Charlotte Armstrong writes:
In January, I spent four weeks as a Brotherton Fellow with the Leeds’ Arts and Humanities Research Institute at the University of Leeds. Working with materials from the Opera North Collection held in Special Collections at the University Library, the aim of my project was to build a picture of Opera North’s approach to casting, staging and performing disability between 1978 and 2013. The company’s collection comprises a wealth of visual resources relating to productions featuring characters with a range of disabilities, from physical deformities as depicted in Verdi’s “Rigoletto”, to sensory impairments in Tchaikovsky’s “Iolanta” and Stravinsky’s “Oedipus Rex”, and dwarfism in “Der Zwerg”.
Perhaps the most commonly cited example of disability representation in opera is that of the eponymous court jester in Verdi’s “Rigoletto”. The opera was first mounted by Opera North during the company’s inaugural 1979 season, with subsequent new productions in the early 1990s and early 2000s. While there are some gaps in the Opera North Collection, I was able to consider these three stagings within the broader context of disability representation based on programmes, photographs, reviews, marketing materials, and other ephemera contained in the collection.
Using the programmes, in particular, it was possible to build a picture of Opera North’s changing approaches to “Rigoletto” and its deployment of disability over the years. One production was notable for its adherence to the plot devices of Renaissance revenge tragedy, another for its representation of the protagonist as an archetypal court jester or ‘fool’, and others for their use of disability mimicry or ‘cripping up’ to depict Rigoletto’s deformity. I wrote about some of these approaches in my blog post “A History of Rigoletto at Opera North”.
While “Rigoletto” presents a well-established example of disability representation in the genre, Mieczysław Weinberg’s 1980 opera “The Portrait” features no explicitly disabled characters and only saw its UK premiere at Opera North in 2011. Nevertheless, a production programme and other ephemera held in the Opera North Collection, as well as Malcom Johnson’s production photographs reveal this production as a striking and unexpected example of the use of visible disability on the opera stage.
The production draws upon visual signposts of disability including facial wounds, blindness, and mobility aids to play with and stretch the boundaries of the human form in its representation of the morally and artistically stunted wealthy elite. I further explore this use of disability as a scenographic device in my blog post ‘Dramaturgical Prosthesis: Disability Imagery in David Pountney and Dan Potra’s The Portrait’
These two examples only scratch the surface of the fascinating insights to be found from examining changing approaches to disability representation using the company’s archives. Beyond its interest to disability and performance studies scholars, the Opera North Collection is a valuable resource for anyone interested in the history of opera and theatre in the North of England, and I’m told there may be more material to be added to the archive.
Having been postponed since August 2020 in light of the Covid-19 pandemic, it was a real joy to take up the Brotherton Fellowship and access the collection. I am immensely grateful to Dr Kara McKechnie, my mentor for this project, for her invaluable guidance and allowing me to draw on her Opera North expertise. It would also have been impossible to carry out the project without the LAHRI and Special Collections staff, whose generous support enabled me to carry out much of my research remotely.