Staging Opera: History and Practice

  • Tutor: Dr Áine Sheil
  • Level: C/4 (1st-year students)
  • Module code: MUS00032C

Aims and content

This project deals with the development of the opera director’s role in the twentieth century. It analyses the work of several significant directors and considers the practical and interpretative functions of contemporary opera direction. Opera has a small repertory in comparison with other musical genres or spoken theatre, and this repertory has expanded very little in the past half-century, so direction and design have become important means of renewing the art form. Some opera directors choose to push boundaries through the use of technology, non-conventional spaces or innovative staging practices. Some approach opera as a political medium and draw parallels with contemporary issues. In this way, staged operas constantly acquire new layers of meaning, challenging audiences to think critically and to reassess familiar works.

Part of this course will be historical; it will trace the circumstances that gave rise to opera direction and examine several important developments from the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As the project progresses, it will investigate the politics of ‘director’s opera’ and the challenges of staging different types of opera. Students will have the opportunity to assess the approaches of some renowned directors, and to develop their own interpretative solutions to staging opera. The project will include discussion-based seminars and DVD viewings, as well as some workshop sessions in order to explore the use of space, character and concept.


  1. Presentation in class on a DVD recording of an opera production (10%), to be written up and submitted as a 2000-word essay (70%)
  2. 500-word account of a staging exercise to be held in class (20%)

Reading and viewing

  • Carnegy, Patrick. Wagner and the Art of the Theatre. New Haven, Conn. and London: Yale University Press, 2006.
  • Levin, David J. Unsettling Opera. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2007.
  • Levin, David J. ‘Reading a Staging/Staging a Reading’. Cambridge Opera Journal 9/1 (1997), 47-71.
  • Payne, Nicholas. ‘Opera in the Marketplace’, in The Cambridge Companion to Twentieth-Century Opera, ed. Mervyn Cooke. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. 306-20.
  • Savage, Roger. ‘The Staging of Opera’, in The Oxford Illustrated History of Opera, ed. Roger Parker. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994. 350-420.
  • Sutcliffe, Tom. ‘Technology and Interpretation: Aspects of “Modernism”’, in The Cambridge Companion to Twentieth-Century Opera, ed. Mervyn Cooke. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. 321-40.
  • Sutcliffe, Tom. Believing in Opera. London: Faber and Faber, 1998.

You may view any of the recordings of opera available on the Opera in Video database available via the Library’s electronic resources, but I would particularly recommend that you concentrate on recent opera recordings in the library’s DVD collection, since these are productions I have specifically chosen for this project.

Learning outcomes

By the end of the taught part of the module students should:

  • have gained an understanding of the historical development of opera direction
  • demonstrate familiarity with the concept of Regietheater (‘director’s opera’)
  • read opera productions as interpretative and creative texts
  • show evidence of an understanding of the duties and responsibilities of the contemporary opera director
  • have acquired the skills to plan their own directorial approach to a chosen work

On completion of the module, in their independent work, students should demonstrate Learning Outcomes A1-7.