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Voyage to the moon, opera and the voyage of human emotion

Attempts to explain opera’s affective power have a long history. Photo: Keith Saunders. (L-R) Voyage to the Moon's Phoebe Briggs, Jeremy Kleeman, Emma Matthews, Sally-Anne Russell.

Voyage to the moon, opera and the voyage of human emotion

It seems obvious to say that opera “moves” people – if it didn’t engage our emotions, quite simply, it wouldn’t exist, and certainly wouldn’t be with us more than 400 years after it came to life as an art form.

But how opera moves us is far less straightforward. That’s the question the current authors and our colleagues at the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions (CHE) will be trying to address with regards to a reimagined baroque opera about to be performed in Australia.

Voyage to the Moon – a collaboration between Victorian Opera and Musica Viva, and in association with CHE – will be performed around the country from February 15 to March 12, with its world premiere on February 15 at the Melbourne Recital Centre.

Music and emotion

Music has always been closely connected with emotional expression, but the practices that give social substance to emotional experience have varied greatly across time and place.

Since the turn of the 17th century, opera has played an important role in the navigation and expression of individual and communal feelings through music, especially in the West.

Voyage to the Moon interrogates the nature of the relationship between opera and emotion. In the narrative, the famed warrior Orlando suffers a “great madness” when his beloved elopes with a knight from the enemy forces.

In search of Orlando’s missing sanity, his friend Astolfo journeys to the moon, home to lost things. Encountering the fierce Guardian of the Moon, Astolfo offers his own life in exchange for his friend’s sanity.

This context offers opportunity to explore verbal and musical manifestations of distress, frenzy, madness, anger, affection, pathos and loss.

For each emotional state in Voyage to the Moon, as in most operas of the Baroque period, there is a genre of aria to suit: a rage aria, a madness aria, an aria revealing love and friendship, and so on.

Each aria conforms to specific musical requirements, but more than this, each one offers a showcase for the singer: a coloratura soprano with a dizzying display of vocal fireworks, the warm rich hues of the mezzo, and the depths of felt emotion in the bass baritone.

Voyage to the Moon’s costume sketches designed by Christina Smith. Bri Hammond

Voyage to the Moon is based on the 16th-century epic poem Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto; the libretto has been finely crafted by Australian playwright Michael Gow, who also directs the opera; and the music is by composers/ arrangers Calvin Bowman and the late Alan Curtis.

Emergence of pasticcio opera

Another particular attraction of this project is that it draws on pasticcio, an operatic sub-genre that emerged late in the 17th century and provided a quick method of generating new operas.

Indeed, the first decades of the 18th century were a boom period in European opera production and consumption, and the pasticcio proved a very useful form.

It often combined familiar, showcase arias for the star singers alongside arias taken from lesser-known works which assisted the composer/ arranger in structuring the work.

A common characteristic of pasticcio opera was that the stories behind these works were pieced together in order to provide a narrative backbone on which to hang the already-selected music.

How does opera move people? Biology and rhetoric.

Attempts to explain opera’s affective power have a long history, and some have argued that opera’s musical structures correlate with biological responses and emotion (e.g. the fast beating heart equalling a fast tempo and arousal) as well as culturally shaped elements such as speech prosody, rules relating to harmonic and melodic direction – and therefore to tension and resolution.

Matters of performance etiquette, which have undergone changes in significance and meaning over the centuries, are now also the object of renewed interest from scholars. The art of persuasion – or rhetoric – was a commonly understood and codified way of performing that depended on specific musical and physical gestures and postures, and has also been shown to correlate with specific emotion signals.

Voyage to the Moon trailer – Victorian Opera.

Pasticcio presents fascinating questions for historians of emotion, and when the Voyage to the Moon project was proposed by Victorian Opera and Musica Viva Australia more than two years ago, we were excited by the possibilities this project could offer.

How would the genre – which gradually fell into obsolescence by the dawn of the 19th century amid the rise of the unified musical “work-concept” and opera’s canonisation – be developed when re-imagined with singers, librettist and a composer-arranger collaborating in the 21st century?

To those questions we added some others, such as:

  • Would the stock arias and emotions so prevalent in the 18th century align well nowadays?
  • If not, what would the change tell us about ourselves?
  • What emotional investment would the creative team bring to the work, and how would this manifest in the production?
  • What would the audience make of a work that was new, yet old, familiar yet novel?
  • What could this project tell us about the history of emotions more broadly?

We and our fellow researchers at CHE are tracking the production of Voyage to the Moon, using the theoretical premise that emotional experiences, discourses, displays and expressions do not share universal significance, but are at least partly produced, defined and regulated by culture, and therefore change over time.

Now that the opera has almost reached the performance stage, we are keen to engage its audiences in questions about emotional impact and affect.

Surveys, iPad studies tracking emotional responses and brief “vox pop” interviews, as well as more comprehensive post-performance audience engagement events, will help us understand contemporary responses to the opera and highlight the important moments in terms of narrative, musical and overall dramatic scope.

Drawing together the old and the new, this reimagining of the baroque pasticcio art form in the 21st century, from the perspective of emotions history, makes for a rich and fascinating study.

We look forward to sharing the results of our investigations with readers in due course.


Full details of dates and venues for Voyage of the Moon are available here.