Warped Singing: Opera from Cinema to YouTube

This post is written by network participant Dr. Carlo Cenciarelli.

In view of the network’s interrogation of the significance of twenty-first-century representations of ‘classical’ music, what should we make of this?

Uploaded in 2010, the video shows two girls in their teens, in front of their laptop’s webcam, pretending to be singing to a recording of the ‘Brindisi’ from Verdi’s La traviata. The image is distorted by the effects of Photo Booth, a software available on Macintosh computers of the time. The girls introduce themselves to their imagined audience and, with their bodies warped by digital effects, start their performance. They try to lip-sync a few words, they bounce around the camera in time with the waltz, make funny faces and laugh at the way the digital effects hunch their backs and twist their features. At one point they comment on the music: ‘God knows why we chose this’, one of them yells. Displaying a distinctly domestic performance, including opera for no obvious reason, using standard consumer technology, and enjoying very limited circulation, the clip is an example of the most transitory kind of YouTube material. It makes no particular claims in terms of aesthetic value, and has an unstable ontological status and uncertain materiality (will it still be online by the time you read this blog?).

Indeed, it would be tempting to brush off the video as an inconsequential cultural object, an accidental, inconspicuous instance in La Traviata’s rich and complex on-screen life, if it wasn’t that this kind of cultural detritus is characteristic of YouTube’s origins as an ‘aggregator of ephemeral media’ and that this kind of detritus still provides much of that media outlet’s critical mass. Aside from sponsored videos and professionally created media content, ‘classical’ music is found online in a plethora of amateur creations with low production values and relatively limited visibility. Opera’s new media afterlife breaks into snippets of ambiguous aesthetic, cultural, and legal status: popular arias transcoded from old VHS recordings and TV broadcasts of live performances; amateur tenors, audio recordings of famous divas accompanied by photo slides, synthesiser versions of instrumental overtures and, it seems, lip-syncing teenagers. If we want to understand ‘classical’ music’s place in twenty-first-century visual culture, we also have to start making sense of this kind of material.

My presentation in Exeter will begin to unpick some of the complexities of dealing with this seemingly intractable material, outlining two logics underpinning the music’s presence in this amateur video. One will pertain to the way in which film franchises can provide a link between classical music and unlikely consumers. The second one consists in the way in which operatic singing lends itself to YouTube’s recombinatory practices and to particular forms of automediacy.

Carlo Cenciarelli is a lecturer at Cardiff University. His research focuses on music, sound and the moving image, and particularly on the way in which cinema provides a cultural interface for engaging with musical repertoires and audio technologies. His main publications have been on the cinematic afterlife of J. S. Bach and on opera and digital culture, with essays published in edited collections and in journals including Music and Letters, Twentieth-Century Music, Cambridge Opera Journal, and the Journal of the Royal Musical Association. He is currently editing a large volume on the history of cinematic listening (the Oxford Handbook of Cinematic Listening) and is working on a monograph that explores the relationship between listening cultures inside and outside the movie theatre.

Classical Music, Post-War European Art Cinema and its Contemporary Global Progeny

This post is written by network participant Douglas Knight.

That multiple forms of eighteenth-century classical music serve as a unifying element across many texts of post-war European art cinema, remains widely unappreciated by scholars within both musicology and film studies.  In evidence, we might cite films by canonical auteurs, including figures such as Bresson, Pasolini, Bergman, Tarkovsky, and Godard. The use of music, by composers such as Bach and Mozart, in these and other directors’ work can be historically contextualised as a cinematic-modernist reaction against the countervailing late Romantic soundworld of classical Hollywood cinema that had persisted from the preceding decades. Nonetheless, this collectivised response was also partly an attempted act of cultural re-legitimation. Cinema as a mass-participatory art form had heretofore been primarily associated within the public imaginary as pleasurable and narratological. It did not involve ascetic intellectualism or any cinematic variant of the Russian Formalists’ notion of ‘literariness’ in a medium-specific, or ontological, sense.

Such historical preconditions cannot as easily explain the continued use of classical music — again, primarily from the long eighteenth century — within contemporary twenty-first century art films, by directors such as Haneke, Dumont, Reygadas, von Trier, and Lanthimos. It is possible to view these auteurs as legatees of their earlier, post-war generation and as modern-day proponents of the artistic tradition of cinematic modernism. Whilst European art cinema waned in cultural influence throughout the decades of the 1970s and 1980s, the New Hollywood blockbusters of Spielberg et al appeared to rejuvenate the studio system and the classical Hollywood underscore seemed to re-materialise once more. In this sense, the tension within cinema, as a cultural institution, between European modernism and demotic New World romanticism — as played out on their often highly different soundtracks both formally and materially — has never full dissipated.

The work of Turkish film director Nuri Bilge Ceylan (1995 – present) provides a fascinating example of this persisting reciprocal relationship between contemporary art cinema and pre-Romantic classical music. However, Ceylan’s use of music by Bach, Scarlatti, and Schubert, for instance, is interesting at a national level vis-à-vis his emergence within the New Turkish Cinema of the 1990s. This neorealist school arose against the backdrop of the waning influence of Yeşilçam, Turkey’s studio-based equivalent to Hollywood genre filmmaking, thereby offering comparison with the geo-cultural cinematic tensions identified above at the level of a single nation-state. Amongst his auteurist compatriots, his continued use of classical music from the Western art music canon sets him apart. Whilst Ceylan’s use of classical music can be explained through recourse to biography, namely in relation to his education and professed personal tastes, specific points of historic audiovisual reference delineate his extant oeuvre. Early autobiographical films evoke Tarkovsky with the use of Baroque classical music, and more recent films are modelled on Bresson’s use of a refrain-like ritornello as evidenced in his 1950s and 1960s work.

In my talk, I will highlight the use of Schubert’s piano sonata D. 959 (II) on the soundtrack of Winter Sleep (2014), which is closely modelled on Bresson’s film Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) to the point of an audibly intended formal intertextuality. I will argue that the film presents a maturation of the director’s aesthetic vision away from the affective evocation and pastiche of antecedents in his formative ‘Clouds’ quartet. Instead, I maintain, in sympathy with other scholars, that Winter Sleep provides a political critique of social relations, and specifically the class violence of rentier capitalism in contemporary rural Cappadocian society. However, this is enacted aesthetically through the symbolic functioning of fragments from Schubert’s piano sonata, and its own narrative, which are brought into audiovisual play.

SELECT BIBLIOGRAPHY

Gilloch, Graeme Peter and Hammond, Craig and Diken, Bulent. 2018. The Cinema of Nuri Bilge Ceylan: The Global Vision of a Turkish Filmmaker. London; New York: I.B. Tauris.

Harvey-Davitt, James. 2016. “Conflicted selves: the humanist cinema of Nuri Bilge Ceylan.” New Review of Film and Television Studies, 14, no. 2: 249-267

Zıraman, Zehra Cerrahoğlu. 2019. “European co-productions and film style: Nuri Bilge Ceylan.” Studies in European Cinema, 16, No. 1: 73-89.


Douglas Knight is currently writing up a Ph.D. in musicology at Royal Holloway, University of London. He is supervised by Professor Julie Brown and supported by a Crossland Research Scholarship. His doctoral thesis concerns the use of eighteenth-century classical music in post-war European art cinema and its contemporary legatees. He holds undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Oxford, and is active as a Director of Music and organist at a North London church.  

Are social networks developing new audiences for classical music or reinforcing elitism?

This post is written by network participant Dr. Annabelle Lee.

The impact that social media marketing has had on the music industry within the last decade or so cannot be ignored. Social networks provide an efficient yet effective way for artists and organisations to promote performances and projects. In addition, social media can drive revenue, alongside traditional income streams such as subscription-based marketing and box office sales.

Audience development, too, has become a preoccupation within the classical music business in order to target digitally-inclined demographics vis-à-vis the older generations and middle-classes, typically associated with classical audiences. Take leading violinist Ray Chen, who has attracted “millennials” via comedy videos on his YouTube channel and mini masterclasses for aspiring violinists on Facebook, amassing over 114,000 views for one such tutorial. Attaining new, digital audiences for classical music, though, is often a reaction to commercial pressures or funding bodies. For example, the production team behind Eurovision and Glastonbury are presenting this year’s Proms television broadcasts, and are devised particularly with young people in mind, a demographic “raised on popular culture”– this youth-orientated media strategy includes promotions on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. The Royal Opera House, meanwhile, implements a content strategy to capture certain social profiles and international markets– the ROH is also funded by the Arts Council, which has developed a digital media policy for cultural organisations in order to engage a wider audience.

But despite trend-driven marketing campaigns and social media success stories, social networking may not necessarily have the democratic reach many classical practitioners desire in order to secure the industry’s future. It is important to remember that using social media requires a computer device, Internet access and payments for online data. Although numerous artists, orchestras and venues have extended their presence by live-streaming content and performances via YouTube, UK viewers must purchase a TV licence to watch these live broadcasts online. “Wealthier and time-richer audiences are undoubtedly able to access great diversity,”as David Hesmondhalgh opines.

This links to the “digital divide,” a term referring to limitations that prevent certain people from accessing the Internet. With specific reference to classical music, it concerns not only physical access to web-based technologies but financial, educational and socioeconomic access too. The cultural construct of the bourgeois concert hall pertains here, and indeed, classical audiences often use social media to demonstrate their class privilege, musical knowledge and levels of cultural capital, which are seen as typical prerequisites for classical music appreciation. For instance, posts may incorporate technical terminology from music theory, reinforcing the image of classical audiences as a knowledgeable, albeit distinctive group. Similarly, Chen’s aforementioned video tutorials imply that viewers already need a certain level of musical understanding and violin technique to benefit. Classical audiences also post about intellectual, perhaps, highbrow pursuits such as politics and theatre, and even recall travelling abroad to see a specific concert or opera. Furthermore, there is an uptake in social media-enabled devices by the middle-aged and retirees, the archetypal classical audience who possess the time and money to experience their beloved music more frequently – these users are affectionately known as the “silver surfers.”

By utilising social media in an attempt to alter traditional business models and concert audiences, the classical industry may only be perpetuating elitist conceptions surrounding its art form. A final proposition from Hesmondhalgh appears to elicit a call to those working with social technologies in a classical context, “the rise of digitalization is unlikely in the medium and long term to lead to any profound democratization of musical creativity and innovation without transformation of broader economic and social conditions.”

Dr. Annabelle Lee graduated from Royal Holloway, University of London with a PhD in Musicology, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Her thesis investigated the effects of social media marketing on the music business, with a focus on the classical music sector. Towards the end of her doctoral studies, she commenced work as a marketing professional in London over a two-year period, specialising in social media strategy. She has also worked as a freelance flautist and a Visiting Tutor in Music at Royal Holloway University. Annabelle will now be working as a blogger on a variety of topics about the music industry for Burstimo Music PR, a leading UK music marketing agency. She also hosts Talking Classical, a new classical music podcast focused on interviews with industry professionals, as well as performers and musicologists (soundcloud.com/talkingclassicalpodcast).

Black Salieri

This post is written by network participant Dr. Adrian Curtin.

At the upcoming network symposium on representations of classical music in the arts and media in the twenty-first century, I will give a presentation on what is probably the most well-known play about classical music – namely, Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus (1979). Shaffer’s play, adapted into a hit movie in 1984, tells the sensational, fictional tale of how the Italian composer Antonio Salieri plotted against Mozart out of jealousy and spite. Amadeus has helped to sustain and popularise the legend about Salieri’s involvement in Mozart’s death. The play also contributes to the mythology surrounding Mozart’s exceptionality, confirms the cultural cachet of classical music, and buttresses the authority of its musical canon. Re-mounting Amadeus in the twenty-first century is therefore not inherently challenging to the cultural status quo.

In 2016, the Royal National Theatre staged a new production of this play, directed by Michael Longhurst. One of the distinguishing features of this production was the casting of the British-Tanzanian actor Lucian Msamati as Salieri. To my knowledge, this was the first time a black actor has played Salieri. The production was a critical and commercial success. It was part of the National Theatre Live cinema screenings in 2017 and was revived at the Olivier the following year. Msamati, whose casting Shaffer approved shortly before he died, received critical acclaim for his performance.

The cultural significance of Msamati’s casting was not widely discussed in the media, although it is arguably noteworthy. It prompts a series of challenging questions. For example:

  • What ideological values did this casting convey?
  • Did it support or subvert popularly held conceptions and misconceptions about classical music?
  • Could it have perpetuated rather than refuted racist stereotypes?
  • How does the casting relate to contemporary efforts to increase the visibility and presence of classical musicians of colour as well as acts of historical recovery that seek to diversify the canon?

I will endeavour to answer these questions by examining production reviews, online commentary, and interviews with the production team, and by referring to relevant scholarship. I’ll use the embodied provocation of Msamati’s casting to outline cultural and historical resonance – associations that the casting brings to mind.

Shaffer’s play does not register recent efforts to dismantle the stranglehold that select white, male composers have had over the canon of classical music and, consequently, over who ‘represents’ the art form in the popular imaginary. However, the casting of Msamati as Salieri in this recent production symbolically acknowledged the involvement of musicians of colour (historically overlooked and disenfranchised) in Western art music past and present. I hope to show that this casting prompts some intriguing lines of thought about how a historical composer is represented in a theatrical context and how this connects to larger debates about cultural memory, myth-making, canonicity, diversity, and inclusivity.

Adrian Curtin is Senior Lecturer in the Drama Department of the University of Exeter. He is the author of Avant-Garde Theatre Sound: Staging Sonic Modernity (Palgrave 2014) and Death in Modern Theatre: Stages of Mortality (Manchester University Press, 2019). He is one of the organisers of this research network.

Presenters at the first network event

The first network event will be a one-day symposium for network participants held at the University of Exeter on September 2. The focus of this symposium will be on contemporary representation of classical music in the arts and media.

The following network participants will give presentations:

  • Emilie Capulet, concert pianist, lecturer, musicologist, and writer
  • Carlo Cenciarelli, Lecturer in the School of Music at the University of Cardiff
  • James Cook, Lecturer at the Reid School of Music at the University of Edinburgh
  • Martin Cullingford, Editor of Gramophone magazine
  • Adrian Curtin, Senior Lecturer in the Drama department at the University of Exeter
  • William Gibbons, Associate Professor of Musicology at Texas Christian University
  • Douglas Knight, PhD student in the Music department at Royal Holloway
  • Annabelle Lee, marketing professional, blogger, and podcaster

The participants will prepare short, written previews of their presentations, which will be posted on this blog.

Creative Writer Selected

Dzifa Benson has been selected as the creative writer associated with the research network. Dzifa will develop a script with the working title of Black Mozart and will receive mentorship from playwright Kaite O’Reilly. A reading of Dzifa’s script will be given at a public event in Birmingham in April 2020. Further details to follow.

Find out more about Dzifa here.

Call Out

An emerging BAME and/or disabled creative writer based in the UK is sought to participate in this research network and to write a new script for theatre, radio, television, or film about some aspect of classical music. The purpose of this network is to bring together scholars, industry professionals, and a creative writer to discuss (a) how classical music is currently represented in the arts and media and (b) how the classical music industry is being re-shaped by efforts to diversify its participants and working practices.

The successful applicant will attend a one-day symposium in Exeter in September 2019 and in London in December 2019. S/he will then write a script of about 30 minutes duration that is inspired by one or more of the network’s main themes and, ideally, informed by network discussions. The script does not have to include music and should be written for a small number of actors. The writer will receive professional mentorship from playwright Kaite O’Reilly, who will read a draft of the script and have two Skype or face-to-face meetings with the writer. The script will be given a rehearsed reading, using student actors, during a public network event in Birmingham in April 2020. The writer’s UK travel and accommodation expenses will be covered for the three network events, and they will receive a fee of £1000 (paid in two instalments).

Please include the following elements in your application:

  • A short statement (of no more than 200 words) explaining why you are interested in this project and why you are suitable for it
  • A short pitch (of no more than 200 words) about the script you might write for this project
  • An example of recent work or a link to a website containing examples of previous work
  • Your CV

The successful applicant will be chosen on the basis of the quality of the proposed script idea and their suitability for the project.

Applications should be emailed to Dr. Adrian Curtin () by July 3, 2019