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Shannon Draucker, ‘The Queen Goes to the Opera’

2017 March 5
by lucinda matthews-jones

Shannon Draucker is a PhD Candidate in English at Boston University.  Her dissertation project, Sounding Bodies: Music and Physiology in Victorian Narrative, explores literary responses to emerging scientific understandings of the physics and physiology of sound during the Victorian period.  Her project shows how new discoveries of the embodied nature of music and sound inform scenes in which authors grant their characters desires, pleasures, identities, and relationships otherwise unavailable to them.  At Boston University, she teaches English and Writing courses and is also pursuing a Graduate Certificate in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.

In Episode 3 (“Brocket Hall”) of Daisy Goodwin’s Victoria, the Queen (Jenna Coleman) attends a performance of Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” at the Covent Garden Opera House.  Though brief, the opera scene provides the context for the convergence of several storylines and characters, including the Duke of Cumberland, Victoria’s uncle who is insistent on marrying her to his nephew George; the Russian Grand Duke, whom we last saw getting a bit handsy with Victoria at her Coronation Ball in Episode One; Uncle Leopold, who is trying to marry Victoria off to Prince Albert; and Lord M, whom Victoria begs to accompany her because she couldn’t “bear a night alone with Uncle Leopold,” though, as she gently teases, she knows he prefers Mozart.

In the opera scene, the camera pans back and forth between the opera diva, who mightily belts Donizetti’s famous “Mad Scene” – a notoriously difficult soprano aria in which the heroine goes insane – and the royals in their boxes, who demonstrate interest in everything but the music, embodying what musicologists have identified as a common phenomenon among nineteenth-century audiences, before rules about proper concert comportment solidified.  As Cormac Newark and others write, Victorian concertgoers were often more interested in the fashions sported by their companions, the presence of celebrities, the prices of the seats and boxes, and the political and romantic machinations occurring around them.[1]  In Victoria, the extra-musical activities of the characters include both the Grand Duke of Russia and Lord M romantically eyeing Victoria, Cumberland’s wife spying on the Queen and her suitors through her opera glass from across the hall, George sulking in the corner of his family’s box (later murmuring,  “As long as I don’t have to stay for the second act”), and Cumberland sighing from boredom at the interminable operatic scene.

Yet, the show soon draws our attention to one notable exception to this behavior.  While those around her sigh, fidget, and glance about, Victoria remains utterly engrossed in the aria.  While viewers are likely at first enchanted by Victoria’s sartorial adornments (sparkling crown, silk dress, white gloves) – clearly meant to display her power and beauty to her subjects – we are soon captivated by her unwavering attention to the performance.  The camera slowly zooms in on her figure as she clutches her program, tears in her eyes, stunned into stillness (she does not even move to applaud).  As the curtain falls, she woefully utters to the Grand Duke, who is seated next to her, “The ‘mad scene’ always makes me cry.”

At first, the opera scene may seem to represent a simple plot device to gather the disparate characters together and to sort out the Queen’s romantic options in a heightened, melodramatic setting.  After all, Victoria’s response to the “Mad Scene” sparks a shared moment between her and the Grand Duke, who claims to also have been deeply moved by the aria, while alienating her from George, who sulkily grunts when she attempts to engage him in a musical discussion.  The opera’s conclusion also brings us to a crucial interaction between Victoria and Albert, who travels to the opera house to bring Victoria’s beloved puppy Dash to her carriage for the ride home.

However, I suggest that the actual opera scene itself is important not only to the unfolding of the plot, but also to our understanding of Victoria’s character.  This episode offers a moment in which viewers see Victoria depart from the insecure, at times childish, teen queen she appears in other moments.  In this scene, Victoria emerges as a woman who not only appreciates high culture, but also experiences deeply affective responses to art.

A brief examination of Queen Victoria’s biography reveals that there is some historical truth to this representation.[2]  Early on in her reign, she wrote in her journal, “I must say I prefer Bellini, Rossini, Donizetti, etc., to anything else.”[3]  Particularly during the first few decades of her reign, the Queen frequently visited theatres such as the Drury Lane Theatre and Her Majesty’s Theatre.  According to Marina Warner, Victoria and Albert attended every performance of the famous Swedish soprano Jenny Lind’s 1847 London tour.[4]  Victoria’s notebooks and journals contain watercolors and sketches of opera singers or scenes from specific performances; she even gathered her drawings together and bound them in albums titled Souvenirs de l’Opéra, 1834-6.[5]  Though her theatre-going dwindled as time went on, upon her death, musical periodicals expounded at length about the Queen’s enduring love of music and theatre.[6]  The Musical Times recalled how “the Queen’s face blazed with approbation” whenever she heard a quality performance.[7]

Scraps

Caption: Frances Elizabeth Wynne, from “Scraps ancient and modern,” July 1857. Source: The National Library of Wales. <https://viewer.library.wales/1211796>

Though brief, then, the opera scene in “Victoria” reminds viewers of a rich but infrequently discussed part of the Queen’s history – and leads us to imagine that perhaps her opera-going resulted not solely from a sense of public duty, but rather from a genuine passion for music.  While critics have identified Goodwin’s portrayal of Victoria as merely playful and entertaining – The Telegraph notes that “it would be asking too much for this series to delve deep into young Victoria’s psychology” – the opera scene in “Brocket Hall,” at least for a moment, delves deeper; it sets Victoria apart from those around her and highlights her willingness to give herself up to the emotional sensations that art can produce.[8]  Thus, while both Victorian and contemporary critics have deemed nineteenth-century England the “land without music” – and have questioned the extent of the Queen’s own high cultural affiliations –  “Victoria” gives us a glimpse into the life of a monarch for whom the arts represented a crucial part of her emotional life.

[1] Cormac Newark, “Not Listening in Paris: Critical and Fictional Lapses of Attention at the Opera.” Phyllis Weliver and Katharine Ellis, eds. Words and Notes in the Long Nineteenth Century. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2013. 35-53.

[2] Scholars such as George Rowell, Michael Booth, and Richard Schoch have long studied Victoria’s relationship to the arts.  Some critics associate the Queen with a marked distaste for opera and philistine attitudes towards “serious art” that many believed plagued Victorian England, which in 1914, German critic Oscar Schmitz famously deemed “Das Land Ohne Musik” (“the land without music”).  Schoch, for example, quotes the actor Charles Kean, who in 1855 allegedly exclaimed to Queen Victoria’s dresser Mary Anne Skerret, “The Queen […] likes farce and rubbish better than the high class drama!”  Qtd. in Richard Schoch, Queen Victoria and the Theatre of her Age (London: Palgrave, 2004), p. xiii.  Schoch writes, “Far from limiting herself to Shakespearean tragedy and grand opera – the kind of stuffy ‘high culture’ now associated with royalty – Victoria shamelessly delighted in gory melodramas, historical romances, pantomimes, farces, and even circus acts.”  Schoch, p. xiii.  Others, however, including Rowell, Booth, and Marina Warner, emphasize the Queen’s affinity for opera.

[3] Qtd. in Marina Warner, “Queen Victoria as an Artist: From Her Sketchbooks in the Royal Collection,” Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, 128:5287 (June 1980), 412-36 (p. 423).

[4] Warner, p. 424.

[5] Warner, p. 423. Readers can view these drawings at the Royal Collection Trust’s website: <https://www.royalcollection.org.uk.>

[6] Indeed, some, such as Schoch, have suggested that it was Albert’s death in 1861 that prevented Victoria from going out in public to cultural events.  Schoch, p. xvi.

[7] “Queen Victoria and Music,” The Musical Times 42 (1901), 374-75 (p. 375).

[8] Jane Ridley, “The young Victoria most certainly did not fancy her fat, ageing prime minister,” The Telegraph (28 August 2016). <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/tv/2016/08/26/the-young-victoria-most-certainly-did-not-fancy-her-fat-ageing-p/> [accessed 9 February 2017]

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