The Operatic Canon

The Operatic Canon

Principal Investigator: Cormac Newark

Research Team: William Weber (California State University)

Project Dates: March 2015 – October 2019

Project Aims

This networking project brings together academic and industry thinkers for a focused conversation about the emergence, evolution, history, and future of the operatic canon. Together we consider how long-term operatic repertoires came into being in a business driven by novelty, how some of those repertoires almost instantly became part of an international constant—‘the repertory’—while others awaited rediscovery, and what social and political factors influenced this. With contributors from a range of countries and traditions, industry practitioners, and policy-makers, this project aims to the agenda for scholarly and practical interaction with the opera canon for years to come.

Project Context

Opera’s associations with elite social structures, its potency as a signifier in culture more generally, and the prominent role it still plays in civic and national identity all contribute to a significance beyond opera audiences and academia.

What is often described as ‘classical’ music is old, and getting older, and opera is particularly geriatric: of the 2,449 operas produced professionally worldwide in 2012–13, for example (a total of 106,477 performances), only around 6% enjoyed more than 100 performances—and the top 10, all more than a century old, boasted 25,801 between them. At the same time, opera house administrations globally are in constant financial difficulty, with each new production representing an investment decision between traditionally reliable canonical masterpieces and riskier performances of fresher works.

Many European countries use public subsidy as a means of lessening this difficulty, but decisions about funding can become headline news, often representing larger questions around the nature and function of civil society. The significant amount of state money spent on supporting this dusty canon of operatic works, which can seem moribund even to some of its most articulate supporters, has attracted attention from neoliberal economists, regionalists, anti-intellectuals, and class warriors alike. Thus the time for a broad analysis of the operatic canon, incorporating a long historical view, sensitivity to geographical peculiarities, judicious use of big data, and a genuinely interdisciplinary approach, has clearly arrived.

Project Progress

The first funded phase of this project has now concluded. Plans are being drawn up for follow-on funding and further activities.

Associated Events

The AHRC Research Networking grant supported two events. The first, a two-day seminar at the Guildhall School in May 2015, for which contributing authors travelled from all over Europe and North America to discuss project activities and outputs, and to participate in workshops facilitated by industry leaders and commentators. The second, an industry-facing presentation in October 2019 hosted by the London Royal Opera House, at which company managers, performers, funders, policy-makers, and journalists came together with academics to debate the project’s findings.

Project Outputs

Conference papers (including an evening session devoted to the project at the 2016 meeting of the American Musicological Society in Vancouver), radio broadcasts and podcasts, articles, book chapters, and books have been published by network participants in France, Italy, the UK, and the US. The main published output of the project is The Oxford Handbook of the Operatic Canon (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020).

This project was supported by funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). The Arts and Humanities investigate the values and beliefs which underpin both who we are as individuals and how we undertake our responsibilities to our society and to humanity globally. For further information on the AHRC, please visit their website.