Operatic Rogues and Rulers
Opera Appreciation image


The aim of this course is similar to previous years in extent and purpose though the operas are different. Previously the course explored “Damsels in Distress” (2014-15) and “Heroes Flawed and Floored” (2015-16). In both series the purpose of the course was twofold. One was to introduce a range of operas and treat each individually, looking at the characters, the music, plot, libretto and other issues.  The other was to place each opera both in an operatic historical context, as well as comparing it with other operas setting the same story. This year the same pattern will be followed.

In the 9-week Autumn Term the course will explore the setting of a single Shakespearean character, Falstaff, in part to mark Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary. The most famous Falstaffian opera is by Verdi (Falstaff, 1893), but the story was also treated operatically by Antonio Salieri (Falstaff, 1799), MichaelBalfe (Falstaff,1838), Otto Nicolai (Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor, 1849) and Ralph Vaughan Williams (Sir John in Love, 1929). Each is based mainly on Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor: each opera provides a unique insight into Shakespeare and his (and our) ambivalent attitude to the picaresque character.

In the 11-week Spring Term the course will explore a perennial subject: kingship, or more widely rulers. Kings have appeared in opera from Monteverdi in the 17th century to the present day. Some issues frequently reappear, such as the roles and duties of kings, and how well particularly kings have behaved. Given the rich vein this subject taps, therange of operas will be wide enough to provide as a sub-text a little history of opera itself. The kings/rulers to be explored will be Ulysses (Monteverdi, 1640-1 and Dallapiccola, 1968), Tamburlane the Great (Handel Tamerlano, 1724), King Roger (Szymanowski, 1926), Alexander the Great (Mozart Il Re Pastore, 1774) and King Philip II of Spain (Verdi Don Carlos, 1867/1884)

The course aims to provide not only an introduction to several operas, but also to listening to and understanding opera in general. The coverage of this year’s subject may be wide andcontrasted but it does not intend to be comprehensive.  However, it is hoped that by contrasting different operas from different ages on similar, or even the same, ‘heroes’ each opera may be illuminated by the contrast, and a perspective on the development of opera obtained. Each opera will be placed in historical and music context so the course may also show how such ideas as heroism, command, tragedy and responsibility have been viewed from the beginnings of opera to the presentday.

While all the lectures will be illustrated by musical examples, slides and libretti, as many as possible will also use extracts from performances on DVD to emphasize the fact that opera is not just a text but a performed art.

No previous knowledge of music is required, though some scores will be projected to illustrate points raised in the lectures. All that is required is enthusiasm and a desire to learn more about operas and their stories. Further voluntary reading and listening will be recommended during the course. 

Questions regarding the content and teaching of the above course should be addressed to the course tutor, Mr Roderick Swanston, rodswan@berestede.u-net.com.

Enrolment infos

Imperial College undergraduates and postgraduates may, if they wish, acquire 2 ECTS credits after successfully completing their Evening Class. To qualify, a student must attend the classes regularly and pass a test at the end of the second term. Students will be invited to apply in the second term to take the test.