Ellen Broen, '12

Senior researches the history of a lost opera composer

March 13, 2012

Taking her first walk along rue Meyerbeer in Paris, Ellen Broen, ’12, had no idea she was approaching the intersection of her love of opera and international cultures.

A Richmond Scholar, Broen auditioned for the artist designation as both a flutist and vocalist. Though she initially was leaning toward flute, the review panel steered her toward the vocal major instead.

“Opera has a certain voice type that they look for,” she says. “I had the ability and the potential to go that route, so I pursued it.”

But Broen’s study of music doesn’t end with the notes on the page. To truly understand the characters in the operas she performs, she often studies the history of the piece and the composer. “It gives you a better perspective about who the character is and how they would sing this,” she says.

Her interest in the story behind the music led to a triple major in music, international studies and French and, naturally, studying abroad in Paris. It was there, living near the historic Opéra National de Paris, that Broen began to question the namesake of her residential street, rue Meyerbeer. She came across an opera, L’africaine, that was one of the last written by Giacomo Meyerbeer — a mid-19th century composer whom the opera aficionado had never heard of before.

Broen set out on a hunt through the National Library of France’s archives, where she found original manuscripts critiquing the work of Meyerbeer. “I kept coming across these sources that were hysterically unreasonable,” she says. “They said his music wasn’t worth listening to because he was an old miser and just wanted our money — things that you would never expect to read and a musicologist would never write.”

She also uncovered that Meyerbeer was a mentor and parental figure to famed German composer Richard Wagner. Meyerbeer opened the doors to his success, until Wagner’s claims of sabotage by Meyerbeer caused their relationship to sour. Wagner then proceeded to write a series of essays on his musical philosophies that were actually veiled attacks directed at Meyerbeer. Themes from these essays appeared frequently in the very reviews Broen had been questioning.

“Meyerbeer was an international figure and he was commonly loved across Europe and even in America,” Broen says. “It was fascinating that history could have had a curveball for him and suddenly his story was very different.”

While in Paris, Broen also had been searching for a thesis project that would apply to both her international studies and music majors, and the story behind Meyerbeer’s rise and fall was just the intersection she was looking for.

“The way my major is designed, it’s about how history and culture are represented, whether through the Western perspective or another perspective,” Broen says. “Because the perspective [of Meyerbeer’s history] was so skewed, it followed exactly what I’ve been thinking — Who’s telling this story? Whose perspective is this?”

With her research nearing completion, Broen will present her findings at the School of Arts and Sciences Student Symposium and plans to submit her final paper to musicology journals. She hopes her work will contribute to the study and performance of Meyerbeer, a movement that has been gaining momentum since 2001.

“Meyerbeer was a progressive composer and it’s still beautiful music,” she says. “It doesn’t sound archaic. If the scholars are starting to recognize that this is something we should be studying and listening to, then maybe opera houses will get the message and start appeasing that interest.”

Broen also hopes that as she pursues graduate school for vocal performance, she’ll one day have the opportunity to sing one of Meyerbeer’s operas.

“He’s still very seldom played,” Broen says. “By joining this movement, maybe we can give him the scholarship that he deserves and let him be played as much as Wagner.”