French Opera with Diana Hallman - Podcast Transcript


Have you ever wondered who was doing the research that will impact your future? The research podcast lets you met those people, and learn how the University of Kentucky is exploring and strengthening our understanding of the world through research and discovery. 


Here's Alicia Gregory, director of Research Communications. 


Alicia: Today we’ll meet Diana Hallman, an associate professor of musicology in the UK College of Fine Arts. She was recently named a 2016 University Research Professor and she talks about her role in revising the history of French Grand Opera.


Diana Hallman: I was a piano performance major, and I went to a small school in my home state, of South Carolina. Winthrop, which is now a university. And, really enjoyed my work there, and wanted to continue in piano performance, so I went to the University of Maryland, and I studied with a wonderful professor there, named Nelita True, who's now at Eastman. But, along the way, I was really fascinated with study behind the music, and really understanding music within a social-cultural world within history. And, that interest really grew and overtook me when I was a Master's student. So, I actually completed my Master's at Maryland in musicology, and then went on to City University of New York Graduate Center. Where I pursued a PhD. 


Alicia: So, tell me a little bit about how you first got interested in French Opera. 


Diana Hallman: I had really been drawn to, you know, the beauty and power of opera, but at CUNY, when I was in several seminars with Leo Treitler, who is primarily known as a medievalist. He's a distinguished scholar. He had a seminar on 20th century opera. And, in that seminar, we focused really intensively on three works of the 20th century. And, those were Alban Berg's LuluWozzeck, and Stravinsky's Rake's Progress. We tore the works apart. We really examined them very carefully as scores, as musical works, as dramatic works, but we also thought about so many literary and cultural connections to them. And, I realized, in studying those works in that way, that's really what I wanted to do. 


So, I became fascinated with French Opera in part, because I love the French language, and I knew it was my best language of the languages that I had studied. And, because of my love of the 19th century. And so, I was drawn to the study of a genre that we now know as French Grand Opera. And, this genre is associated with the regime of the July Monarchy. It was Louis-Philippe's reign from about 1830 to 1848. Right about the time that I was, you know, looking around for possible dissertation topics, I came across scholarship that I realized was sort of beginning stages of revisionary work of history of this genre. 


Which was, the genre itself was incredibly central in the 19th century. And, it’s pretty much died out. And, so I was interested first, in that big question; why has it died out? Secondly, it was a work that, according to this one scholar, Jane Fulcher, had strong political implications. And, that fascinated me. So, I started to look at some of those works, and was captivated by a work of 1835, entitled La Juive by Fromental Halévy. I started with this simple question, why would a work, entitled La Juive, The Jewess, appear on the stage of the Palais de l'Opera in 1835. It sounds like a silly, simple question, but I did a lot of background reading in the history of the period, and the politics of the period. In particular, the history of Jews in France. And, what I came up with just absolutely bowled me over, because I had really not known anything about the so-called Emancipation of 1791, and the July Monarchy as a period in which Jews really had the fullest civil rights that any Jews in all of Europe had.


And, the work was really, even though this is an opera, it was clearly exploring some of the big questions of the day. What should the nation of France be? Should it be a nation, and you might even say it's very topical today, should it be a nation that embraces those that are outside of the traditional norms of the Catholic religion? Should it embrace those as citizens? And, that was a big question that was asked with the French Revolution and the first republic. And, those questions were continuing. So, I realized how important this work was as a cultural expression of the time. That's kept me on the path to looking at other works of the time, and outside of that period as well. 


Diana Hallman: this group of operas, which included Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots, and Robert le Diable. Les Huguenots has a thousand performances just at the Palais de l'Opera between 1836 and about the 1880s. It was performed around the world. It was performed in Buenos Aires, in Indonesia. I mean, everywhere. And, so, French Grand Opera was truly central, but it died out. Why did it die out?


Just in our history, American history, of opera performance, the Met was founded in 1883. The French works, such as Les Huguenots and La Juive, came over in 1884. These works disappeared in the 1930s. And, so some scholars, including me, have asked, you know, why the 1930s? Well, one could say the works, generally, are very expensive to put on. Many of them have detailed historical settings and all that. Perhaps we got bored with that.


But another big reason seems to be, I think, has a lot to do with the Wagner aftermath. Wagner was someone who borrowed a lot from French Grand Opera. His first successful work was modeled directly after French Grand Opera. But then, because he sort of failed in Paris, and this is true, this is not just my French Bias. He failed in Paris and did not get welcomed, and he had hoped, dearly hoped, that he was going to enter Paris as Meyerbeer had done. Because Meyerbeer was German as well. Meyerbeer had come from Germany into Paris, and the golden path was paved for him. It didn't happen for Wagner. 


So, Wagner turned against Meyerbeer, and turned against French Grand Opera. Wrote this, quite infamous, essay, around 1850, that was highly anti-Semitic. And, he attacked especially Meyerbeer, who was Jewish, and later on, I think, Halévy, who was also Jewish, got caught up in that. And, I think that has haunted the history of the genre up to the present day. You can still read in our textbooks things that say that these works were artworks for profit. And, those who wrote French Grand Opera were unnatural composers who just copied other people and just patched things together. You know, it's just really pretty horrible. Some of the same phrases that Wagner used are still in our music history textbooks that my students read. So, certain scholars and I, have tried to slowly but surely revise that history.


Diana Hallman: It was after my dissertation was finished finally in 1995, and I was working on transforming it into a book, I get a message from one of my scholar friends, “oh, did you know they're going to do La Juive at Colour Garden in London?” Well, that fell through, but then they did it at Vienna. And, there's this wonderful production in Vienna in 1999/2000. And, then after that, this same work, La Juive, it went to all the big theatres. It went to New Israeli Opera, the same production from Vienna. It went to Amsterdam, New York, they did it at the Met. I got to write the New York Times article for that production. It was 2003. And what I wrote in the New York Times is what I really sensed in writing the larger, more intensive study, was that it was a very, very important work that raised big historical, political questions. And, it was a timely work for its day, and I think it's a timely work for now. 


And, I really thought about how-- I think this is one thing that really draws me to opera, because these are works that were meant to be in the public forum. The power of these past works, can really come to life in a new way in the theatre through, you know, through really intelligent, thoughtful and sometimes, well researched, directing.


Alicia: So, tell me a little bit about what you're working on right now in your research.


Diana Hallman: I'm focusing on, if you want to say, a sister genre to French Grand Opera, and that is the comic genre, Comic Opera, France called Opera Comique. But, even though the operas were meant to be light, they were meant to be fun, I think if you know anything about all different sorts of comic genres today, they can often be the most subversive and the most questioning. So, I want to see how their relationship to the social-political world of that time, how they negotiate it, and perhaps complemented or worked against what was going on in French Grand Opera.


Alicia: What are you most excited about in terms of the impact of your work? 


Diana Hallman: I think my initial interest in French Grand Opera had to do with being drawn to the idea of revising history. Which, I thought was really bad history that had been written. Very obvious biases that were not good biases in my view. And, so I wanted to be a part of the revisionary history. And, I think I have been. 


But, I think, in terms of music scholarship and opera scholarship, I'd like to feel that my work stimulates others to viewing opera not just as a music, dramatic piece, but really seeing it as a work that does have much greater cultural implications, and how we can read so much through those works. So, the study of any musical work, but I think, especially opera, can bring us to looking at how the arts serve as expressions of social/cultural ideas and values. So, I think opera can be extraordinarily important.


Alicia: So, tell me a little bit about what you've liked best about working at UK and working with UK music students. 


Diana Hallman: Well, I think first and foremost, I really am thrilled to sense the passion that my students have about music. About not only performing music, but I'm hoping, at least to some degree, undergrads are getting captivated with studying the life behind the music. We have incredibly talented students here, and I'm hoping that more people across campus will start partaking of some of our performances. We have excellent ensembles, not only UK opera theatre, but many instrumental ensembles that are just really top notch. I don't know if you got a chance to hear Ragtime; American Musical Theatre. UK Opera Theatre, which is directed by Everett McCorvey, they put on four performances, I think, this weekend, and some students in my class said, “Oh, you got to come”. They were either on stage or in the pit performing. And, one of the students said, “Oh, this is such an important work, at the time of our elections, and all of this”. And, so the work is based on Doctorow's novel, and it raises questions about the place of immigrants in American society, the place of African-Americans, and racial tensions; had even overt racially charged scenes in this work. It's really, really very powerful. It just reminded me of what I'm doing in my research life. One reason why I'm so captivated by operas of the past is because I know that they did have great relevance for some of the larger social/cultural questions.


Thank you for listening to the Research Podcast. To subscribe to our podcasts on Soundcloud or iTunes, search University of Kentucky Research media and visit our site;