Willa Cather is weirder than you think

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about how bizarre Willa Cather’s work is–namely, while I’ve been re-reading her 1915 novel The Song of the Lark. Take this passage, for instance, when Thea attends her very first concert (with Wagner and Dvořák on the program):

“First memories, first mornings long ago; the amazement of a new soul in a new world; a soul new and yet old, that had dreamed something despairing, something glorious, in the dark before it was born; a soul obsessed by what it did not know, under a cloud of a past it could not recall.”

For a narrative defined by chronological development—the protagonist’s rise from country girl to international opera sensation—this temporal fluctuation between past and present strikes me as out of place in a beautifully haunting idiom: a soul both new and old, dreaming something “in the dark before it was born,” yet obsessed with a “past it could not recall.” Rather eerie and uncommonly experimental for an author we generally associate with prairies and plains, no?

MLA 2022 Call for Papers on Opera

I am so excited to announce TWO cfp’s for MLA 2022 from the Forum for Opera and Musical Performance, the second of which is in collaboration with the Forum for Drama and Performance. We’d love to hear from any opera scholars across disciplines.

Found in Translation: Opera Among Languages

Many librettos are written in a language other than that of their source text. What interesting results arise from the movement between languages (as well as into a musical register) in operatic production and reception?

Deadline for submissions: Monday, 15 March 2021

Abstracts to: John Pendergast, US Military Acad (john.pendergast@westpoint.edu )

The Politics of Performance: Race in American Musical Theatre and Opera

American musical theatre and classical Opera both have a complex relationship to questions of race and representation. How does innovation in performance reimagine this history? How might embodied and vulnerable performances effect political intervention?

Deadline for submissions: Monday, 15 March 2021

Abstracts to: Naomi E. Morgenstern, U of Toronto (naomi.morgenstern@utoronto.ca ) and R. Darren Gobert, Duke U (rdg37@duke.edu )

Blob Opera? Yes please!

Google Arts & Culture has come up with something very fun. I foresee the rest of this Friday dedicated to crafting my masterpiece, but here’s a snippet I created in a minute.

It’s a creation by David Li: “We developed a machine learning model trained on the voices of four opera singers in order to create an engaging experiment for everyone, regardless of musical skills. Tenor, Christian Joel, bass Frederick Tong, mezzo‑soprano Joanna Gamble and soprano Olivia Doutney recorded 16 hours of singing. In the experiment you don’t hear their voices, but the machine learning model’s understanding of what opera singing sounds like, based on what it learnt from them.”

Philip Glass’ Akhnaten by Opéra de Nice

My thanks to music critic and dear friend Theodore Bale for dropping me a note about this fascinating production of Philip Glass’ Akhnaten, available on youtube here (I think for a limited time). It is directed and choreographed by Lucinda Childs, who also choreographed Einstein on the Beach. Among the many warm and wonderful things about escaping in this production, it also stands as a remarkable testament of what humanity has managed to produce during a pandemic.

Poetic creatures

Amid the holiday kitsch, how about discovering your poetic animal alter-ego in this quiz I wrote for the Federation’s holiday page? Writing it reminded me of all the many creatures that appear across poetry from the obvious (Poe’s raven) to old favorites (Moore’s jellyfish) to the less obvious (Dickinson’s two butterflies, completely forgot about those!). Go down your own rabbit hole here.

Public Writing for Academics Workshop at Rice!

I’m teaching a 3-day workshop about public writing for academics this December at Rice University’s Humanities Research Center. Check it out and register here!

Thinking intentionally about what audience we want to capture and what our purpose is, this workshop will focus on how to navigate tone, diction, and form on different print and digital platforms to render sophisticated academic introspections as legible and relatable to a general public.

Goings on at a Humanities Council Near You

I have had the best time talking to humanities councils all over the American states and territories about their work. And I have had an even better time writing about them in a new blog the Federation of State Humanities Councils has launched as part of the Humanities in American Life initiative that I manage.

Also, wherever you are, there’s probably a very cool humanities program going on, so check out the map here and go exploring yourself!

Forster escape hatch


Reading Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread this afternoon, I’m reminded of those ancient days of yore when the active experience of going to the opera offered reprieve from certain realities (such as the everyday stress of rescuing a baby from obvious Italian amorality). Forster’s cleverly mocking prose kills, as ever, in lines like “tilting against the powers of evil,” granting another variety of satisfying escape from the reality of my living room desk. Here are Caroline Abbott and Harriet heading into the theatre:

“So this strenuous day of resolutions, plans, alarms, battles, victories, defeats, truces, ended at the opera. Miss Abbott and Harriet were both a little shamefaced. They thought of their friends at Sawston, who were supposing them to be now tilting against the powers of evil. What would Mrs. Herriton, or Irma, or the curates at the Back Kitchen say if they could see the rescue party at a place of amusement on the very first day of its mission?”

Their “place of amusement” is watching Lucia go mad in Donizetti’s opera, but you do you girl.