Saturday, May 28, 2016

John Powell, music historian and lecturer

John S. Powell is an expert in French Baroque opera. He prepared the performance score for La Feste de Ruel. He will be in town during the week of the performance, and will give a public talk on the opera and its rediscovery.

Dr. Powell is a widely published author on the French Baroque, music, dance, and theatre. He has also worked with a long list of specialists around the world to revive long-forgotten works for the stage. We asked him a little about himself.

What led you to your field of expertise?

My PhD dissertation was on music in the theater of Molière, which I came to after having seen a production of Le Misantrope in Seattle. I wondered if there might be any music for these plays, and it turns out that there was. From Molière’s comédies-ballets I became interested in French opera.

How do you think opera in France was different from other opera at the time?

Two ways:  its heavy emphasis on dance (the roots of French opera lay in ballet de cour) and its allegory. All French opera of the 17th century aimed to glorify Louis XIV, who was equated with the hero of the opera. In the case of La Feste de Ruel, the praise of Louis XIV is even more fulsomely obvious.

What is your favorite thing about Baroque opera? Do you like conventional opera, too, or does Baroque opera stand apart in your mind?

French baroque opera is a total Gesamtkunstwerk (to borrow Wagner’s term -- I like Wagner too):  music, dance, stagecraft, costumes, acting, gesture, allegory. I like all opera, all periods. I teach a course on the Mozart/da Ponte operas, and another course on Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen. For a few years I taught a course on Wagner and Tolkien, comparing Wagner’s Ring with Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. I have also taught a course on the Faust legend in music and literature.

Why is Charpentier a favorite? What is his appeal for you?

I first encountered Charpentier’s music in 1974 when he was comparatively unknown, especially in the U.S. I was looking for a topic for my Master’s thesis, and so I settled on his secular cantatas (which were unpublished, unperformed, and unrecorded). As a grad student in the mid-1970s I organized two concerts of these works.

What are some interesting things you’ve run across in your research?

One interest of mine is music that was brought to Nouvelle-France, which included French Canada and all of the Louisiana Purchase. This topic arose from a course I taught at the Université de Nancy, for which I read many of the accounts of the early French explorers. I have gone to archives in Quebec, Montreal, and New Orleans to investigate this music, which was mostly brought by the Jesuits. One thing I found amusing was a set of Lully opera scores in Montreal that had engravings of lady opera singers with low-cut tops…and some Jesuit (I presume) filled in their bodices with ink.

Dr. Powell's talk is free and open to the public.

7pm, Wednesday, June 1, 2016
Downtown branch of the Cincinnati Public Library
Huenefeld Tower Room
800 Vine St.
Cincinnati, OH 45202

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