August 29, 2013

Flora Wilson: London, Paris, New York: Opera’s global networks c. 1890

Filed under: hearing landscape critically,music — ABRAXAS @ 10:41 pm


During the 19th century, opera became a global phenomenon. Beginning with the dissemination of Rossini’s unprecedentedly popular works in the 1820s, operatic culture spread from its strongholds in major European cities to new urban markets on other continents. By the end of the century, opera’s worldwide transit had become an essential characteristic of the art form – one in dialogue with a complex layering of communication networks. In this paper I seek to explore this fundamental mobility by focussing on one particular instance of opera on the move: the paradigmatic international path taken by the renowned soprano Nellie Melba.

Born in Australia, Melba moved to Paris in 1886 to complete her training. Following her European debut in Brussels in 1887, she spent much of the next half-decade travelling between London and Paris – cities whose competing claims to be ‘capital of the 19th century’ were staked in this instance on attempted appropriations of this most distantly travelled soprano star. Melba’s peregrinations around Europe’s major cities in the early 1890s followed long-established routes, but in 1893 she crossed the Atlantic to make a wildly successful debut at the newly rebuilt Metropolitan Opera in New York. My paper examines the consequences of Melba’s American triumph and of the changing operatic order it seemed to epitomise. Taking a cue from recent calls in the history of technology for ‘use histories’ able to address the persistence of the old after the dawning of the new, I place Melba’s New York success in a larger geographical context, considering its effects in the venerable operatic centres she had left behind. I want, in other words, to consider how opera’s expanding topography at the end of the 19th century complicated its status and discourses in an increasingly anxious Old World.


Flora Willson (Cambridge) is a junior research fellow at King’s College, Cambridge, where her research centres on nineteenth-century opera and urban culture. She has published academic articles and reviews in Cambridge Opera Journal; Cambridge Verdi encyclopedia (forthcoming from CUP), Nineteenth-century Music Review and the Journal of Modern Italian Studies, and is currently working on a book about operatic exchanges between London and Paris in the later 19th century. She writes regular reviews for Opera, has given pre-performance talks at Barbican, English National Opera, Glyndebourne and Royal Opera House, and has appeared as a guest on BBC Radio 3. She is the editor of a new critical edition of Donizetti’s Les martyrs, due to be recorded for Opera Rara in 2014 by Sir Mark Elder and the OAE.

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