19th Century European Opera MOOC: Prof. Kelly does it again

Course: 19th-Century Opera: Meyerbeer, Wagner, & Verdi
Length: 6 weeks, 3-5 hrs/wk
School/platform: Harvard, edX
Instructor: Thomas Forrest Kelly
Quote:

Travel through central Europe in the 1800s to experience the premieres of Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, Wagner’s Das Rheingold, and Verdi’s Otello…. You’ll learn about the musical details of each opera and the cultural influence of the works by understanding the circumstances of its composition, premiere performance, and its legacy and significance today.
What you’ll learn:
▪ The technologies behind 1830s French opera performances
▪ The relationships among major players in the premiere of Les Huguenots
▪ How Romanticism differed from the optimism of the Enlightenment
▪ The different singing styles in French Grand Opera
▪ Innovations in staging between the three periods of opera.
▪ How Wagner represented characters and situations with musical themes
▪ How Wagner’s approach to opera influenced Verdi’s Otello
▪ How Act I of Otello looked and sounded at the premiere

At the start of this course, I had absolutely no knowledge of Meyerbeer, an active dislike of Wagner, and a great fondness for Verdi, recently stoked by Stephen Greenblatt’s mooc on Othello. I came away at the end of the course with a better understanding of all three. And, as in all his moocs, Prof. Kelly made the journey entertaining.

As I’ve said of these courses before (I’ve taken all seven, though I haven’t blogged each one), they’re only partly about the music. Kelly creates a comfortable gestalt of history, biography, technology, and music, including interviews with directors and recording historians, to present the works in a context of time and space. For instance, I didn’t know that Meyerbeer and the Grand Opera of the French 19th century expanded the technology of stagecraft; that Wagner built the Bayreuth theatre specifically for his Ring cycle, and had some unusual ideas about its presentation (lack of boxes for royalty and the upper crust, save a box for the Prince who helped fund the work, for one; a prohibition on applause between acts, for another); or that Verdi incorporated several of Wagner’s musical techniques into his Otello while still keeping his own signature approach.

Each lecture video is followed by a short set of questions. For this entry in the series, I didn’t even do my usual note-taking, but answered the questions while the videos were playing. The only tricky part were the musical recognition questions, few in number: which motif is this, what instrument is playing, that sort of thing. I also didn’t participate in discussion, but the forums were active with others who did.

I again recommend this course to anyone with even a little interest in the material; it has a way of grabbing your imagination as things go on. I tend to have a preference for more academic moocs, but for these, I make an exception: they’re wonderful little stories, and, for those who are motivated to take it all more seriously, additional resources are available.

Three years ago the first of Thomas Forrest Kelly’s music moocs popped up out of nowhere, delighting me with a charming, informative look at Handel’s Messiah. And now, the series, based on Kelly’s two “First Nights” books, wraps up with a look at three nineteenth-century operas from three European settings. I can only hope he brings some of his other books to moocdom.

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