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For a long time, Hector Berlioz was thought to hold a singular, even an isolated position in music history. Among the first to offer a new perspective was Pierre Boulez, who suggested that Berlioz’s position in music history could be explained by ‘the fact that a large part of his œuvre has remained in the realm of the imaginary’. With this remark, Boulez alluded to the Grand traité d’instrumentation et d’orchestration modernes (1844/55), and more specifically to the chapter on the orchestra that closes the treatise. Speculations on the sound of an orchestra that would unite ‘all the forces that are present in Paris and create an ensemble of 816 musicians’ were, for Boulez, typical of Berlioz: ‘mixing realism and imagination without opposing one to the other, producing the double aspect of an undeniable inventive “madness” – a fairly unreal dream minutely accounted for’.
On the threshold of our modernity, on 29 March 1901, Lionel Mapleson made two artful cylinder phonautogramsof the air. It was no ordinary air. His wax tracings captured for posterity the legendary vocal tones of the fifty-year-old Jean de Reszke and the chorus of the old Metropolitan Opera House in Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin. The atmosphere was thick with anticipation for this final gala performance of the first twentieth-century season, an event that had been offered as an extra night to subscribers, and the last time that Reszke would appear in New York in a complete opera. The newspapers reported a crush as never before in the lobby and outside on the street for ‘the strongest cast which can be brought together’, including Jean’s younger brother Édouard, David Bispham, Adolph Mühlmann, soprano Milka Ternina and Bohemian–German contralto Ernestine Schumann-Heink.
At first sight, opera and science would seem to occupy quite separate spaces. The one typically unfolds on the stage of a theatre, the other most often takes place in a laboratory or lecture hall. The one draws on creative inspiration in entwining music, poetry and spectacle, the other on inductive reasoning through observation and experiment; patient activities that, for John Herschel in 1831, constituted the ‘fountains of all natural science’. And while the one offers an opportunity for emotional and intellectual engagement through the public gaze, the other cautiously validates the empiricism of verifiable experience through critical acts of witnessing. To yoke the two together, then, may appear arbitrary.
Yet such a view not only risks caricature through its stark oppositions, but also overlooks a scene of rich interconnection within nineteenth-century European social and intellectual life.
It is a tale told by countless operas: young love, thwarted by an old man’s financially motivated marriage plans, triumphs in the end thanks to a deception that tricks the old man into blessing the young lovers’ union. Always a doddering fool, the old man is often also an enthusiast for knowledge. Such is the case, for instance, in Carlo Goldoni’s comic opera libretto Il mondo della luna (1750), in which Buonafede’s interest in the moon opens him to an elaborate hoax that has him believe he and his daughters have left Earth for the lunar world; and also in the Singspiel Die Luftbälle, oder der Liebhaber à la Montgolfier (1788), wherein the apothecary Wurm trades Sophie, the ward he intended to marry himself, for a technological innovation that will make him a pioneering aeronaut.
In her 1984 ‘Cyborg Manifesto’, Donna Haraway declared: ‘the relation between organism and machine has been a border war’ in Western science and politics – which for her primarily amounted to a racist, male-dominated capitalism, as embodied by the notion of technological progress. Her manifesto identified that ‘The stakes in the border war have been the territories of production, reproduction and imagination’, each of these zones representing its own contentious interface between organism and machine within American post-industrial society: the encroachment of robots in industrial production; the use of test tubes for reproducing the body; the ascendancy of sci-fi imagination in literature and film. And in each case the battles weren’t being won by humans. Haraway was instead confident of a machine victory, pushing her towards a notorious conclusion: we are cyborgs.
Commenting on the emerging ‘material turn’ in opera studies, Jonathan Sterne recently cautioned about the need to define what we mean by a term as ‘seductive yet baggy’ as materiality. Yet even if we sidestep the confusion of the competing Marxist, media theoretical, neuroscientific, ontological and ecological materialities that Sterne invokes, to start instead with a more naīve quest for opera’s historical material traces – its objects and its things – where might the limits of such a search lie? And must the realm of the material for the opera scholar necessarily function, as Sterne suggests, as a way ‘to get at the immaterial, the ephemeral, the mortal’? What, in short, might a material history of opera look like?
Scientific thinking has long been linked to music theory and instrument making, yet the profound and often surprising intersections between the sciences and opera during the long nineteenth century are here explored for the first time. These touch on a wide variety of topics, including vocal physiology, theories of listening and sensory communication, technologies of theatrical machinery and discourses of biological degeneration. Taken together, the chapters reveal an intertwined cultural history that extends from backstage hydraulics to drawing-room hypnotism, and from laryngoscopy to theatrical aeronautics. Situated at the intersection of opera studies and the history of science, the book therefore offers a novel and illuminating set of case studies, of a kind that will appeal to historians of both science and opera, and of European culture more generally from the French Revolution to the end of the Victorian period.