Dr. Margaret Butler used her 2014 Rothman Faculty Summer Fellowship to support work on a second book manuscript, "Opera in the Age of Reform: Traetta, Parma, and the Rhetoric of Innovation." The setting for her research is the eighteenth century, when the northern Italian city of Parma came under the control of the Bourbon royal house after it was ceded by the Hapsburgs in the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748. During this period, the traditional Italian genre of opera seria was criticized for its lack of dramatic unity due to the dominance of powerful solo singers and unruly audiences.
Dr. Butler’s work sheds new light on Parma as a site of operatic reform under Bourbon rule, despite the fact that the city’s contributions have traditionally been marginalized by musicologists. She argues that rather than placing it within the context of Viennese opera reform, opera in Parma should be seen in relation to French productions. In its French context, Parma becomes a site of reform and innovation as traditional Italian style fused with French spectacle in surprising and previously unseen ways.
The operas of Tommaso Traetta, the court composer of Parma, are evidence of French and Italian cultural fusion. Traetta adapted several works of famous French opera composer, Jean-Philippe Rameau, beginning with Ippolitio ed Aricia in 1759. Dr. Butler’s project reconstructs the French context out of which these Italian operas grew, focusing on the French ballets and operas performed before Traetta arrived on the scene in Parma. She shows that the French works were modified in creative ways and that Traetta was working within an established tradition of stylistic synthesis and adaptation. Dr. Butler’s work thus raises questions about what operatic reform meant to audiences, how scholars understand it today, and how it has shaped the narrative of opera history.
Dr. Butler’s research broadly suggests that culture and its aesthetic forms, including opera, communicate ideas connected to politics, economics, and sovereignty. As Parma’s Bourbon sovereign sought to transform his capital into one that would command attention on the European stage, developments on the opera stage reflected those broader goals. Audiences in Parma were thereby encouraged to admire their new Bourbon rulers through the beauty of opera, dance, and stage spectacle. Traetta’s operas were not marginal productions, but instead the result of high cultural creativity. When placed in the context of the Bourbon and Hapsburg union (resulting from the royal marriage of 1760), the blending of Italian and French operatic mores had not only aesthetic implications, but also social and political resonance.
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