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Research Seminar: Spectres of Empire: The Postwar Horror of Benjamin Britten’s Owen Wingrave

Wednesday 21 October 2020, 4.00PM

Speaker(s): Imani Mosley (University of Florida)

Benjamin Britten’s 1971 television opera Owen Wingrave has been understood and interpreted as a pacifist work, one that stands alongside others in Britten’s oeuvre such as the War Requiem. However, following the premiere of the opera, many failed to see how such a story could convey the idea of pacifism triumphing over militarism. The death of the titular character, as per Henry James’ novella on which the opera is based, confused audiences and critics alike especially since nothing in the text pointed to a cynical view toward the aims of pacifism. This led to a mixed review of the work, resulting in fewer performances and less scholarship than of other Britten’s operas. But for James — and for Britten and Myfanwy Piper, the opera’s librettist — the horror of this ghost story lay somewhere else, in the power of generational entrenchment, repetition, and unending cycles.

This discussion will present a new reading of Wingrave, one that elucidates how the opera was an incredibly timely and poignant work. By reading the opera through Jamesian scholarship, I show how the initial story is a critique of empire and imperial power and how Britten’s recasting of the story frames Wingrave as an anti-imperial work rather than solely a pacifist work. By understanding Owen as an agent of change and the representation of the end of empire, the opera acts as a microcosm of a much larger cultural story: the end of the British Empire, those who yearned to pull Britain forward, and of those who wished to drag Britain back to the past.

Imani Danielle

Imani Danielle Mosley received her PhD from Duke University in 2019 where her work examined the reception of Benjamin Britten’s postwar operas. Her current research addresses digital sonic mapping, acoustics, and ritual in the English churches and cathedrals central to Britten’s sacred music. In addition to her work on Britten, she also specializes in contemporary opera, reception history, masculinities studies, and race in 21st-century popular music. Her contribution to the digital humanities focuses on sonic mapping, data analysis, and digital and computational musicology. Her digital humanities interests range include studying algorithms related to music data, artificial intelligence, programmer bias, and classical music, and music and digital ethics. Mosley is also an active performer, playing new music written for bassoon and baroque bassoon in various early-music ensembles. She is also a working dramaturg and librettist and collaborated with composer Frances Pollock on the operas Stinney: an American Execution, premiered at the Prototype Festival in New York in 2019, and Salt, premiered at the Yale Opera Studies Today conference in 2020.

Location: Meeting ID: 915 8006 2656 Passcode: 840125