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The melodramatic moment 1790-1820

King’s College London, 27-29 March 2014

Supported by King’s College London, the European Research Council, University of Warwick and the AHRC

In the last two decades, melodrama and the melodramatic have been brought to mainstream scholarly attention in an effort to revisit long-standing assumptions about a much-maligned cultural form. A growing number of musicological publications—Emilio Sala’s 1995 L’opera senza canto, Jacqueline Waeber’s 2006 En musique dans le texte and Sarah Hibberd’s 2011 edited collection Melodramatic Voices—have staked the claim for melodrama’s historical importance and lasting influence. Yet the relationship between the melodramatic technique (spoken word over or alternated with instrumental music), melodramatic aesthetic (strong contrast between good and evil, extremes of emotion), and the melodramatic genre (combining the two) has remained both historically and conceptually mysterious.

In this conference, we addressed these relationships by focussing on the period in which melodrama as a stage genre came to prominence, a period in which several of the key European traditions overlap and coincide. The earlier German, Rousseauian tradition of melodramas produced at court and at Nationaltheaters (most famously represented by Georg Benda’s Medea and Ariadne auf Naxos) continued in the form of performances of older works and the composition of new ones. At the same time, the Napoleonic period saw the emergence of the so-called “popular”, boulevard melodrama in France, often treated as a distinct entity, which was subsequently exported in translation to a number of European theatrical centres as well as to the growing cities of the United States. There were further forms of melodrama practised in this period in the Italian peninsula. Indeed, for some thirty years, melodrama in its various guises was one of the most important stage products across much of Europe. Categorisation by national tradition or division into high and low art forms has often led to the treatment of these different traditions as distinct entities. Yet in this period, the overlap of repertoire in cities and on stages, as well as obvious similarities in content and technique, suggest the fruitfulness of examining these phenomena together.

Particular points of focus included:

  • the relationship between high-art and low-art variants of melodrama
  • the relationship between melodrama as genre and melodrama as aesthetic
  • musical and other adaptations of exported melodramas to new surroundings
  • the relationship between music and stage action (gesture, scenery, lighting)
  • melodrama’s relationship to broader social and historical conditions
  • the relationship between melodrama and romanticism, classicism, and the gothic
  • issues of gender and identity in melodramatic performance

Much of this conference took place in seminar-style discussion sessions of pre-circulated chapters, as preparation for the forthcoming publications. In addition, there were two sessions open to all:

On 27 March, Professor Gilli Bush-Bailey directed a performance workshop on scenes from Pixérécourt’s melodrama La Forteresse du Danube (1805) and its English translation by Hook, The Fortress (1807), both with extant scores, using actors from Central School of Speech and Drama. The workshop was open from 2pm-4pm, with a short performance and discussion at 6pm. You can read about the workshop at the project blog here; we are also in the process of making a documentary presenting footage and discussion of the workshop.

On 28 March, delegates from the symposium presented papers at an open study afternoon:

Welcome: Jonathan Hicks (KCL); Chair: David Charlton (RHUL)
Respondent: Jacqueline Waeber (Duke)

Pixérécourt's La Citerne and the Visual Language of Battle
Sarah Hibberd (Nottingham)
Urban Space and Public Memory in the Napoleonic ‘Occasional Melodrama’
Nicholas Mathew (Berkeley)
The Aesthetics of Melodramatic Form
Carolyn Williams (Rutgers)


Chair: David Mayer (Manchester)
Respondent: Katherine Hambridge (Warwick)

Introduction to the Melodrama Research Consortium
Matthew Buckley (Rutgers)
‘The Surprise of an Expected Event’: Melodrama and Visual Culture
Kate Newey (Exeter)
The Proto-melodrama in Paris and London
Michael Pisani (Vassar)


This conference was organised by Katherine Hambridge (Warwick) and Jonathan Hicks (KCL), and supported by King’s College London, the European Research Council, the University of Warwick and the AHRC.