Opera Was What Made the Headlines
Ask music professor Carol Padgham Albrecht to imagine Vienna in the 1790s and she might conjure an opulent performance hall where Mozart’s operas are illuminated by footlights, Hadyn’s quartets waft in the candlelit chandeliers and Beethoven’s pounding symphonies remind Viennese concert goers of the French army marching through Europe.
She might also describe a creative community that gave birth to classical music while monarchs fought over ideas and borders. It was a unique time and place — and one that fascinates her.
“I’ve always been a closet history buff,” Padgham Albrecht said. “I’ve always found it interesting to know what a piece of music might have meant within its culture, how it functioned and how it was received during that particular time. And Vienna during this era is particularly fascinating.”
Padgham Albrecht, who is an expert in 18th century Viennese concert life, recently began to study the popular obsession with opera among the people of the era.
“I discovered that opera was what made the headlines, what people were interested in reading about in the journals of the day. … One of the big surprises was to see the ‘second run’ of Mozart’s Italian operas being performed in Vienna, but all translated into German,” she said. “Then there were the singers themselves, most of whom did not appear in the standard musical reference books, so I felt compelled to flesh out more of the details there. And I just got hooked.”
Delving into the Austrian Theater Museum’s archives, she has spent years learning about the lives of the performers.
“Just by looking at the daily theater playbills, you get a feeling for the individuals as you see them alternate in productions, day after day,” Padgham Albrecht said. “They would post the playbills each day, and if there was some change — say, one of the singers was sick — the management would write in by hand that due to so- and-so’s indisposition, or fever, or whatever, they could not perform and would instead substitute another production. So you can get an idea of everyone’s health!”
In addition, she was surprised to discover economic gender equality.
“It was quite an eye-opener to see the top female singers making salaries equal to those of their male colleagues, and in some cases outstripping them entirely,” she said. “One of the high earners, Irene Tomeoni, did particularly well. She was able to buy two houses within the city, as well as a villa out in one of the suburbs. She was able to sustain herself as a widow through 25 years of retirement on rental income alone. And consider that she was able to buy real estate in her own name, without some male guarantor.”
However, Padgham Albrecht said it was not unexpected to realize the natural interdisciplinary nature of her research.
“The humanities relate to people, and my research delves into people’s everyday lives,” she said. “From a more sociological stance, these opera singers function as an occupational group, and examining their daily professional activities and genealogical trails is leading to a picture of how they lived and worked.”
It also helps her UI students better understand how they, as performers, contribute to society.
“Not everyone inherently relates to opera, but they do relate to people. And for vocal students, it makes sense to know how earlier generations of singers sustained their careers.”
It is also a better way to teach music history.
“Music is an aspect of overall human behavior, not something that just happens in a bubble,” Padgham Albrecht said. “I think it’s easier to understand the role of music, art, literature and theater if you view them in the context of the times in which they were created. And, I think it’s just more interesting that way.”
Padgham Albrecht, who has given conference presentations and has published several articles, plans on putting her research together in a book, tentatively titled, “Tales of the Distinctive and the Dysfunctional: Opera Singers in Vienna, 1792-1810.”
“That would kind of sum it up,” she said.