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Stages of Death: Men, Women and Suffering in Opera and Ballet

Before I Die
This one-day symposium is part of Cardiff University’s Before I Die festival and is hosted by the Cardiff Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Opera (CIRO).

Time and date: Sunday, 19 May 2013  2-6.15pm

Venue: Cardiff University Concert Hall, School of Music

This event is free to attend but you will need to register in advance.

At this symposium we ask why opera and ballet is so obsessed with grief, suffering, and mortality.  How do creators and directors of opera and ballet navigate these extreme emotions?  Cardiff University School of Music and Welsh National Opera join forces to explore the emotional landscape of suffering and death in an afternoon of presentations, workshops, and performances. 

Download our symposium programme here.

Other Festival events

The Before I Die festival runs from 11th May - 20th May and includes music, art, poetry, theatre, film, expert panels and public debate. There is a full listing on the Before I Die website.

On Saturday 18th May, the School's Dr Caroline Rae will be accompanying soloist Alison Wray in an Afternoon of Poetry and Song at the Sherman Theatre.

Stages of Death events

Rite of Spring

In Stravinsky Death means Life: The Puppet, The Virgin and the Bride (Celebrating the Centenary of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring)
Stephen Walsh (Cardiff University)

A young girl is chosen from a group of virgins. Village elders watch as she dances herself to death in order to bring forth the flowering of spring.

It’s a raw, violent story based on pagan sacrificial rites and it is the basis for one of the most influential musical works of the twentieth century.

Professor Stephen Walsh, author of an acclaimed biography of Stravinsky, addresses the themes of death and rebirth in the Rite of Spring, which famously caused near-riots amongst the audience when it premiered in Paris a century ago.



Wagner’s Love-Death
Kenneth Hamilton (Cardiff University)

Wagner's Isolde famously sings herself into a "Liebestod" ("Love-Death") at the end of Tristan und Isolde. But why does she drop dead if there's nothing actually wrong with her? And what, anyway, is a "Liebestod"?

In fact, Wagner himself referred to the close of the opera as Isolde's "Transfiguration" ("Verklärung"), and instead applied the term "Liebestod" to the Prelude to Act 1. How, then, did the switch in terminology occur, and why? Kenneth Hamilton traces the confusion back to Franz Liszt's celebrated transcription of the final scene of Tristan und Isolde, and concludes his discussion with a (hopefully not fatal) performance.

Pianist and scholar Kenneth Hamilton is Professor of Music at Cardiff University.


Salomé/Trouhanowa: Her Multiple Dances of Death
Clair Rowden (Cardiff University)

With its first public live performance in Paris on 11 February 1896, Oscar Wilde's Salomé retold the Biblical story of Salome who requests the head of John the Baptist as a reward for dancing the dance of the seven veils.

Appropriated not just by Wilde but also by Richard Strauss and others, Salome became a cultural icon throughout the twentieth century. Dr Clair Rowden, Lecturer at the School of Music and editor of the forthcoming Performing Salome: Revealing Stories (Ashgate, October 2013), discusses Salome's dances of death and the Russian ballerina Natalia Trouhanowa who notably performed many different Salomes during the early-twentieth century.





WNO logo

Sophie Rashbrook (Nicholas John Trainee Dramaturg, Welsh National Opera) and Polly Graham (Genesis Assistant Director, Welsh National Opera) collaborate on two short pieces:
Rachmaninov’s opera Aleko (1892) - Lost in translation? Working with Cardiff-based baritone Ryan Ross, we will investigate the different effects of performing Aleko's Cavatina in the original rhyming Russian, literal English, and a new, rhyming English translation. Which version communicates Aleko's jealousy of the gypsy Zemfira most effectively?
Barefoot Opera: ‘Le temps des Lilas’ (from Chausson’s Poeme de l’Amour et de la Mer) performed by Alice Rose Privett.  Striving for life in staging chanson, this performance will explore how different approaches to mise en scène can express the inner psychological state of the protagonist’s grief.


Faustine novella

Gender Identity and Urban Decay: The Role of Text and Persona in my opera Faustine and other works
Arlene Sierra (Cardiff University)

Meet Muriel.

She's an old woman who has spent her best years raising her daughter's child. Envious of those with youth and power, and in love with her daughter's lover, she enters into a diabolical pact.

This is Faustine, a tale of envy and desire based on the classic German legend Faust. Published as a novella by Emma Tennant, it is now being adapted as an opera by award-winning composer Dr Arlene Sierra. The project has received support from Center for Contemporary Opera, NY City Opera Vox, New Music USA, CAP Performance program, ROH2 at Royal Opera House Covent Garden, and Aldeburgh Young Artist Residencies.

Of the recent New York City Opera presentation, Musical America wrote "Paired with librettist Lucy Thurber - already a sure hand at crafting memorable and singable lines - [Faustine] was the most musically adventurous, tightly constructed and dramatically sound of the works-in-progress on offer. Sierra's musical language encompasses both acerbic dissonance where the plot requires it and, elsewhere, supple melodies of considerable sweep...Thurber and Sierra are well on the way toward crafting a memorable new opera."

Arlene Sierra, Senior Lecturer in Composition at the School of Music, discusses Faustine alongside her other recent vocal works.


'Black roses and hard dances': Writing Opera in the Shadows of 9/11 and 7/7
Adam Strickson (University of Leeds)

Opera has always been concerned with extremities of passion but what strategies should the composer and librettist  adopt when addressing the death and trauma caused in an age where fear of terrorism and experience of war seem both close and distant? Adam Strickson, contemporary director and librettist, will talk about  'Green Angel', his adaptation of Alice Hoffman's moving novella written the year after 9/11 when she was living with breast cancer, and show extracts from the film documentation of the live performance.

Green Angel

Production of 'Green Angel'

The adaptation has been described as 'a fable for our times, fusing the ghostly beauty of Japanese Noh Theatre with the power of contemporary music.'  'Green Angel' begins in the traumatic experience of the death of family and friends but ends in healing and renewal.  Adam will consider, briefly, how this 2011 work relates to the opera tradition and the 'stages of death' of the nineteenth century, and to Baudrillard's writings on terrorism.

Adam is a theatre director, poet, script writer and librettist. He is studying for a practice-based PhD in ‘Adaptation and libretto in collaboration with the composer’ at the University of Leeds, where he is Teaching Fellow in Creative Writing in the School of Performance and Cultural Industries.  Adam is lead artist for Wingbeats, an imove commissioned music-theatre project for theCultural Olympiad, and is currently collaborating with DARE Fellow and composer Cheryl Frances-Hoad on an opera about Amy Johnson.


Suffering and Death in
Simon Boccanegra – A Director’s View

David Pountney (Chief Executive & Artistic Director, Welsh National Opera)

David Pountney is an opera director and producer of international distinction and was appointed Chief Executive and Artistic Director of Welsh National Opera in September 2011. 


Cardiff University Chamber Choir will perform extracts from Handel's Funeral Music for Queen Caroline.
Cardiff University Contemporary Music Group, conducted by Dr Robert Fokkens, will perform a selection of work on the theme of death, grief, and mourning, composed by postgraduate composers studying at the School of Music