Nov. 21, 2002
Vol. 22 No. 5

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    Feldman, scholar of opera seria, garners Dent Medal

    By Seth Sanders
    News Office

    [Martha Feldman]
    Martha Feldman
    For people who do not attend the opera (and for some who do), it often evokes a deadly serious ritual, frozen in time, where a worshipful audience devotes rapt attention to the stage. For Martha Feldman, a scholar of opera seria, or “serious opera” in Italian, opera’s timeless seriousness is a window into its opposite–a chain of events, sometimes riotous, tied to a particular time and place and ridden with conflict and social drama.

    For her research, Feldman, Associate Professor in Music and the College, will receive the Dent Medal, the highest honor bestowed on a musicologist, at the 38th annual meeting of the Royal Musical Association in Glasgow.

    With an anthropologist’s eye and aesthete’s ear, Feldman has picked up on an intense, back-and-forth exchange between music and culture that marked many 18th-century Italian opera halls. In Opera and Sovereignty, Sentiment, Salvation and Modernity 1759-1797, the working title of her new book, Feldman reveals that opera halls like La Fenice in 18th-century Italy were places of carnival. Social conflicts played out and people were so excited about talking to and looking at each other that most of them happily sat where they could not see the stage.

    Because she focuses on the historical contradictions in opera seria as well as its lavish sets and intense arias, Feldman’s work is highly distinctive. “It’s a seemingly very archetypal plot about princely magnanimity, and it’s often royally sponsored. But opera seria was consolidated early in the 18th century when the old regime was already in trouble. You see this at the same time as absolute monarchy is asserting its strength and magnificence within the plots.”

    Feldman’s work demonstrates that if opera seria protested too much, it did so in stunning and deeply revealing style. “This kind of opera is in fact an immense institution designed to pay tribute to absolutism, to bring lots of social actors under one physical and symbolic roof. If a theater is actually attached to a monarch, there’s a large royal box. The smaller boxes looked like embroidered ribbons of subjects, surrounding the royal box. But as the stories are represented, the new sovereign is actually the diva–the ultimate image of the sovereign subject within a new world of commodities and trade who begins to usurp the charisma and political power from the monarch.”

    Feldman and her mother, Gabrielle Feldman, a painter with classical training in draftsmanship who also is skilled in fashion design and textiles, are collaborating to reconstruct an 18th-century Italian opera from evidence Feldman found during a trip to Parma, Italy. Because the original drawings and costumes were lost, they combined the evidence from the archives at Parma, surviving costume sketches from the Paris Opera that had influenced Parma, and surviving scenographic designs from Turin that Parma had in turn influenced. They also examined hundreds of paintings and other images for evidence about contemporary fashion.
    Because opera was so popular and so central to Italian society, it was no accident that the changes happening in 18th-century Italy played out on the stage. “Opera seria was the prime institution of sociability for people in the middle and upper classes. The focus was on enormous opera houses that collected different social types in one place for social display and exchange. The people themselves were so important that attention had to be pulled away from them, from the mutual ‘spectating’ between spectators.

    “Modern theaters force us to direct our attention to the stage by turning the hall into a large dark box. An 18th-century theater, by contrast, was a horseshoe, making it hard to see the stage. So you had these very condensed social spectacles: people visiting, gesturing, gambling, eating, reading novels and libretti, and sometimes even mirrors that let you see the stage. The very layout of the opera house encouraged a flux between attention to the stage and to other things. Big ones seated lots of people, around 2,000 or more. The nobility brought their entourages and servants, and people would arrive in masks, since the major season was Carnival. People could see and be seen across a range of positions.”

    Feldman has a larger mission in studying music in this context: “I hope to achieve a dialectical view of the relationship between music and culture, not seeing culture apart from the object of music. Ideally, I’d also like to bring into cultural studies an understanding of the affective world of sound. Because there’s a phenomenal dimension to culture–the realm of sheer affect, sound worlds that you can’t hold in your hand, write down or even capture on tape. The experience of sound will ultimately escape attempts to secure it as an object at the same time as it is indeed a thing, a piece of experience limited to a five-minute song or three-hour opera, which has an object character.”

    This mission informs Feldman’s collective projects–from last year’s wide-ranging Courtesan’s Arts conference, which included performances of classical Indian courtesans’ dances and Italian courtesans’ songs, to a new series she is editing titled Critical and Cultural Musicology.

    Feldman also is currently involved in a collaborative project with her mother, a skilled designer and painter, to reconstruct a lost, 18th-century opera. While in Parma, Italy, Feldman explained, “I found the inventory of a costume and prop shop as well as receipts for fabric makers and shoemakers. It was like seeing the production background for a whole Busby Berkeley show. On the plane going home, I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be interesting to reconstruct these?’ I was sitting next to my mother, and I realized that she was the only person who could do it!”

    Gabrielle Feldman is a painter with classical training in draftsmanship who is also skilled in fashion design and textiles. “She was already doing drawings from her imagination as we were discussing it. All the original drawings and costumes were lost. So we combined the evidence from the archives at Parma, surviving costume sketches from the Paris Opera that had influenced Parma, and surviving scenographic designs from Turin that Parma had in turn influenced. We also examined hundreds of paintings and other images for evidence about contemporary fashion.”

    This vibrant dialectic between history and imagination, cultural criticism and raw aesthetic experience, is at the heart of Feldman’s work.