It’s not every day we have the chance to see a new opera and I had no idea what to expect in the Guildhall’s production of The Tale of Januarie. I knew the libretto, written in Middle English, was based on Chaucer’s unfinished The Merchant’s Tale, adapted by playwright Stephen Plaice. I knew the composer, Julian Philips, but I’d never heard his music. How would the opera be staged and performed? What would it look like, how would it sound? In the event, it was a gripping, sumptuous experience lasting three hours, a joy to hear and behold. The costumes, the lighting, the scenic effects, and above all the edgy music and singing, made this a memorable performance. Full credit is due to the director Martin Lloyd-Evans, conductor Dominic Wheeler, the orchestra and the singers, especially John Findon as old-man Januarie and Joanna Marie Skillett, his young bride, May. This is the story of a sex-obsessed Januarie who marries a pretty girl and is made a laughing stock when she deceives him with his handsome young servant. For the purposes of this blog, however, I want to draw attention to the complex interaction in the opera between music and text. What were the challenges and opportunities faced by Stephen Plaice when adapting Chaucer’s famous tale? How did Julian Philips match his music to a Late Middle English text? These questions form part of the AHRC’s Open World Research Initiative’s research project on modern languages, communities and translingual practices led by the IMLR.
In the opening Q&A, chaired by Cormac Newark, Guildhall’s Head of Research, Stephen and Julian shared their creative experience. They emphasised the strange familiarity of Middle English – seemingly English but not quite, with its obvious Anglo-Saxon and Norman French roots jarring on modern sensibilities. Middle English, said Stephen, is like a foreign language you know fairly well, and writing Middle English was like writing two or three languages at the same time. It was a treat for him to work on the libretto, to create a final act in an unfinished tale, and to recreate the sense of fizz produced by the collision of the old and the new. For Julian, every single word in the libretto had to be weighed for its sound and its meaning, so that accents would fall in the right place, alliterations stressed, and the sonorous and highly coloured quality of the language maintained by the music. Elisions were important, eliding vowels as in Italian or German texts. Words ending in consonants, so unhelpful for singers, retain their final vowels in Chaucer’s English – so sickness is sicknesse, which gives the composer and singer scope for triple rhythm, sound and emotion. The composer can mine the text for its rhythmic qualities, for metric flow and tempo. For Stephen the challenge was how to keep the momentum of the strong narrative drive; for Julian the challenge was how to respond to the language in his music. Both agreed that Middle English had had a profound effect on the opera at every level: structure, rhythm, text and music all interacting in sympathetic dialogue.
To quote the programme notes, ‘Bringing Middle English to opera, a genre that didn’t exist when it was spoken, reveals how languages are never “dead”, that they still have unexplored colour and vibrancy’ and, I would add, can still communicate – especially when much can still be learned from Chaucer’s tales.
Catherine Davies, Professor of Hispanic and Latin American Studies Director, Institute of Modern Languages Research
For the third year in a row the IMLR, in cooperation with the DAAD and supported by the Goethe Institut and the Swiss and German Embassies, successfully hosted the prize-giving ceremony of this year’s German writing competition on 1 March in Senate House. Here Stephan Ehrig talks about the competition and awards ceremony:
Ulrike Ulrich (l) & Anja Tuckermann (r)
At a time when the media has been full of heart-rending tales of human flight as well as heated debates on migration and the so-called refugee crisis, it seems all the more important to widen one’s perspective and empathise with the human destiny and personal stories behind the numbers. Consequently, for this year’s German writing competition the entrants were asked to continue storylines on themes of migration and flight, based on launchpad texts provided by German-speaking authors Anja Tuckermann (Berlin) and Ulrike Ulrich (Zürich).
Very much to the jury’s delight, the competition attracted a wide range of interest: of the 69 entries, 39 came from secondary school students and sixth-formers, and 16 from undergraduates, amongst several postgraduates, native speakers and others. The judges commented that submissions in all categories were surprising, touching, complex, and a joy to read.
Prize winners with authors Anja Tuckermann and Ulrike Ulrich
This became clear during the awards ceremony in Senate House on 1 March which provided a great opportunity for all prize winners not only to meet the two authors but most of all to present their endings to a wider audience. Having already spent the afternoon in writing workshops with both authors, reading out their own texts certainly was the highlight of the evening. The range of creativity and linguistic skills was most impressive, and each author found their very own personal way of approaching the difficult task of seeing the world from a migrant’s or refugee’s perspective – a perspective that mostly was very far from their own experience – and on top of that in German. All prize winners mastered this difficult undertaking gracefully. Some of the texts displayed a variety of hopes and fears at the immigration desk, while others set out to confront the audience with the impossible demands refugees face when meeting their new neighbours who want to discuss their traumatic experience with them, at a time where this is the only thing they try to escape. Some texts describe the overpowering feelings and the impossibility of communication when one is only left with the fading image of what used to be home, “where my son follows the streams into the mountains and the horizon promises all or nothing.”
The evening also gave the stage to Anja Tuckermann and Ulrike Ulrich who then read out their versions to the stories, and the surprising new endings to the plot left everyone excited that they had taken part in this literary and cultural endeavour. At the end of the evening, all participants were awarded various books for future encounters, and all organisers and supporters shared the uplifting sense of seeing so many (young) talents in Britain engaged in writing texts on such a difficult topic, and in a foreign language.
Stephan Ehrig, Fellow in Modern Languages (Germanic/Central European), IMLR
‘Academic’, in daily conversation, tends to mean ‘of no consequence, irrelevant’; and yet, to disprove conversational language, there are people who, more traditionally, think of ‘Academic’ as synonymous with ‘concerned with the pursuit of research, education, and scholarship’, to the extent that they devote their lives to Academy and the study of its historical background and social meaning. ‘Chivalrous’ is similarly not a more fortunate idiom, since it has generally come to mean ‘ridiculously old-fashioned’; and yet there are people who think of chivalry as an aristocratic ideal, referred to a time when women and men were more generous and courteous.
The book was launched at the IMLR on 15 February 2017, with talks given by Professors Corinna Salvadori (Trinity College Dublin), Diego Zancani (Oxford) and Martin McLaughlin (Oxford), introduced by Katia Pizzi, in the presence of Professor Everson. The event combined scholarly engagement and personal tribute in a way that it would be impossible to discern whether the main focus was the dedicatee or the book itself. Far from being a collection of scattered essays, the book aims to mirror Professor Everson’s scholarly interests in chivalric poetry, the Italian academies and Anglo-Italian relations, often explored in an archaeological manner (in Foucaultian terms) to ascertain their legacy in our time.
In a brief introduction, Stefano Jossa explained the genesis, both professional and emotional, of the book, bridging between Italian early modernity and European modernity to pay homage to a scholar who always worked on the ‘success of the unsuccessful’ as a means to contrast pop drifts of University culture in the contemporary media-dominated world. Admonishing that we learn more from diversity than homogeneity, Professor Salvadori tantalisingly explored the first section of the book, highlighting the presence of a chapter on Professor Everson’s lifelong scholarly interest, Il Mambriano by Francesco Cieco, as well as on Ludovico Ariosto’s masterpiece, the five-hundred-year-old Orlando Furioso (three chapters), Francesco’s Berni’s Rifacimento of Matteo Maria Boiardo’s Inamoramento de Orlando, and some fifteenth-century cantari.
Following on from this, Professor Zancani stressed in an illuminated way the connection between Professor Everson’s work on the Italian Academies and the six essays included in section 2, exploring a number of personalities, academies, works and fine-art practices, from Giulio Camillo, Marcantonio Piccolomini and Angelo Ingegneri to Galileo and from the Thesoro politico to copper engraving. Finally, Prof McLaughlin affectionately recalled his friendship with the dedicatee, taking it as symptomatic of the route of Italian Studies in the UK, in order to introduce the third and final section on cultural communities and Anglo-Italian relations, including essays on oral Petrarchism, Machiavelli’s use of jokes, Sebastiano del Piombo’s hieroglyphs in the portrait of Andrea Doria, Shelley and Dante, Gramsci and Kipling and Soldati and music.
This was a most successful event: best wishes to Professor Everson to carry on and go further in her research. The plus ultra reproduced on the frontispiece of the book, from the original Atlante Veneto (1691–97) by Vincenzo Coronelli, is a reference to the Argonauts’ journey and an appropriate motto of Professor Everson’s life and works.
Dr Katia Pizzi, Senior Lecturer in Italian Studies, IMLR
Dr Stefano Jossa, Reader in Italian, Royal Holloway University of London
Trauma and nostalgia are displaced migrants’ common everyday experiences, particularly in these recent years of EU refugee and security crisis, says cultural memory studies fellow Dr Matthew Mild, who will look at neurological and intertextual memory on 23 March, 4pm-6pm, and at French-Turkish-Muslim exchanges on 11 March, 11am-6pm.
Grande Mosque, Paris
About a month ago I had to switch off the radio for a few days to reduce my daily intake of comments on the – to everyone’s relief – overruled Muslim travel ban across the pond. Meanwhile, on our side of the ocean, a young Turkish-French film director has been widely acclaimed for her debut, which is a brilliant addition to the impressively long list of highly successful migrant European films made by film directors who are originally from the same Muslim-majority country.
Motion pictures have the potential to transform cultural memory into a cathartic journey. Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s 2015 film Mustang keeps this promise. This dark parable on trauma and self-overcoming has won the César awards for Best Original Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Original Music, and Best First Feature Film. With its cinematic rewriting of classical tropes from the French fairytale Bluebeard in rural Turkey, the film raises the issues of women’s rights, faith, identity, family, and trauma on the screen.
Perhaps post-traumatic stress is an area of study whose liminality between neurological and cultural memory can play a part in fostering an aesthetic estrangement from othering ideologies – a critical re-engagement with a piece of the French/European self in its non-Christian neighbour. Everyday radical thinking and the social reinvestment in interfaith understanding give rise to multiple lieux de mémoire beyond established definitions of identity and belonging. This rebuilding of cultural memory is represented by neuroplasticity in political, literary, and filmic discussions of racism and sexism, in which learned fears and cultural traumas/nostalgias give way to a rewiring of perceptions and experiences. Such neuroscientists as Eric Kandel, Vilayanur Ramachandran, and Norman Doidge have found evidence of the key function played by the so-called neuroplastic rewiring of memory and learning for the brain’s activity. In such cases as the treatment of obsessive compulsive disorder, learned fears stored in the brain’s cingulate gyrus and reflected in the orbitofrontal cortex are unlearned by activating the gearshift supplied in the brain’s caudate nucleus. In this and other instances, new neuronal networks replace old ones thanks to the neuroplastic property of neurons and synapses processing information.
We’ll be looking at neurological and intertextual memory on 23 March, and (with the Cassal-Staunton Trust’s generous support) at French-Turkish-Muslim exchanges in Senate House on 11 March. From Muslims in French banlieue cultural memory and in medieval chronicles of the crusades to Barbe-bleue-like visions of trauma vs. belonging in the film Mustang, our discussion will span several centuries of French/European relations with Turkey and Islam. The film screening will crown the day.
Both events endeavour to question existing demarcations between disciplines, media, and cultures. I hope that numerous fellow questioners will take this chance to challenge intangible walls.
Dr Matthew Mild is a fellow in cultural memory studies at the Institute of Modern Languages Research, School of Advanced Study, University of London. Dr Mild previously lectured in Italian and European history in Northwest England and Wales. He has published in the field of contemporary history of fiction and performing arts from France, Italy, and Germany. His current research deals with migrant cultural memory in cinema and literature.
Famously, Barbara Honigmann does not like to be defined – as she often is – as a ‘German-Jewish’ writer, or as a ‘GDR writer’ or an ‘emigrant writer’ (though born in Berlin, she now lives in Strasbourg). She herself declared during the conversation that she preferred to be asked about her texts, rather than what for her were now ‘boring’ details about her life or status as a writer – tellingly, she felt this might clarify things for her too. Robert Gillett responded to this invitation through the format of the conversation, which developed in the main from readings in both English and German of excerpts from her recent book Chronik meiner Straße.
Her powerful sense of both displacement and familiarity, in both Berlin and Strasbourg, is striking in her writing as well as in the way in which she describes her everyday experience – as a confusing state where places transform themselves while essentially remaining the same. This sense of confusion, she admitted, might entail a fear of confronting the contradictions in herself over the complex subject of her Jewishness and her rootedness in German language and literature, as well as her life in France.
Some of these issues were explored in the initial discussion of her early essay on three female Jewish writers – Glückel von Hameln in the late seventeenth century, Rahel Varnhagen in the early nineteenth, and Anne Frank. All three were interestingly characterised as ‘not really writers’ who were ‘not really writing in German’, and in this context a reference was also made to the Dutch essayist and diarist Etty Hillesum.
Despite her biographical caveat, the author mentioned in passing fascinating details about her background (for example, her remarkable, elusive mother’s second husband was Kim Philby) and her own early life (such as the ambivalent relationship between the intellectual and cultural – and often Jewish – elite and the East German authorities). As she described it, it was relatively easy to lead a kind of parallel, Brechtian artistic life in the GDR, but the bubble burst with the forced exile of Wolf Biermann in 1976, and she was among those who decided to leave rather than make the necessary compromises in order to further their careers. We also touched on the influence of her theatrical background and her work as an artist in creating vivid, memorable images and focusing on the significance of everyday domestic objects, which sometimes take on a life of their own.
Chronik meiner Straße is a meditation on time passing, as revealed in series of anecdotes linked by the perspective of the writer seated, over a period of more than thirty years, at her desk in front of her balcony, perceptively observing her gradually changing, varied and mainly immigrant neighbourhood while also playing an active role in the lives of these neighbours, and reflecting the wider changes in society. This small-scale but incredibly vivid historical montage of unforgettable characters and scenes is the author’s response to the daunting ‘big history’ lived by her parents in the twentieth century. As she put it, the composition of the population in this area, so close to the German border, changed from ‘melting-pot’ to ‘salad bowl’, with the complementary flavours of different ethnicities, but it was a form of ‘de-territorialisation’ rather than homogenisation – not an easy situation for immigrants in France where assimilation is seen as a requirement for successful social integration. Yet her book suggests that the small cosmos of her street still manages to live in peace and the melting-pot had never been a reality.
Overall, the most powerful impression I gained from this rewarding event was of a thoughtful, gently humorous, compassionate observer of humanity. Barbara Honigmann’s deceptively simple, calm, conversational prose matches her public persona of warmth and sincerity to an extraordinary degree.