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“Musical tale and children’s opera in the English-speaking world”
University of Caen Normandy, France
22-23 November 2023
Some controversy surrounds one of the earliest operatic productions in the English-speaking world: Henry Purcell’s opera Dido and Æneas (1689) was supposedly performed by young pupils at the Boarding School for Girls, in Chelsea, in London. English opera may thus have been born as a musical genre for young audiences. The following centuries saw a spectacular boom in opera and operetta in Europe, but mainly adult audiences were targeted and it was not until the 20th century that producers started currying favor with younger spectators. In the United States, Aaron Copland composed The Second Hurricane (1937), an opera specifically designed for school performances, while in the United Kingdom Benjamin Britten created his children’s opera The Little Sweep (1949), then his opera-oratorio Noye’s Fludde (1957), which brought together amateur artists and young singers. The twentieth century also saw the emergence of the musical comedy genre, which soon engaged with young audiences with well-known works such as Mary Poppins (1964) or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968). Lately, a young English prodigy, Alma Elizabeth Deutscher, made her debut at the age of seven with her first opera The Sweeper of Dreams (2012), then, at the age of ten, wrote her second opera Cinderella (2016), outshining the young Mozart who was twelve when he composed his first singspiel Bastien und Bastienne (1768).
The musical tale, less spectacular than the opera, developed in the 20th century especially with the appearance of new mass media. This specific genre, akin to both song and opera, requires a unique approach to word and music interrelations in works destined for young audiences. Like opera, the musical tale hinges on a plot and tells a story, but its smaller size, enabling easier rote learning, lends itself better to a greater variety of stage uses, including small theaters or school shows. Its concise structure makes it possible to hold the audience’s attention more easily. Even if it depends on music in a less central and more utilitarian way than opera, remaining attached to the literary tradition of text recitation, the musical tale remains a musical work in its own right and is undoubtedly best known for its didactic or moral purposes.
This conference’s main argument lies at the crossroads of these two somewhat similar yet different traditions, offering specialists an opportunity to discuss a vast array of topics in relation to the musical tale and the opera for children, with a particular focus on the role of young audiences and young musicians in the field of musical entertainment and musical productions intended for young audiences in the contemporary world.
First, this conference sets out to explore the generic specificities of compositions for young audiences (sung tale, opera, musical comedy, etc.). Emphasis will be laid on the themes and the specific composition techniques used in works for young audiences. How is melody conducted? What type of texture is used? Are there any specific structural patterns? The question of specific discourse can be addressed as well, such as, for instance, humor which is part and parcel of the musical tale. Moreover, the issue of educational, political and moral underpinnings behind these compositions can also be broached, as in Lisa Lehemann’s moralistic work Four Cautionary Tales and a Morale (1909).
Besides, scenic and participatory practices constitute an interesting field of investigation. Ways of involving young musicians can be studied: children’s roles or children's choirs, for example. Britten’s The Little Sweep encourages participative creation: Let’s make an Opera is a call for participation and shared creativity. Children are a demanding audience who will not stay put for hours on end but would much sooner engage in the show, which undoubtedly constitutes one of the major characteristics of children’s productions. Britten’s Noye’s Fludde brings together youngsters, amateurs and professional musicians as well as the church congregation, thus relying on the performative tradition that dates back to the 18th and 19th centuries, with The Beggar’s Opera, often played by children, or Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operas matinees for children. Numerous performances rely on recitation and narration to enhance understanding, as in Bang! by John Rutter (1975), whose plot is based on The Gunpowder Plot of 1605.
There may also be a question of specific traditions linked to the trends in performance practices of works intended for young audiences. Recent productions of musical tales have drawn on television and children’s television programs. Likewise, some opera productions, such as the American televised opera Amahl and the Night Visitors (1951) by Gian Carlo Menotti, have resorted to television broadcasting as well. But many works are also created as educational shows for school performances, endowed with didactic and moralizing purposes and intended to be performed in a specific context and circumstances.
Furthermore, we would like to explore word and music interrelations in works for children. In musical tales, music may play only a secondary role of illustrative background, or ‘incidental music’, as, for instance, in Lisa Lehemann’s tale The Selfish Giant: A story by Oscar Wilde (1911), where music solely lends support to the recitation of the text. What are the main types of text-music relationship? What are the sources of lyrics and librettos? As far as the textual source is concerned, are the works based on tales or well-known stories like that of Pinocchio in The Adventures of Pinocchio (2007) by Jonathan Dove, or perhaps original sources such as A Place To Call Home (1993) by the American composer Edward Barnes, whose libretto is based on a series of interviews with refugees?
Finally, we will also look at the world of contemporary entertainment in the English-speaking territories. What are the trends in contemporary productions and how have they evolved over the last few decades? What are the organizations which encourage such shows for young audiences? What media are favored for the transmission and popularization of these productions? Also, what constraints should be taken into consideration when working with children and what are the financial and ideological stakes of contemporary performances?
This international conference will be held at the University of Caen Normandy. It is hosted by ERIBIA research group and coorganized by IDEA (Interdisciplinarité Dans les Études Anglophones, UR 2338). This conference is mainly dedicated to subjects arising in English-speaking countries, but contributions from diverse contexts and interdisciplinary fields are welcome.
Relevant topics may include (but are by no means limited to):
- musical works sung for/by children, namely children’s opera and musical tales
- representations of children in opera
- specificities and technicalities of musical genres intended for young audiences
- questions of cultural territories and geographies of vocal musical genres for children
- topics related to didactics and musical pedagogy
- moral and ethical issues
- political and ideological questions
- methods of staging and participatory for young musicians
Submissions should include a title, a 250-300-word summary, a short biographical note, your academic affiliation, and should be sent to email@example.com by June, 30th, 2023.
Deadline for submissions: June 30, 2023
Registration fee for participants: €60 / Ph.D. students: €30
Contact email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Organiser: Marcin STAWIARSKI
Location: Université de Caen, Amphithéâtre de la MRSH (Campus I, Caen, Esplanade de la Paix)
Dates: 22-23 November 2023
Publication of conference proceedings:
A selection of submissions will be published in a special issue of LISA e-Journal
Research teams hosting the event:
Cécile AUZOLLE, Université de Poitiers, musicology
Gilles COUDERC, Université de Caen Normandie, English studies
Pierre DEGOTT, Université de Lorraine, English studies
Coralie FAYOLLE, Conservatoire de Paris, écriture, musicology
Jean-Philippe HEBERLÉ, Université de Lorraine, English studies
Stéphane LELIEVRE, Université Paris-Sorbonne, comparative literature
Maud POURADIER-GENDREL, Université de Caen Normandie, philosophy
Theresa SCHMITZ, EHESS, musicology
Marcin STAWIARSKI, Université de Caen Normandie, English studies
Nathalie VINCENT-ARNAUD, Université de Toulouse II, English studies