Opera talk to focus on the singing between the arias

Published 27 November 2009

operaA public lecture at the University of New England will take its audience into largely uncharted territory: between the arias of operas by composers such as Vivaldi, Handel and Mozart.

Dr Alan Maddox is a leading researcher into the theoretical and practical traditions that guided singers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in their performance of recitative – the singing in speech-like rhythms that carries the story of an opera forward between the more formally poetic arias that explore and reveal the emotions of the characters.

“Recitative took up a large proportion of the total time of any opera, and was the vehicle for almost all of the advancement of the plot,” Dr Maddox said. “But it hasn’t received much attention from critics and scholars; people are generally more interested in the arias.”

“The flexible, declamatory style of recitative meant that musical notation could convey only a small proportion of the information needed to bring the drama to life in performance,” he explained. “While singing treatises of the period give few specific guidelines about how to do this, principles for applying many of these ‘missing’ elements in performance were well established in the rhetorical tradition of delivery, which taught not so much how to sing the recitative as how to recite or declaim it.”

Dr Maddox, who is a lecturer in musicology at the Sydney Conservatorium, has conducted much original research on this “rhetorical” tradition in eighteenth-century singing, and has published his findings in a number of scholarly books and journals.

He will present this year’s Gordon Athol Anderson Memorial Lecture in the Oorala Aboriginal Centre, UNE, at 6 pm on Wednesday 2 December. The free lecture will be preceded by refreshments in the Oorala Centre’s foyer at 5.15 pm. The title of the lecture – “‘To vary the voice . . . according to what reason and nature seem to require’, or, how (not) to sing recitative” – quotes a treatise by the eighteenth-century singing teacher Giovanni Battista Mancini titled Practical Reflections on Figured Singing.

Dr Maddox is an experienced public lecturer who gives pre-concert talks for the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra and Musica Viva. He approaches the subject of recitative as both scholar and performer, having lived and worked for 10 years as a professional singer in Europe and in Australia, where he has appeared with Opera Australia.

“The main objective in a performance of any opera is to get the story across and convey the drama,” he said. “While it makes good musical sense to present eighteenth-century music using instruments and vocal conventions of the time, it’s certainly not helpful to aim at a kind of ‘museum-piece’ performance.

“In the case of recitative, the singular lack of contemporary documentary evidence about performance practice forces us to look beyond the apparent certainties of the musical text and to think more broadly about ways of understanding music as an activity, as an experience, and as a means of communication.”