Paper Session
Nov 11, 2021 01:00 PM - 01:50 PM(America/Chicago)
20211111T1300 20211111T1350 America/Chicago Specters and Spectacle in Opera AMS 2021
Ghost Trials and Phosphorescent Horrors, Or the Operatic Specters of Professor Pepper
Individual Paper 01:00 PM - 01:50 PM (America/Chicago) 2021/11/11 19:00:00 UTC - 2021/11/11 19:50:00 UTC

In February of 1863, the British patent office approved a patent for Pepper's Ghost, a quasi-holographic device created by Henry Dircks and the eponymous John Henry Pepper of the London Polytechnic Institute. As the device became increasingly associated with "sensational" dramas and the ghost performances of operatic scenes from Carl Maria von Weber's _Der Freischütz_ (1821) and Richard Wagner's _Der fliegende Holländer_ (1840), champions of "good taste" across Britain began to decry the illusion and its perceived attempts to reconstitute the dead. Politician Philip Magnus declared that London's Polytechnic Institute needed to distance itself from "the scene of Pepper's ghost," and British stages were instructed not to feature the device under the revived Licensing Act of 1737. Pepper found himself in the midst of legal battles against music halls as he was forced to defend his patent in a series of metaphysical "ghost trials" centering around the question: how could a man lay claim to the "intangible nothing" of a ghost?

Pepper's Ghost was an incendiary device throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century, inspiring questions about the legality, ethics, and taste of interacting with the specters of an "other" plane. In this paper, I trace the history of Pepper's device from its 1862 premiere at the London Polytechnic, through legal battles over spectral ownership and licensing, its use by travelling "spectral operatic" troupes, and its so-called resurrections of the sounds of the dead. Focusing on the Ghost performances of spectral opera companies, I argue that the disjunction of body and voice necessitated by the mechanics of Pepper's illusion points to an experience of operatic ventriloquism that reframes notions of acousmatic omnipotence put forth by Carolyn Abbate and Michel Chion. In performances of spectral opera, the invisible voice does not represent an all-seeing, all-powerful being, but instead attempts to possess the spectral bodies on stage as unremarkably as possible. Ultimately, I use the case study of Pepper's Ghost and its operatic performances to demonstrate that nineteenth-century audiences were beginning to conceptualize virtual, in-between spaces (like the spectral realm) in economically and legally material terms. 

The Haunted Imaginarium of Phantasmagoria Stage Shows, c. 1800
Individual Paper 01:00 PM - 01:50 PM (America/Chicago) 2021/11/11 19:00:00 UTC - 2021/11/11 19:50:00 UTC

This paper examines the musical soundscape of the phantasmagoria stage show at the turn of the nineteenth century in England and France. In the 1790s, showmen began using a hidden magic lantern to produce moving images of ghosts and skeletons to the sounds of storms, bells, and glass harmonica. Nineteenth-century magic lantern manuals point to these sounds as harbingers of the supernatural, describing mournful whistling wind and the "sweet notes" of the harmonica summoning grotesque figures from the grave. In addition to playing a critical role in audience immersion, these sounds constituted a rich imaginarium linked to well-established aural signifiers of haunting.

I locate the sounds of the phantasmagoria within a sonic genealogy of haunting and argue that these sounds were powerful not only through their haunted connotations, but as part of a scientific epistemology that increasingly collided with supernatural practices even as it enabled their work. Like later stage magicians, phantasmagoria exhibitors framed their shows within this episteme, opening productions with speeches that simultaneously illuminated their works' technological underpinnings and encouraged affective supernatural experiences. Sound and music facilitated these experiences, resurrecting sonic phantoms of nature and pairing them with the haunting resonances of bells and glass harmonicas to create an aural portal into another world. At the same time, however, these sounds were implicated in an evolving discourse on the natural world and the role of sonic vibration within it.

Scholarship on phantasmagoria has interpreted alternately via Marx's critique of hidden labor, Adorno's writings on Wagner, or the relationship between the show's optical effects and later visual technologies. This literature depends on rarely-articulated connections between the human experience of reality and the nature of magic and haunting as practices that obscure as much as they reveal – a dynamic in which sound plays a critical role. Drawing on magic lantern manuals from archival collections at the Library of Congress, I reposition this soundscape as paramount to the history of haunting and its complex relationship with scientific discourse. Through exploring the lived phantasmagoria, I restore a phenomenological perspective that drives theories on the hidden world and its power.

Olivia Cacchione
Northwestern University
Unsettling Opera through Site-Specific Staging: Reconsidering Immersion and the Politics of Collaboration in Yuval Sharon's _Twilight: Gods_ (2020)
Individual Paper 01:00 PM - 01:50 PM (America/Chicago) 2021/11/11 19:00:00 UTC - 2021/11/11 19:50:00 UTC

Michigan Opera Theatre's Twilight: Gods, conceived and directed by Yuval Sharon, is a drive-through opera presenting a vernacular reimagination of Richard Wagner's Götterdämmerung. Motivated by pandemic-related concerns, and shaped by creative thinking about operatic performance during lockdown mode, it was staged in the Detroit Opera House's parking garage.

My paper calls attention to the site's history–its specific technologies, and innovative opera-performance rituals–to reflect broadly on how site-specific staging incorporates a newly "unsettled" dimension to both the production and the singular event of the performance. (Levin 2007) This perspective challenges the presupposition of site-specificity's immersive aesthetics, and questions the politics of collaboration in conflating sound, city, and identity. To these ends, I employ methodologies from performance studies, media archaeology, and critical race studies, and place them in dialogue with Twilight: Gods. 

As opposed to being immersed in and transfixed by a fictional stage world, site-specific staging cultivates an alternative model of spectatorship–what Carolyn Abbate calls "ludic distance"–characterized by a simultaneous absorption in, and detachment from, the singular experienced performance. (Abbate 2006 p. 602) Enchantment is derived not despite, but because of our hyperawareness of the creative tensions existing in the hybrid media and technologies laid bare before us. My paper examines how the stagehands, cars, and candles in the spectacular Motown lightshow in Scene 4 ("Siegfried's Funeral March") flesh out before our eyes what immersion is about: a visual illusion invoked and sustained by illumination. This phenomenon is likewise evident in the epilogue, where we literally hear technological mediation in the white noise and fire crackling sounds accompanying the finale. These acoustic effects impose their own spatial subjectivities by constructing a kind of parallel-universe space that coexists with the performance occurring in the here-and-now. 

Engaging with Matthew Morrison's Blacksound, my paper scrutinizes the politics of collaboration with Black artists by critically interrogating how a racialized scripting underpins the display culture of this production. (Morrison 2019) The creative team could also be said to be mustering Detroit/Blacksound by performing imagined aspects of black aesthetics for the edification of an elite, not-so-local audience. 

Jingyi Zhang
Harvard University
Harvard University
Northwestern University
College-Conservatory of Music, University of Cincinnati
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