This website may ask your browser to store cookies. See our Cookies Policy for more information about our use of cookies.

Back to news index

Operas and Places – five online talks by Simon Rees

posted on 20/02/24


Operas are mostly set in a clearly-identified time and place – Mozart’s The Magic Flute, which takes place in an unknown location at an unknown date, is an exception. Composers often incorporate local colour and references to the country and the era in which the libretto is set. Opera directors, keen to exercise artistic license, frequently move against these indications and transplant the opera to a different location and period, with results that vary from the inspirational to the ludicrous.

Simon Rees’s previous Opera and Places series have been described as ‘combining a passionate love of the music with an erudite and witty appreciation of the context’. He continues his explorations linking period, place and performance with a further five productions and their settings.

They take place every Tuesday from 5th March to 2nd April at 4.30pm and, including Q&A, will probably last just under an hour. They are available for viewing for eight weeks after the last episode is streamed (28th May 2024).

Register for the webinar series for £65

The talks

1. Der Rosenkavalier in Vienna (5th March 2024)

Richard Strauss and his librettist, the poet and playwright Hugo von Hofmannsthal, created a fantasy Vienna in the age of Empress Maria Theresa in their opera Der Rosenkavalier, The Knight of the Rose. Alfred Roller designed sets and costumes for the first production, and this lecture draws on a complete collection of these drawings, along with illustrations of the typical palaces, town houses and low dives of 18th-century Vienna, to show how Strauss and Hofmannsthal realised their vision of the glittering, gaudy, materialistic – and at times sordid and shabby – Austrian capital.

2. Turandot in Beijing (12th March 2024)

Puccini’s source for Turandot was a play by the 18th-century Venetian playwright Carlo Gozzi. Various librettists worked with Puccini to create a text for what was to be his last – and unfinished – opera. Turandot is a princess in old Peking (to call it Beijing is an anachronism) who has made a vow to avenge the death of her ancestress by setting an impossible challenge to any suitor for her hand – to answer the three riddles she proposes. Only the brave prince Calaf, though dissuaded by his aged father and his servant, the faithful Liu, is bold enough to answer the three riddles. When Turandot refuses his hand, Calaf proposes that the city stays awake all night to try and guess his name. Cue: ‘Nessun dorma’. The city is a fantasy, but based on descriptions of old Peking, and the original sets and costume designs reflect this.

3. The Makropoulos Case in Prague (19th March 2024)

Karel Čapek’s play The Makropoulos Case was written as an answer to George Bernard Shaw’s optimistic visions of longevity. Emilia Marty is a litigant in a case concerning a will. It turns out that her intimate knowledge of the documentation comes from the fact that she is well over 350 years old, having drunk an elixir of life prepared by her alchemist father for the Emperor Rudolf II. Janáček’s opera uses the orchestra to recreate the atmospheres of Baroque Prague, and of the modern city, home to Franz Kafka and his friend Max Brod, who promoted Janáček’s opera in Vienna and elsewhere in the German-speaking world. 

4. Simon Boccanegra in Genoa (26th March 2024)

Genoa has rarely been the setting of operas, although in many ways it is as richly fascinating as Venice. Simon Boccanegra was the first Doge of Genoa, coming from one of the ancient Genoese families, and the story of his accession, deposition and eventual regaining of his title inspired the playwright Gutiérrez (another of whose plays was the basis of Verdi’s Il Trovatore), and the intricacies of his plot encouraged Verdi to set his librettist Piave to write a libretto that would serve as the basis of one of his greatest operas. This lecture looks at Genoa at the time of Boccanegra, and at the designs and costumes for the first production and its much-revised revival.

5. Roméo et Juliette in Verona (2nd April 2024)

Shakespeare’s plays inspired many 19th-century opera composers. Charles Gounod commissioned the experienced librettists Jules Barbier and Michel Carré to adapt Shakespeare’s tragedy, and the resulting opera was a great success, and remains so, even though it reduces Shakespeare’s great drama to an eclogue on the central characters. This talk draws on original stage designs as well as on images of historic Verona, where Juliet’s balcony is (however implausibly) still shown to visitors. There have been numerous recordings of the opera, in whole and in part, and some of these will illustrate this lecture. 

The speaker

Simon Rees

Is a freelance dramaturg, translating opera librettos for singing and surtitles, as well as lecturing and writing on opera, theatre, art and architecture. He is an Associate Lecturer at the Wales International Academy of Voice, and also teaches at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. A novelist, poet and librettist, from 1989 to 2012 he was dramaturg at Welsh National Opera.

Register for the webinar series for £65

Frequently asked questions

What methods of payment do you accept?

An electronic invoice will be sent to your e-mail address 1–3 working days after you have completed our registration form. Payment can be made online using AMEX, Apple Pay, Google Pay, MasterCard or Visa.

How do I purchase the webinar series as a gift?

Please contact us specifying how many subscriptions you would like and who they are for (we require their full name and e-mail address). We will invoice you directly, and after we have received your payment we will release the webinar joining instructions to your friend(s) or family member(s).

Can I purchase a single episode?

No, unfortunately not. The series must be purchased in full.

How do I join the webinar?

An e-mail confirmation will be sent to you after you have paid for your subscription, which includes your unique link for joining the webinar. Reminder e-mails will be sent to you one day and one hour before each event. We recommend that you download the Zoom software in advance of the first webinar.

Can I watch the live broadcast(s) on more than one device?

Only one device can be connected to the live broadcast(s) at any one time. If you wish to purchase a second subscription, please contact us.

What happens if I am unable to attend the live broadcast(s)? 

A recording will be uploaded to a dedicated webpage approximately two hours after the live broadcast. For copyright reasons, these recordings cannot be made available indefinitely; access is granted for eight weeks after the final live broadcast of the series.

View more online talks

Sign up to our e-newsletter

Ask a question