Music: Opera in Focus: Verdi and Wagner
Discover the joy of great opera.
At a Glance
- Live online course
- 2 hours a week
- Wednesdays 18:00 - 20:00
- 10 weeks: April to June
- Tutor: Dr Bruno Bower
- Fees from £120 to £205
- Imperial College attendance certificate (T&Cs apply)
- Book from 1 March 2021
Verdi and Wagner are giants in the world of opera. Their output was (one way or another) vast and deeply influential, and is essential listening for anyone who wants to know more about the genre. Yet it might also seem odd to place them side-by-side: the lyrical Italian tunesmith behind Il Trovatore and La Traviata might at first glance seem to have nothing at all in common with the densely philosophical Germanic creator of such monoliths as Der Ring des Nibelungen and Parsifal. However, their sources of influence, the times they lived through, and their deep concern over issues such as text, drama, and national identity overlap more than we might expect.
This course explores lives of these two composers in parallel, moving from their inspirations in the early nineteenth century all the way through to the heights of their fame and to their late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century successors. Newcomers will get to know the full range of work from both, while those who already know some of these operas will have plenty to discover about their social and historical context, and may well be surprised at how much these two composers have in common in spite of their different musical styles.
This 10-week course is suitable for people with or without previous knowledge of opera, though it makes a particularly good next step for those who have already taken the Discovering Opera course. All classes will be supported by a PowerPoint presentation and plenty of audio and video examples of the operas, and there will opportunities for discussion around the material too, with all opinions welcome.
Online Access to Course
This is a taught live online course which means you will be taught alongside other students on the course by a tutor at a specific time on a specific day of the week. To take part in the course you will need a suitably equipped and internet-enabled device. Please find full details and instructions below under 'Course Delivery'.
Those who attend at least 80% of the course sessions will receive an attendance certificate from Imperial College London upon completion of the course.
The first class will look at the pre-existing systems of opera production in which Verdi and Wagner trained, and the main composers who provided foundations for their first works. Each had their own obvious local models, with Verdi drawing on Rossini and Bellini and Wagner on Weber. However the French form of Grand Opera also served as major reference point for both, with the top exponent Meyerbeer himself playing a key role in Wagner’s development in particular. Examples drawn from Rienzi and Les Vêpres Siciliennes will show the common links here.
2. Early work
Here we will explore the main operas with which Verdi and Wagner established their early personal styles: Nabucco and Tannhäuser. The receptions diverge enormously: the former launched Verdi to international acclaim while the latter brought Wagner middling recognition at best. However, there were already signs of affinity between the two, not least in their willingness to liberally blend history and fiction to create something of weighty significance.
3. National concerns
Nationalist revolutions spread across Europe during the middle of the century, especially around 1848 and 1849, and were brutally crushed by the authorities. Both composers were deeply affected by the idea of national unification, which left undeniable traces on works like La Battaglia di Legnano and Lohengrin (to say nothing of Wagner’s output prior to this). The initial failure of the revolutionary efforts impacted on their work as well, with Verdi reluctantly turning to less inflammatory topics in Luisa Miller and Wagner forced into ‘exile’ and focusing his attentions in more literary and theoretical directions.
4. Text and Music
Wagner used the period of exile to start formally setting out his ambitious ideas of a unified work of art, Gesamtkunstwerk. His theoretical ideas about how to create a more continuous form of musical drama in particular, unbroken by the traditional sections of arias and recitatives, was first put into practice in Das Rheingold, and became a primary defining feature of his mature work. But, as this class will show, Verdi was independently striving for something similar, with Rigoletto (premiering in the same year as Wagner’s treatise Opera and Drama) starting to break down the exact same boundaries.
The vast majority of the output of both composers concerns the weightier kind of plot, featuring doomed love, curses, death, exile, and so on. This class will explore the shared themes in the two composers’ dramatic narratives, with particular focus on the familial element: so many of these operas revolve around the dynamics of parents with their children, and failing or inadequate fathers are a particular point of common ground, as we will see from both Die Walküre and Don Carlos.
This class will focus on the limited attempts at comedy from the output of both composers. Verdi did not recover from the failure of Un Giorno di Regno until the end of his life with his turn to Falstaff, and Wagner had a similar trajectory from Das Liebesverbot to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. We’ll discuss what made both composers so averse to comedic approaches, and how their respective works handle the issue nonetheless.
The early 1870s saw both Wagner and Verdi at the pinnacles of success: the former now had the financial backing to finish his Ring cycle and create a purpose-built theatre for it, while the premiere of the latter’s Aida in Cairo shows the international reach of his reputation. Here we will discuss the fact that such heights of fame for both composers came with the unification of their respective nations, and we will explore the ways they both began rewriting their back histories to fit with the expectations of national icons.
8. Late work
Both composers experienced drops in productivity during the later 1870s as they approached old age. Wagner continued to write both prose and music, but Verdi stopped new work altogether and had to be persuaded (after extensive scheming from his publisher) to begin again. We will discuss the fact that, in spite of some major divergences in their lives at this point, their respective major late works (Otello and Parsifal) actually begin to show even more convergence in musical style than their previous operas.
The final two classes will focus on the afterlives of both composers, starting with the people who took up the challenge of following in their footsteps. We will discuss what Giacomo Puccini and Richard Strauss (among others) took from their respective forebears, and we will see how even the next generation already has more in common in terms of style and approach than we would normally expect from their different traditions.
Here we will assess the afterlives of the two composers, in terms of their own reputations among audiences, critics, and musicologists, by turning to earlier works that really define the idea of their opposite styles: La Traviata, and Tristan und Isolde. Each has had a very different critical afterlife, and we will see how these different trajectories have obscured all the similarities that the course has outlined.
There is no compulsory reading required for this course, and there is no set course text.
Dr Bruno Bower is a lively and enthusiastic tutor whose love of music is infectious. He is both an academic and a performer, having studied at Oriel College, Oxford, Birmingham Conservatoire, and King's College London. He completed his PhD at the Royal College of Music in 2016, with a thesis on 19th century programme notes for orchestral concerts.
He has written on subjects as diverse as Gilbert and Sullivan, John Cage, and Victorian polymaths, and he is also the General Editor for critical editions of music by Peter Gellhorn and Norman O’Neill. He currently teaches music history and analysis to 1st and 2nd year students at Cambridge University, and is the principal oboist of West London Sinfonia and the cor anglais player for Chelsea Opera Group. He is also a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.
All our online courses are taught live which means you will be taught alongside other students on the course by a tutor at a specific time. To take part in the course you must be able to attend the online session at the time stated for the course description.
All times stated are British Standard Time.
To take part you will need a computer, or laptop, or tablet computer, connected to the Internet. The device you use will also need to have a camera, microphone and speakers. Most devices now have these built in, but if not you might have to buy them from a computer shop and to connect them to your device.
This course will use Zoom as its online delivery method. Zoom is very easy to use and you do not need to set up a Zoom account to use it. Near the date of your first online session you will be sent an email with a web address (or URL) that will allow you to access the course. This is called the Course Link. All you need do is click on the Course Link in the email and you will be asked to enter your name. This is the name that will be seen by your tutor and other students in the class.
Once you have entered your name you might be asked to enter a password to enter the class. The password will be included in the email sent to you. Once you enter the password you will either be taken directly into the class, or asked to wait in a virtual waiting room until the tutor is ready to let you into the class.
We have also produced a Handy Guide to Zoom [pdf] which gives you basic information on how to use it.
All courses lasting two hours have a 10 minute break in the middle. For one hour courses there is no break.
Course Fees and Rate Categories
|Hours||Weeks||Standard Rate||Internal Rate||Associate Rate|
|All fee rates quoted are for the whole course Please note there is no early-bird discount available for the April intake courses|
Rate Categories and Discounts
- Applicable to all except those who fall under the Internal Rate or Associate Rate category, respectively.
- Applies to current Imperial College students and staff (incl. Imperial NHS Trust, Imperial Innovations, ancillary & service staff employed on long-term contracts at Imperial College by third-party contractors).
- Current Centre for Languages, Culture and Communication (CLCC) staff, current CLCC PhD students, Science Communication (Sci Comm) postgraduate students, and students enrolled on an Imperial College 'Language for Science' degree programme should email firstname.lastname@example.org before completing the online enrolment form.
- Students (non-Imperial College)
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It is possible to enrol on many CLCC Evening Class and Lunchtime Learning programmes after the course has started. For non-language courses this is subject entirely to agreement by the tutor. For language courses it is subject to agreement by the language Coordinator conducting level assessment. If you want to join a course late do bear in mind there might be work you will need to catch up on, particularly in language courses.
Applicable terms & conditions
Please read the Terms and Conditions [pdf] before enrolling on any course.
|Hours||Weeks||Autumn term||Spring term||Summer term|
|20||10||n/a||n/a||w/c 26 Apr - w/e 4 Jul 2021 (10 weeks)|
Web enrolment starts 1 March 2021
Enrolment and payment run through the Imperial College eStore. Please click on the blue booking link on the relevant course page noting below instructions:
- Our rate categories are explained on the course page and your applicable rate category must be selected on the eStore
- First-time eStore users please create an account by entering an email address and password. These credentials should also be used for future bookings. Imperial College users please note the eStore is not a single-signon College system
- The booking process involves entering payment details before your course choice and applicant details are queried on an in-built questionnnaire which completes the process
- The following email notifications are sent
|What is sent||When is it sent||What does it contain|
|1. Payment confirmation||Instantaneously following submission of your online application||
|2. Enrolment confirmation||Sent in due course but likely not before the end of March. Please treat your payment confirmation as confirmation that your applicant details and payment have been received||
|3. Programme information||Usually sent Friday late afternoon the week before term starts||
|If you need further help with the above information please ring 020 7594 8756
- Questions regarding the content and teaching of this course should be sent to the tutor, Dr Bruno Bower at email@example.com
- Questions about your enrolment and payment should be sent to the Programme Administrator, firstname.lastname@example.org
If you have enjoyed this course, why not look at other arts and humanities evening class courses at Imperial College. This includes courses on the history of western art from ancient Greece to the nineteenth century, Understanding Modern and Design, the history of film and cinema and Greek and Roman mythology in art. We also run practical courses in art and photography and creative writing classes, and a growing programme of science based evening classes.