Sunday, 14 September 2008

Conference report

This conference (5-7 September 2008) offered an alternative to Peter Brooks’s idea of melodrama as a mode underpinning modern literature, taking instead the starting point that melodrama is central to our understanding of nineteenth-century music drama – spoken plays with music, operas, musicals, early film and other hybrid genres that combine music with text and/or image – and arguably to our understanding of nineteenth-century music tout court. Complementing the events of the rest of the project, which have explored the idea of melodrama as a performance process, the conference brought together people from different disciplines, working on diverse genres, countries and eras, to discover ways in which we are theorising melodrama’s effects and affects, and the degree to which the melodramatic aesthetic remains a meaningful concept and scholarly tool.

Although it was keenly felt that we should resist collapsing methodologies and repertories, oversimplifying, for example, the relationship between nineteenth-century theatrical practice and twentieth-century film, or French and English meanings of the term ‘melodrama’, there were nevertheless recurring themes and ideas that ran through the conference. These centred on music’s role as a mediating force between different ‘spaces’, and included the mutability of ‘voice’, the use of musical clichés and the creative tension between high and low cultural traditions. It is clear that ideas and critical approaches associated with certain disciplines and/or repertories can profitably be shared, and that the ‘melodramatic’ is a useful tool with which to understand repertory from the eighteenth through to the twentieth centuries - embracing the overlapping categories of genre, technique and aesthetic.

A number of speakers demonstrated ways in which the separate traditions of melodrama that emerged in France at the end of the eighteenth century – what one might categorise as elite and popular (the conceptions of Rousseau and Pixérécourt respectively) – continued to evolve through the nineteenth century. The former was particularly associated with a concert tradition influenced by Benda and cultivated by such German composers as Schumann, the latter with a theatrical phenomenon in France (and also notably in England, the US and the Czech Lands) that had a particular influence on opera. (Though there was some cross-fertilisation between these concert and theatre traditions.) Two speakers also highlighted a tradition of melodrama in eighteenth-century England, with roots reaching back to the genre of mad songs (Rooley), and inspired by English events (eg the Gordon Riots) as much as by the French Revolution (G. Taylor).

The persistence of monologue as a component of melodrama from the eighteenth century was demonstrated (Waeber), and it remained the locus of the most musically rich explorations of character/mood in Fibich’s stage melodramas at the end of the nineteenth century (Tyrrell). However, in early twentieth-century Germany there was a clear differentiation between melodrama and more psychologically rooted monodrama, informed by the culture of cabaret (Payette).

As a technique, melodrama is commonly understood to refer to musically accompanied recitation – already a step away from Rousseau/Coignet’s and Benda’s eighteenth-century practices of generally alternating music and speech. Papers explored the rich tradition of recitation in the early twentieth century, both in the domestic and commercial spheres (as cultivated by women in the US, Wilson Kimber, Smith) and in concert (as exemplified by Strauss’s concerts with Possart in London, Tunbridge). The voice was perceived variously as part of a soundtrack (in Resnais’s 1961 film L'Année Dernière à Marienbad, Waeber), as autonomous (in radio commercials and Hollywood film melodramas, Smith), or more specifically either as becoming music, with the exaggerated intonation patterns of the enunciating voice, or as resisting music, as speech and accompaniment continued on defiantly separate planes. In an operatic context, the voice’s materiality in its own right was explored (Cruz), and the affect of ephemeral virtuosity was set against material artificiality (Townley). An instrumental ‘reconstitution’ of voice in the afterlife of Schumann’s Träumerei (in a range of films and cartoons) was presented as a solution to the problems inherent in the sounding voice (Raykoff). In many of these papers, the tensions between music and text, instruments and voice were highlighted in what amounted to the negation of a Gesamtkunstwerk understanding of melodrama (Tunbridge).

Melodrama can also be understood as exemplifying a close – mimetic – relationship between music and gesture. However, several papers revealed an often loose – or even contradictory – relationship. During the early years of Pixérécourtian melodrama, a shift from static to highly choreographed tableaux, and music’s changing function in the drama can be traced (Astbury). Janacek’s practices more than a century later demonstrate ways in which music can contradict or occlude stage movement when it is attached to internal states of mind (Sheppard). Melodrama’s bodily influence via Italian opera can be seen in examples of 1940s Italian film in which natural, physical expression rather than techniques of editing shape the flow and pace of the drama (Bayman).

Melodrama’s musical topoi (a vocabulary of diminished 7ths, tremolo strings, etc, in passages of entrance/exit music, punctuation and underscoring) were discussed in many papers. Their survival in a 1939 musical version of the Wizard of Oz (Ford), and their relation to equally striking visual topoi in Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus were identified (Sheil). And their creative contribution to a work’s dramatic and/or political meaning through parody, or through wilful mismatch of music and text/drama, was analysed (Raykoff, M. Taylor, Dean).

Many papers addressed melodrama specifically as an aesthetic, and identified ways in which music negotiates between different temporal, imaginative, geographical and generic spaces – a characteristic of the earliest examples of melodrama (Waeber). Because of its non-specificity, music is capable of blurring distinctions – or easing the transition – between subject positions (who is thinking/speaking at a given moment), between real and imagined worlds (dreamed, remembered or experienced in the present), or between locations. For example, music negotiates between juxtaposed contrasting urban spaces and between otherwise non-communicating characters in a late nineteenth-century melodrama in London (Hicks), or even between (monumental) performance space and intimate human drama at the Fêtes romains at Orange in the 1890s (Olin). Equally, music can render the diffuse narrative of a silent film coherent without oversimplifying it (Goodwin). Music can however create distance and rupture by its very artificiality in a drama (G. Taylor), while silence can allow realism to intrude (Hicks).

Music can also work across different genres and different ideologies. The inherent tension between popular and elite culture was evident in the critical responses to hybrid works (an opera borrowing musical techniques associated with popular melodrama, Hibberd). But a number of speakers revealed ways in which melodrama in its ‘popular’ guise became an important influence not only on romanticism, but also on constructions of modernism – both in opera (1920s Germany, Nielsen) and in the symphony (notably Mahler, Barham).

Music’s evocative relationship with the physical world in melodrama is exemplified in Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette, in which the score alludes to other musical genres (which in turn relate to the body – including opera, dance) and to specific performances of Shakespeare’s play in Paris (Anger). It can effectively suggest ‘imaginary’, ‘internal’ or ‘virtual’ theatre to the listener (Barham, Anger), or conversely encourage a ‘visualisation of music’ on the part of film-makers or dramatists (Higgins). By extension, music can convey political meanings by association which intensify the emotional affect, often evoking memories of real events – with quotations of known melodies (Republican resistance in Northern Ireland, Anderson), or with the intrusion of brutal, graphic music that can be understood as standing for the authorities in the aesthetic of shock that characterised Parisian melodrama and opera in the 1820s and 30s (Hesselager).

Music can thus manipulate the audience into a particular understanding of a situation, or even act as a transgressive agent, disrupting the narrative altogether (Waeber). For these reasons, it is perhaps more fruitful to understand melodrama as an aesthetic of moments rather than a narrative type (Carli), and to focus on the experience of such moments – on the ‘how’ rather than the ‘what’ (Carli, Bayman).

Conference programme and abstracts.

Sunday, 3 August 2008

Reflections on the project so far...

Our exploration of the melodramatic aesthetic has profited greatly from the involvement of colleagues and students from a variety of disciplines (Music, Drama, Modern Languages, Film & TV Studies), and from practitioners (singers, players, directors, actors) as well as historians and theorists. We have considered issues of contemporary practice and reception together with modern approaches and taste. Although music has been a focus of the project, we have examined its changing function and importance in different contexts and in relation to the other components of drama. Silence, gesture, stage movement, tableau, psychological motivation have each emerged as prominent themes for discussion.

Although we have tried to resist generalising about what melodrama might mean (given its variety), constants have emerged in the works we have examined: the depiction of evil, the juxtaposition of contrasting moods/characters, the use of cliches (in terms of plot, character, gesture, music, etc) as shorthand indicators of 'meaning'. Each of these have in some senses been perceived (since the 19C) as ‘negative’ characteristics, tainted by their associations with popular culture. A trajectory might be traced from early stage melodrama, in which music is a vital tool in creating character and movement, through later nineteenth-century drama and opera in which the relationship between gesture/movement and music is disrupted - e.g. gesture becomes internalised (as seen in Sweeney Todd), or gesture is turned against the grain of the music (as seen in Opera North's interpretation of Verdi's Macbeth). This disruption might be understood as part of a modern desire to smooth the stark juxtapositions and characterisations, to investigate psychological motivation, and to present a more sophisticated, 'realistic' approach to drama – in other words, to tame melodrama. (Mary Ann Smart draws a more subtly nuanced and argued trajectory of internalisation of gesture through 19C opera, culminating with Wagner, in her book Mimomania.)

During the project, other central issues have emerged, opening up more positive avenues for research, not least the relationship between the different senses. Julie Sanders argued that this might be understood as a central feature of melodrama: that touch and smell merge with sound and sight in Shakespeare's Macbeth through the resonant imagery of the hand, a relationship that has evolved in subsequent adaptations of the text, including Verdi's opera and modern kunju interpretations in China. Philip Carli examined how the aural could function as a trigger for the visual in his examination of phonograph recordings in which sounds (formulaic music and special effects) triggered memories of what audiences might have seen at stage performances. In this manner, he suggested, spectacle can be understood as a sonic experience. The different components of sound were considered by Jake Smith in his examination of 'reaction' shots in radio melodrama, and he illustrated ways in which emotion and meaning can be communicated in vocal timbre (and musicality) as much as in words and physical actions. In other words, music can be understood not only as supporting, enhancing, subverting the text, but also as a substitute for, a memory, a component, even a sublimation of the spoken word and of the drama as a whole.

Edward Rushton's new composition On the Edge engaged with different traditions of melodrama and the melodramatic, employing spoken text, still and moving images and a continuous score. Strikingly, it foregrounded the evolving relationship between word, music and image: the audience's attention is drawn to the different components which come to the fore at given moments of the narrative. Although Rushton eschewed the idea of strict synchronisation - favouring a degree of free association - one was much more conscious of the way in which the different elements worked with/across/against each other, and of the 'pure' beauty of certain passages of music and images (escaping from the narrative). The nineteenth-century melodramatic aesthetic was concerned with melding the different elements (one barely notices the music in stage melodrama or in silent film, and it works almost subliminally; Verdi proclaimed his desire to 'fuse' music and drama in Macbeth); Rushton turns this idea on its head, drawing attention to the process.

The issue of realism was raised in a number of contexts. At one level, the plots of melodramas (and 19C operas) are extremely unrealistic. At another level, actors and singers in the early 19C were praised for their 'realistic' or 'naturalistic' expression of emotion; Verdi aimed at bringing out every nuance of the drama in his score, magnifying and heightening rather than merely imitating the 'real'. Joe Austin suggested that Verdi was in some senses pushing against the melodramatic formula towards dramatic realism; Cynthia Marsh suggested that 'fantastic' realism might be a more appropriate label for Macbeth.

The way in which we understand realism is key to how we understand melodrama as an aesthetic today. David Mayer reminds us that if we laugh at the melodramatic acting style for being 'hammy' and over the top, we are missing an important point. The gestures of actors were part of various explicit aesthetic criteria: for many who were performing between 1903 and 1915, the years in which cinema established its permanent hold on the public, gestural codes were aligned to the flourishes and scroll-work of art nouveau. Film directors such as D.W. Griffith, Mayer continues, would specifically invoke the postural and gestural vocabularies of the Ballets Russes as an oppositional style to current screen acting, but neither Griffith nor most theatrical actor-managers and film directors were rushing to become 'real'. There was a gradual diminution in the scale of gesture, but this diminution arose from recognition that the camera was closer to the performer than the audience ever was and that an actor's large gestures went beyond the camera's frame. Finally, Mayer reminds us that 'the real' made its appearance from two quarters: from Naturalism, as a part of a comprehensive scientific, political, sociological, and aesthetic outlook on the world and from photography which captured the everyday and the mundane and offered true likenesses.

At a fundamental level, music had (and retains) an important role in mediating between the stage/screen and the audience, guiding them in their understanding of the action, to some extent determining their reactions and acceptance of the drama as 'real'.

This project has effectively opened up some new ways of thinking about melodrama and its legacy in the theatre and on film, giving us all food for thought. I am extremely grateful to all those who have taken part, both as participants in the various workshops, study days, panels and performances, and those who observed and contributed to discussion. It is hoped that the conference that concludes the project will address some of these issues we have raised, exploring them in more depth and with reference to other works, and also open up alternative avenues for further research.

Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Murder and Melodrama in Verdi's Macbeth, 25 May 2008

When Verdi composed Macbeth, his first opera based on a Shakespeare play, his intention was to create a work of 'extravagance and originality'. This event, organised in collaboration with Opera North, explored the relationship between Shakespeare's play and Verdi's opera, and more specifically the relationship between music, words and gestures, in a day of presentation, performance and discussion.

Two presentations opened up some issues and moments from the opera that were explored during the rest of the day. In her paper 'Pious Confessions, Dancing Witches, and Bloodstained Hands: Shakespeare, Verdi, Opera and the Melodramatic Aesthetic' Prof Julie Sanders (University of Nottingham) offered a discussion of the opera as an accretive text, setting it in its much wider theatrical context from 17th-century England, through 18th- and 19th-century Europe, to modern-day China - and focusing on the symbolic significance of hands in the work. She drew on romantic theories and translations of Shakespeare's play from the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and the iconic performances and stagings of David Garrick, before turning to the agency of Verdi's opera in late 20th-century Chinese operatic adaptations of the play, including a kunju adaptation (Bloody or Bloodstained Hands) which was performed at the 1986 Shakespeare Festival in Shanghai. In her presentation '"A Fusion of Music and Drama": Vocal and Physical Gesture in Verdi's Macbeth', Dr Susan Rutherford (University of Manchester) focused on mid-19th-century perceptions of opera's interactions between word, gesture and music. In particular, the musical devices employed in Macbeth's Act I aria and in Lady Macbeth's sleepwalking scene were examined in relation to the physical gestures they suggested, and the specific characteristics of the singers who premiered these roles were discussed. Although in very different ways from Wagner, Verdi was clearly interested in fusing musical and dramatic effects in a convincing whole, in which the physical (or memory of the physical) was inseparable from the music.

In the afternoon, Joe Austin (assistant director at Opera North), with assistant conductor/repetiteur Martin Pickard and singers Simon Thorpe and Yvonne Howard, led a practical exploration of the ways in which a modern-day opera company approaches such a melodramatic work, with the example of Tim Albery's production (currently part of the Opera North season). The very different approaches required for Verdi's opera and Shakespeare's play, and the contrasting pace and location of the tensions, were illustrated with comparative performances of the scene between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth before the murder of Duncan. The need to modify the opera for modern taste was discussed. For example, the desire to understand the psychological reasons behind Lady Macbeth's behaviour (and resist the 19th-century tendency to emphasise her monstrousness) was addressed by introducing Macbeth as the (physical, silent) focus of her Act I aria. Joe also explained how the production sometimes worked against the grain of the music in the interests of modifying some of the more melodramatic features of the work: notably, the abrupt juxtaposition of contrasting moods between (and sometimes within) individual numbers was occasionally smoothed by continuing the gestural language of the first mood across the musical break. Wider discussion considered the political context of the premiere (1847) in a Europe on the brink of revolution, the contrasting French situation for the revised version (1865), an earlier French operatic Macbeth in the 1820s, and the broader concept of cultural transfer. It was striking how modern scholarly interest in the gestural language of actors and singers - an aspect of 19th-century performance practice that is difficult to trace - contrasted with the interest among modern practitioners in the psychological motivation of the characters.

The day concluded with a short workshop led by Joyce Henderson to explore the nature of the relationships in melodrama between the body and emotion and meaning, gesture and voice, and actor and audience.

Participants: Julie Sanders (University of Nottingham), Susan Rutherford (University of Manchester); Opera North: Joe Austin (stage director), Martin Pickard (repetiteur), Yvonne Howard (mezzo-soprano), Simon Thorpe (baritone); Joyce Henderson

Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Melodrama and the Interdisciplinary Challenge, 22 April 2008

Jan Butler writes:

This interdisciplinary study day, chaired by Julie Sanders, offered examples of the ways in which melodrama has been studied within different disciplines, looking at different elements – text, gesture, voice and music – in the context of other dramatic forms. In the course of the day, questions were raised about methodological issues that melodrama raises, including bridging the high/low, the visual/aural and performance/research divides. The study day also referred back to elements and issues that had arisen in the previous two Melodrama and the Musical Aesthetic events, which highlighted how the research project as a whole is developing and gave a sense of emerging cohesion to the project’s varied approaches.

Jo Robinson, who had taken part in the first Melodrama workshop in which a scene from Thomas Holcroft’s A Tale of Mystery (1802) was explored in performance, elaborated on her thoughts emerging from that experience. She highlighted that in Victorian theatre, seeing was a privileged mode of audience response in which the actors communicated through gesture as well as speaking a text. In theatre studies, the focus (building on the work of Peter Brooks) has been on the gestural language that actors used. However, during the exploration of a mute character in the workshop, Jo noted that the gestures of the mute were always translated verbally for the audience by characters on stage, and by the accompanying music. She suggested that in the case of melodrama, sight has perhaps been privileged for too long, and that the experience of performing the scene with the music suggests that we need to hear as well as look, a theme which was raised again in the third paper.

Sarah Hibberd’s paper focussed on French grand opera, a genre described by Wagner as “effects without causes”, a reference to the emphasis on visual spectacle and the (perceived) tendency of the music to support this, rather than standing alone as a complex structure in its own right. Sarah suggested that - in contrast to the situation Jo had highlighted in theatre studies - musicologists tend to consider the music in isolation from the other elements of opera. She suggested a more fruitful approach to French grand opera in particular was to explore it in relation to the broader theatrical landscape of the time – including melodrama. Expanding on her paper at the Music from Stage to Screen event, Sarah demonstrated how the cataclysmic conclusions of Pixérécourt’s melodrama La Citerne and Meyerbeer’s opera Le Prophète worked in similar ways, and each illuminated the broader political (revolutionary) climate of their creation and reception. She suggested that the ‘melodramatic’ can be understood in this context as a specifically French notion of the sublime.

Jake Smith’s paper highlighted another aspect of the melodramatic, focusing again on hearing rather than seeing, but this time the actor’s use of vocal gesture. He explained that, like the bodily gestural language that actors learned, there was also a language of vocal timbres and pitches associated with different meanings. This can be heard particularly clearly in early phonograph recordings. The actor’s body is removed, so he is dependent on vocal gesture to carry meaning. This was demonstrated through comparison of a film and a radio play version of the same scene from Stella Dallas. Jake related the change from presentational to representational acting to the development of the microphone, which allowed a ‘close-up’ of a vocal gesture, such as a sob or a sigh to give the listener a ‘reaction shot’ of the invisible actor. These vocal expressions of emotion led to increasing intensity in the voice, especially in radio soap operas, with an acting style quivering with emotion and supplemented by wordless vocalisation, leading to a situation in which the meaning could be said to be carried almost entirely in the vocal gesture rather than the spoken text.

Each paper focussed on one aspect of the melodramatic, whilst simultaneously highlighting the need to understand melodrama as an organic process. The problem arising from its perception as purely low culture was also raised several times, as was the fact that looking at one element in isolation can seem comedic, whereas looking at the elements in combination can reveal much more significant and compelling aspects of the genre itself and its legacy in other genres.

Participants: Jo Robinson (English), Sarah Hibberd (Music), Jake Smith (Film and TV) and Julie Sanders (English).

Monday, 28 April 2008

Ghosts before Breakfast, 25 April 2008

This concert, put together by the new ensemble Counterpoise in partnership with Barry Millington, presented works in the German tradition of melodrama - unstaged, musically accompanied recitation - together with more recent works which deployed film and other visual elements. The programme as a whole explored the relationship between music, poetry and the visual, and ideas about narrative.

It included Strauss's The Castle by the Sea (1899; a work which has been described as a film soundtrack without the film) and Heiner Goebbels's In the Basement, which incorporated an Edgar Allen Poe narrative. Ghosts before Breakfast (1927), a film by dadaist artist Hans Richter with surreal sequences of flying bowler hats and cameos from Hindemith (who composed the original score), Milhaud and his wife and Richter, was accompanied by a new score by Jean Hasse. In Kagel's MM51, a film of a film of Nosferatu (in which Kagel is (silently) playing the piano accompaniment) was projected on a screen, with a live pianist playing his score.

The second half of the programme comprised the world premiere of Edward Rushton's On the Edge, about the dangers of the Swiss Alps (accidents, avalanches, the supernatural). Its spoken texts (compiled by Dagny Gioulami) were taken from Arnold Lunn's nineteenth-century writings and from a Swiss folk tale, and it was accompanied by video images (including early footage) by Syl Bertulius. The score was written specifically for Counterpoise's combination of piano, violin, saxophone and trumpet, and evoked the extreme conditions of the mountains. The work's combination of speech, music and image links it not only to the works of Kagel and Goebbels, but also to nineteenth-century traditions of melodrama.

Counterpoise: Alexandra Wood (violin), Kyle Horch (saxophone), Deborah Calland (trumpet), Helen Reid (piano)
Narrator: Richard Angas

Funding from the AHRC, the PRS Foundation, the National Lottery through the Arts Council

Monday, 7 April 2008

Melodrama from Stage to Screen, 6 April 2008

This panel was part of the British Silent Film Festival at the Broadway Cinema, Nottingham. It set out to explore some of the ways in which music contributes to melodramatic effect in silent film – at the level of accompanying gestures, delineating psychological processes, intensifying spectacle, and so on. In doing this we also addressed issues such as the performance style (voice, gesture) in some early phonograph recordings and films, the pervasive influence of melodrama in modern film, the transition from silent to sound film, and the way in which the audience engages with the drama.

The four presentations approached the theme from different angles. I set things rolling by identifying some of the defining features of stage melodrama at the start of the 19C to put the session in context, and then talked about the role of music in scene-types that are essentially static, and which seem to have a clear legacy in film. In these instances music can help to draw the spectator into the drama, or, conversely, to encourage contemplation of the bigger drama.

Philip then introduced phonograph recordings (the flogging scene from Uncle Tom's Cabin (1904) with Len Spencer and the Edison Symphony Orchestra; The Outcast (1905) unknown performers; the transformation scene from Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1905) with Len Spencer and the Edison SO; Desperate Desmond (1915) with Fred Duprez and Eugene A Jaudas). He considered the idea of melodrama as spectacle in purely sonic (rather than visual) terms, rooted in traditions and conventions of the theatre with which audiences would have been familiar.

Neil spoke about the thought processes that a modern performer/improviser goes through when accompanying silent films, with the example of the 1928 Sweeney Todd with Moore Marriott. Although disappointingly restrained, the film nevertheless contained scenes that were melodramatic at heart - including a lengthy exchanges of glances between Todd and Mrs Lovett, the struggle between Todd and the young boy, and the contrasting character types. Neil illustrated ways in which the music can help to sustain, elucidate, even create or derail narrative, and above all how it can make the audience care about the characters and draw them into the drama.

Polly's presentation focused on the use of gesture in three of Hitchcock's early talkies (Number 17, Blackmail, Murder), and demonstrated the legacy of silent film acting techniques. One example was the way in which actors essentially spoke their intertitles, acting a sometimes lengthy sequence of emotions _before_ delivering their lines. She concluded by playing an excerpt without the sound, as a silent film with musical accompaniment (provided by Neil), which highlighted this lingering practice very effectively.

Participants: Sarah Hibberd, Philip Carli, Neil Brand, Polly Goodwin.

Monday, 17 March 2008

Melodrama on Stage, 13 March 2008

In this workshop and discussion afternoon we set out to explore melodrama as a performance process. We chose Thomas Holcroft’s A Tale of Mystery (Covent Garden, 1802) because it was the first English melodrama (based on Pixérécourt’s Coelina, 1800) and it has an extant score (by Thomas Busby) and detailed cues in the published text and score. We focused on the scene in which the mute Francisco relates his past through gestures and writing. Communication takes place on several levels – Fiammetta ‘translates’ Francisco's gestures, Stephano reads his written explanations out loud, other onstage characters react to the unfolding story.

We were not intending to produce an ‘authentic’ early nineteenth-century performance – we are not actors, nor do we have the gestural vocabulary or sensibility of the period. However, the opportunity to work from the inside of a melodrama helped to raise important issues about the relationship between music, gesture and movement (in terms of practical stagecraft and effect)and to stimulate thinking about nineteenth-century opera and silent film.

  • music has a flexible relationship with gesture and movement: sometimes it provides the impetus for action, and sometimes it flows from movement. David Mayer offered the metaphor of water – variously supporting, propelling and resisting the body.
  • our inexperience highlighted a fundamental quality of melodrama: that music, gesture, movement and speech should be experienced as an organic process, rather than as individual, component blocks.
  • music and gestures often suggest very different things, and do not merely support or duplicate each other.

Some questions I am interested in pursuing include:

  • should ‘hurry’ music always be accompanied by physical movement, or may it be understood as the purely emotional frenzy of one or more characters? Mary Ann Smart has traced the legacy of melodramatic gesture in nineteenth-century opera from close mirroring of gesture in the music (eg Auber’s La Muette de Portici) to internalised movement (eg Wagner) – but was it perhaps already being internalised in melodrama? This might also have implications for the ways in which we think about tableaux.
  • to what extent does the music suggest (rather than merely confirm) meaning to a) the actors, b) the audience?
  • does the music help the audience to engage with the rather stylised and self-conscious, even comic, speech and gestures?
  • does the tempo, dynamic and texture of the music have a significant impact on the meaning or mood of a scene? (In practice, were certain types of music generally played in the same way, by the same instruments, or was there variety and elasticity of approach?)

The afternoon suggested avenues for further exploration, and I would welcome comments from participants and observers – either responding to the above, or to aspects of the day itself. I shall post some further thoughts, and suggest questions we might want to consider at our forthcoming workshops/study days. Video clips of the afternoon will be mounted on the project website in due course.

Sarah Hibberd, Cynthia Marsh (stage director), Jo Robinson
Tamara Dollin (pianist)
Jan Butler, Heather Caddick, Olivia McCall, Abbey Whittle (actors)
Guests: David Mayer, Ann Featherstone, Nanette Nielsen

NB an important inspiration for this workshop was an AHRB-funded Innovations Project directed by Gilli Bush-Bailey and Jacky Bratton at Royal Holloway: Working it Out (2002). This project explored the rehearsal process of two early nineteenth-century plays by Jane Scott, and focused on the physical aspect of the works – gesture, stage movement, dancing, fighting. Music was employed, but the complex nature of its relationship with the other elements was not really explored.