest' (2004), and 'The Exterminating Angel' (2015)): to date, the literature has focused primarily on his instrumental music. The international critical and commercial success of the operas sets the lack of scholarly engagement into sharp relief. This lacuna is problematic, given the artistic and contextual significance of the operas, for in them Adès transcends the technical and expressive preoccupations of his non-texted outputs, reaching out to comment critically on wider social, cultural and historical issues.

Nevertheless, the range of connections between Adès's operatic and non-operatic music, both in content and in artistic ambitions, requires that the former is considered in conjunction with the latter. An understanding of Adès's works for the stage thus necessitates consideration of what links them to his broader output, as well as what makes them distinctive. Adès's approaching fiftieth birthday (2021) makes such a sustained enquiry into his music especially timely. This Fellowship thus situates the operas as a central component of Adès work, as part of a broader reframing and re-evaluation of his music and its reception.

The Principal Investigator has united an international team of experts from the UK and North America - the two territories in which Adès's music has had most success - to explore the Fellowship's key questions from diverse perspectives. He will lead collaborations that will culminate in a significant new essay collection that explores the range of Adès's music, exploring issues around analysis, performance, voice, musical meaning, and cultural implications. Doing so will not only open up Adès scholarship to a significantly wider range of works than have hitherto been discussed, but offer revisionary and novel readings of more familiar pieces. This work will therefore provide a rich and thought provoking contribution to Adès studies (and contemporary music studies more generally), transforming perceptions of the composer, and offering a background against which to pursue more sustained research into the operas themselves.

Planned Impact

The long term aim of this research is to have a transformative effect on ways of thinking about meaning construction in opera, with the potential during the Fellowship to benefit three distinct groups outside of academia: audiences; producers and promoters of music (primarily opera); and performers and composers.

An initial objective of this work is to understand better the factors contributing to musical meaning in opera - the ways in which music, text and production combine to produce contingent, contextual and emergent meanings in performance. Audiences and opera producers and promoters will be the immediate beneficiaries here. These parties stand to gain from a more nuanced understanding of how musical and operatic meaning arise. For audiences, this knowledge can heighten engagement with performance and facilitate critical evaluation of different productions. For opera producers and promoters, this work allows for a more structured, theoretical framework to help inform production decisions and to reflect upon such decisions. (For overviews of the types of decision making that go on, see Hampe 2016 and McKechnie 2014.)

The Pathways to Impact document describes how the PI will pilot activities with Opera North in order to reach both of these groups in the North of England. In doing so, the PI will support Opera North's strategic aims concerning the facilitation of dialogue between staff working within and across the organisation, the development of new modes of audience engagement with patrons, and the showcasing of archival material to attract a wider audience interested in contemporary opera. By extending the impact of this work through the dissemination of the feedback from these events to a global audience, these activities will also serve to advance Opera North's internationalisation strategy.

The proposed research also addresses gaps in our understanding of contemporary music. Thomas Adès's music has reached a large global audience, yet scholarly study of this music - how it is structured, how it engages with society and culture, how it relates to musical tradition and so on - has pursued relatively narrow trajectories (see 'Research Context'). Expanding the research frame of reference, and bringing these findings to listeners and performers, provides the opportunity for these groups to rethink and reframe their engagement, understanding, and appreciation of Adès's music. With Adès's fiftieth birthday approaching in 2021, it is reasonable to predict that, building on prior impact activities involving, or organised by, the PI (including pre-concert talks, articles for programme books and brochures, broadcast appearances, and public symposiums), that opportunities will arise for further direct impact of the specific research into Adès's music on beneficiaries beyond academia. In particular, the publication of an edited volume and a monograph on Adès's music will provide the stimulus for considerable public engagement in this area, communicating the transformative findings of this research into Adès's music to audiences, performers and other composers.

The proposed research is also urgent in that it builds on burgeoning scholarship that considers opera in performance (see research context), but transforms this work to take into account contemporary opera. The provision of mechanisms for audiences and opera producers/promoters to consider the relationship of media and how they contribute to opera as experienced is of value to the understanding of Adès's broader compositional achievements, and in thinking more broadly about opera today. The final impact activity of the Fellowship will be to run a public event around contemporary opera in conjunction with Opera North, allowing audiences and those involved in the creation and performance of operas to come together to examine these issues together.


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Description Thinking with Opera 
Organisation Opera North
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution Prof Venn's engagement with Opera North (ON) is centred on three activities, all of which speak to the company's strategic ambitions. (1) Prof Venn has contributed to ON's ongoing series of lunchtime talks in which academics talk with a vibrant cross section of Opera North staff, including administrators, members of the orchestra and chorus, directors, producers, members of the costume department, and so on. This activity helps produce greater cohesion across the organization, but also contributes to developing projects and ways of thinking about our work. (2) Prof Venn was involved in a pilot initiative in which ON work with their Patrons to develop new models of audience engagement, adding value, and generating new arenas for conversations between audiences, students and academics. (3) Prof Venn led a public workshop in Spring 2022, to tie in with ON's production of Carmem, which enabled ON to showcase their new refurbished facilities, their archive, and their ongoing mission to bring new opera to audiences. In addition, Prof Venn recorded a podcast for the DARE partnership between Opera North and the University of Leeds, entitled 'Thomas Adès and Operas of Confinement'.
Collaborator Contribution ON provided in-kind support in the form of access to space, expertise and internal marketing.
Impact Thomas Adès and Operas of Confinement Carmen, Carmencita!
Start Year 2020
Description Carmen, Camencita! 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Carmen, Carmencita! was a symposium held at the Howard Assembly Rooms on 10 Feb 2022, 15.00-18.30 to an audience of c. 30. It was run by Professor Edward Venn in collaboration with Opera North, building upon a pre-existing partnership as part of his AHRC project, 'The Operas of Thomas Adès'. This event featured speakers comprising of academics and Opera North creative personnel, who collectively explored the mystery behind the myth of Carmen: Is she really the exotic femme fatale of popular imagination, or is there more about her story that can be told? How could this be accomplished?

"Peel back the surface", says mezzo-soprano Chrystal E. Williams, currently singing the iconic role in Edward Dick's four-star production for Opera North; you will find a 'myriad of colours, blended and burned together through the years.'

The conversations featured in the event between creative artists, performers and academics discussed how operatic production and performance recreate Carmen in multiple ways, offering new ways of hearing and understanding Bizet's finest score.

Conversations included:

Tracking the Changes - Edward Venn (Professor of Music at the University of Leeds) and Stuart Leeks (Opera North Editor)
Who is Carmen? - Edward Venn and Susan McClary (Fynette H. Kulas Professor of Music, Case Western Reserve University, author of Georges Bizet: Carmen) remotely
Public Engagement in Meaning-Making - Edward Venn and Alice Gilmour (Opera North Access Manager)
Design and Meaning-Making - Edward Venn, Dominic Gray (Projects Director), and Stephen Rodwell (Head of Costume and Wigs)
Music and Meaning-Making - led by Edward Venn and Garry Walker (Opera North Music Director)
The Performer's View - Edward Venn, Amy Payne and Eric Greene

Audience members were encouraged to join in the conversation. In a questionnaire circulated after the event, audience members responded to the question 'To what extent did today's symposium change the ways you thought about the role of the singer and its contribution to meaning/your experience? (1= not at all; 5 = significantly)' with an average score of 4.06 (Opera North staff and freelancers gave an average score of 3). Comments from the audience include:

• Really interesting and informative, and I liked hearing from a range of different people involved
• I thought it was really well run and so interesting!
• Learnt so much! Not usually an opera follower but will definitely look more into it. Only comment is potential lack of diversity on the panel.
• Very interesting and insightful
• Very friendly staff and attendees. Great variety of topics covered
• Loved it! Extremely interesting
• I most enjoyed the second session but hearing was a problem. The conductor was terrific. Musical accompaniment?
• It was difficult to hear some of the speakers, more time for questions from the audience. Personally I would have preferred a smaller room
• I felt this event was very helpful in covering a variety of areas with the Carmen opera. I particularly found the musical role of the singer, costumes and directorial decisions very interesting
• Today has been thought provoking and inspiring. Thank you
• Afforded me insight into the complexity of the characters and of presenting them on stage. Thank you!
• A very well conceived afternoon. I liked the representation of the many different types of people/roles who participated in the creating and communication of a production
• I thought I knew [Carmen] fairly well but left feeling I knew much more! Especially enjoyed the mix of academic expertise and professional practitioners voicing their practice. A very powerful mix

ON staff/freelancers commented:

• Really interesting to hear so many different perspectives - good balance of views, good timing etc. Would be good to do with other operas! Thanks all
• Fabulous range of voices - different perspectives. Ranged from practical questions through to politics, theory, social relevance. An important day
• Don't know if my answers are relevant, as I am ******, but was fascinating to hear Eric, Matthew and Gary speak as I always learn mostly from colleagues
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022
Description Talk - Hauntology and Thomas Ades 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Invited Zoom seminar at the University of Cincinnati to c. 12 postgraduate composers, sparking questions and discussion afterwards.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2023
Description The Operas of Thomas Ades Website 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact This is the project website, designed to report project activity, disseminate details of publications, provide weblinks for further engagement and stimulate conversation through its blog and related Twitter feed.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
Description Thinking with Opera Podcast 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Podcast recorded during national lockdown, exploring the operas of Thomas Adès from the perspective of confinement. The podcast was a discussion between Edward Venn and Aletta Collins (choreographer) as part of the Opera North 'Thinking with Opera' series, as part of the DARE partnership's public engagement series. The series aims to look beyond the particular programmed season repertoire at Opera North and focus instead on the bigger themes that opera engages with. The podcasts are released on Soundcloud and Apple podcasts, and targeted to Opera North patrons, audiences, and the wider public, with particular focus on supporters and students.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
Description Tonality in The Tempest 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Invited seminar at the Royal College Music to c. 20 postgraduate composers, sparking questions and discussion afterwards.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021