Saturday afternoon, November 7, 2–2:50 CST

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Rediscovering Opera: The Politics of Form, Semiotics, and Representation

Knar Abrahamyan (Yale University), Chair
Yayoi Uno Everett (University of Illinois at Chicago), Respondent

The (Attempted) Subversion of Dissonance in Opera by the First Empire

Calvin Peck (Indiana University Bloomington)

Calvin Peck is a Ph.D. Candidate from Indiana University. He has presented at several national conferences, which include those administered by the Music Theory Society of New York State, the American Musicological Society and the Society for Music. He is the recipient of several national and international grants, including the AMS Elizabeth Bartlet Fund for Research in France and the Chateaubriand Fellowship Humanities & Social Sciences. His dissertation investigates discursive relationships between definitions of musical progress in harmonic syntax and politically-defined aesthetic ideologies in France during the Revolution and into the First Empire.


Several scholars have acknowledged to varying degrees the associations between music and social class born from the French Directory (c. 1795–1799), in which the dissonant “noise” from popular, contemporary opéra-comiques became associated with violent Republicanism by counterrevolutionaries. “Melodic” music grounded in simple, diatonic harmony was by contrast described as embodying refined, noble, qualities. This paper explicates the motivations concerning how and why this semiotic network was maintained by the First Empire. Personal correspondence reveals that Napoleon and his high-level bureaucrats internalized this network when referencing both music and political affairs. These musico-political associations were also dispersed into the public consciousness by the state-surveyed press. Critic for the Journal de l’Empire, Julien-Louis Geoffroy, was recognized by the public as the aesthetic voice of the Empire. “Noisy” music was considered a product of both an uneducated parterre borne from the Revolution and an invasive influence by German music, and supporters of the Revolutionary style attacked Geoffroy and his peers as representatives of an elitist class who refused to recognize the value in the technical progress of musical techniques. By comparing excerpts of operas by Etienne Méhul, Rodolphe Kreutzer, Antoine Reicha, and others with writings that reference these works, I will analyze and identify dissonant harmonic techniques that the Empire eventually relegated to the periphery of Parisian musical culture.

Secularizing Soviet Armenia: Enacting Power Dynamics through Operatic Topoi

Knar Abrahamyan (Yale University)

Knar Abrahamyan is a PhD candidate in music theory at the Yale University Department of Music. Her dissertation explores opera as statecraft in Soviet Armenia and Kazakhstan. Her research interests include sound studies, animal studies, Russian music theory, and intersections between music and philosophy. Knar completed a master's in music theory at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. In 2015–16, Knar pursued a Fulbright Fellowship in Moscow, where she conducted research on Russian theoretical approaches to the music of Shostakovich. 


Soviet leadership attacked religion as the ideological enemy of the communist state by portraying it as antithetical to cultural modernization and economic progress. The fact that, by the time the Bolsheviks took power, Christianity had been part of Armenian culture for over 1600 years presented unique challenges to the dissemination of scientific atheism. Examining archival materials on Armen Tigranyan’s Davit Bek (1950), this paper argues that the revisions of this opera contributed to the secularization of its initial libretto. Tigranyan’s opera narrates the events of Armenian liberation from Persian subjugation in the early 1720s but, in several scenes, crucially diverges from Raffi’s eponymous novel. These divergences, musically carried out through familiar operatic topoi, construct alternative dynamics between Armenian, Georgian, Persian, and Russian political powers represented in the plot. One topos, deus ex machina, is utilized when Peter the Great’s messenger descends upon the Armenian people in a scene that initially centered on liturgical prayer. Another set of topoi, orientalism, is employed to construct difference. Whereas traditionally orientalism highlights difference between the imperial West and the colonized East, here, this binary distinction is obscured for political reasons. Even though Armenians, Georgians, and Persians geographically represent the East, Persia was an imperial rival to Russia and, as such, had to be orientalized, or “othered.” Disentangling musical representations of the different nations, this paper illustrates how these representations perpetuated ideological goals, above all, the construction of a secular Armenian nationalism in which Russia’s role is reconfigured from a colonizer to a delivering God.

Sounding Chosŏn: Form and Class Struggle in North Korea’s Sea of Blood

Stephen Johnson (Eastman School of Music)


In the 1970s, as North Korea prepared General Kim Il Sung’s 60th birthday festivities, his son, Kim Jong Il, commissioned five revolutionary operas. The younger Kim claimed these operas heralded a new era of music to suit revolutionary times. Recent studies by scholars such as Suk-Young Kim, Alzo David-West, and Heonik Kwon and Byung-Ho Chung have examined the political consequences of the operas’ narratives with regards to national mythology and nation-building. I argue, however, that musical characteristics also constitute discursive arenas through which Kim and his creative workers asserted a Korean identity. Kim identifies such Korean music explicitly in his speeches, advocating for a “stanzaic form” rooted in popular and folk traditions of the early twentieth century. While the form is simple to Western ears, it offers layers of political meaning that are key to the opera’s work in North Korean society.

Such meaning emerges through a musical class struggle in the song “Here’s An Idea” from the 1971 opera Sea of Blood. The scene enacts village leader Pyon’s failed attempt to recruit laborer Ung Pal into the Japanese militia. Over the course of the action, Ung Pal’s stanzaic song overwhelms Pyon’s bourgeois music, foreshadowing the communist victory of the opera’s finale. Form therefore establishes through contrast a Korean musical identity that furthers regime efforts to nurture nationalist sentiment and class consciousness among North Korean citizens. Despite its apparent simplicity, stanzaic form grants insight into North Korean politics, just as politics deepens our understanding of stanzaic form.