By Mascha van Nieuwkerk

Studying opera as a borderless art form has never been as relevant as it is now that the Brexit referendum of June 2016 is having its first direct effects on daily live in Britain. From early British history until the present day British opera practice has strongly depended on connections to trans-European opera networks for the exchange of works, ideas, artists and financial resources. As a consequence British singers, dramaturges, artists and all those involved in opera staging are worried for their international careers as well as the future of opera in Great Britain after Brexit.

The 2017 OBERTO Opera Conference entitled ‘Opéra sans frontiers: musicians and migration in a globalised world’ gave an inspiring overview of the international connectedness of opera practices over the centuries. Organised by the Oxford Brookes University, opera scholars from Universities in London, Cambridge, Salzburg, Southampton, Leicester and New York came together in the Headington Hill Hall, a beautiful Italianate mansion formerly used as a family residence by the Morrell family.

The papers presented made relevant connections between studies of traveling singers, composers, operatic practices and styles with discussions about identities, nationalism and globalisation. Furthermore, as yet unexplored sources for the study of mobility in the history of opera where presented. Mirijam Beier from the Universität Salzburg gave a particularly intriguing example of a singer’s career and mobility in the eighteenth century, presenting an annotated edition of the correspondence of the opera singer Marianne Pirker. The afternoon sessions further discussed boarder crossings by artists, as well as ideas and works. For instance, Charlotte Bentley and Chenyin Tang explored relations between the centre and the periphery of operatic production. Their research into operatic practices in New Orleans and East Asia offered insights into the complex relations between the new and the old geographic centres of opera. Eric Schneeman’s analysis of images of Italianness, Germanness and Jewishness in the German reception of Meyerbeer’s Italian career brought us back the European continent.

The cosmopolitism of opera has not always been applauded. In fact, the international orientation of the art form has often provoked counteractions, particularly from supporters of national traditions in the arts. The concluding session dealt with three examples of cultural protectionism in opera practice. Interestingly, discussed topics such as the battle for an English National Opera saw clear parallels with Dutch opera history. Like in Great Britain, opera in the Netherlands has generally had the status of an imported art form dependent on connections to trans-European opera networks. And, similar to English National Opera, a National Opera house would only in the twentieth century successfully take root in Dutch cultural life.

The resonances of the history of opera with present-day discussions about migration and economic protectionism became sharply pronounced in the concluding panel discussion. A panel consisting of four present-day operists – two singers, a dramaturge and an opera critic – sounded the alarm bell for British opera after Brexit. According to dramaturge Kara McKechnie British opera is and has always been international by definition. It is a borderless art form. In her opinion the question ‘what is British about British opera?’ is not even relevant. In Britain, opera and the arts are a national as well as a foreign affair. Therefore the arts will be the first to suffer from Brexit. But frustratingly, there are almost no voices speaking against Brexit in the arts, opera critic John Allison pointed out. ‘Where is the anger in respect to Brexit? Personally I am too angry and frustrated to even discuss the matter.’ says Allison. In the following discussion with the audience some attendees agreed that the lack of protest from intellectuals, artists and musicians could be explained by a growing sentiment of anti-intellectualism on the British Isle. The British have proudly seen themselves as a non-musical country, Allison stated, quoting the German essayist Oskar Adolf Hermann Schmitz: ‘Das Land ohne Musik’. Whereas the French were proud of their music and dance, the British were proud of their solid warfare and trading skills. Opera would therefore be the first art form to be wiped out in the new self-centred Great Britain after Brexit.

The end of British opera, it was an alarming annunciation at the close of this inspiring conference. But after returning to Amsterdam what remained was once again the realization of the importance of historical research for understanding present-day developments in opera as well as politics. That sense of relevance is undeniably the merit of the two organizers of the conference, Alexandra Wilson and Barbara Eichner.

More information about the conference, click here