Mozart's Operas: History, Performance, Criticism, and Diversity

Dr Mark Berry, Department of Music

College Excellence Teaching Commendation, 2018

This case study touches on key curriculum design themes: assessment for learning, a multi-perspective curriculum and employability.


Assessment overview

Students choose one of three possible formative assessments (50% of final mark, the remaining 50% coming from an end-of-year exam). One is an historically-, critically-focused essay, one a music-analytical discussion, and the third is a comparative review, drawing upon historical, analytical, performative and other strands in the course, of three Mozart opera performances: in the theatre, on film/DVD, or a mixture of ‘live’ and otherwise.


Linking in with broader course aims

This year, for the first time, owing to departmental provision for student tickets at the suggestion of my Head of Department, I was able to take those students who wished – we could not insist on attendance – to an English Touring Opera performance of The Marriage of Figaro at the Hackney Empire Theatre. Class discussion followed, both of benefit to this particular assessment and to the broader aims of the course as well (not least as outlined in learning outcomes). Part of the reason for offering such an assessment, with affinity to traditional essay-writing, yet with something of a different emphasis, has been to show that, even within a ‘traditional’, mostly musico-historical course, and indeed sometimes particularly in such a course, issues of engagement and impact (on the lecturer’s side: I regularly review performances, both for my blog and beyond), and also of employability can be addressed. Indeed, it has been shown that they quite naturally form part of what we are in any case doing. Such issues include, without being restricted to: music journalism; other assessment and evaluation of performance, musical and dramatic; the role of a touring company such as English Touring Opera (with which I have been strengthening personal and thus, I hope, also institutional connections) in the ecology of postgraduate employment have been discussed. Such discussion has taken place both in its own right and in historical comparison and contrast with the theatre life of Mozart’s Vienna, Prague, and theatres of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.


Importance of a diverse cast

An important particular reason, however, to choose this particular operatic production was ETO’s employment of a majority BAME cast. I have endeavoured more strongly this year to feed into lectures and discussion some further historical and contemporary content on diversity: always an issue when dealing with canonical works. The role of women, whether in government (Empress Maria Theresa), in Mozart’s family, in patronage, and on stage has been one theme, as well of course as characterisation – and how we deal with problematic issues in staging eighteenth-century works. I have also, however, tried to ensure that some film excerpts watched have included non-white performers (e.g. Peter Sellars’s Don Giovanni set in Harlem, in which Don Giovanni and his servant, Leporello, are played by African-American twins) and to encourage discussion of such issues, as well as to confront racial and post-colonial questions in discussions of particular works (e.g. the Turks in Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Monastatos the Moor, in Die Zauberflöte). This important initiative by ETO was definitely an opportunity to integrate many of the concerns outlined above. Not having mentioned the casting, I was therefore delighted when, during interval conversation, one of the students, herself from a non-white background, said how much it had meant to her to see ‘a diverse cast’, something we discussed as a group both then and afterwards in class, with the expectation that some issues would feed into it.



Production image from the English Touring Opera performance of The Marriage of Figaro.With Rachel Redmond as Susanna and Nadine Benjamin as the Countess. Taken by Jane Hobson


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