Thesis ID: CBB421986568

Virtual Economies and Spectral Space: Opera and Immersive Technology in the Late Nineteenth Century (2023)


In 1863, the British patent office approved a patent for Pepper’s Ghost, an optical illusion created by the eponymous John Henry Pepper. Almost immediately, music halls throughout Britain began pirating the illusion to project specters upon the stage during performances of operas like Weber’s Der Freischütz and Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer. Pepper found himself in the midst of legal battles as he was forced to pursue infringements against his patent. The question that preoccupied Pepper and his opponents in their “ghost trials” was metaphysical at heart: how could a man lay claim to the “intangible nothing” of a ghost? This dissertation explores moments in operatic history such as Pepper’s trials to demonstrate that nineteenth-century audiences conceptualized virtual, in-between spaces like the spectral realm in economically and legally material terms. I explore four case studies, each situated at the intersection of an operatic tradition, scientific discipline, and “immersive technology.” First, I examine Pepper’s Ghost as it was taken on tour throughout Britain by “spectral opera companies,” exploring how itinerant performers used opera as a vehicle through which to enhance the sensationalism of the optical illusion. Second, I explore the impact of environmentalist Florence Merriam as she worked to transform the science of ornithology by emphasizing the virtual spaces of intimacy accessible through the opera glass. Moving between the space of the opera house and the natural world, I demonstrate not only that ornithology as we conceive of it today was influenced heavily by operatic modes of listening and viewing through the technology of the opera glass, but also offer an example of how scientific strategies of attention in the field might provide new insight into how audiences listened in the opera house. Third, I examine early attempts to create immersive experiences in European aquarium installations beginning in the 1850s. Sound was a problem for aquarium managers, whose attempts at visual immersion were often thwarted by the sonic realities of the aquarium space. These failures of immersion carried over in aquatic scenes on operatic stages, as I demonstrate in my rereading of the opening scene of Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold through the lens of growing audience apathy towards aquarium exhibitions. Finally, I connect late nineteenth-century developments in perfume manufacturing and advertising to the opera house. The industrialization of fragrance creation radically altered the luxury goods market, as consumers were increasingly able to afford the “extravagance” of fragrance. I trace how opera was used to attract these new swaths of customers, as perfume manufacturers and advertisers began to position scent as a means of not only branding oneself but capturing ephemeral experiences like music in the materials of perfume. Taken together, my four case studies identify the musical, economic, and technological dialogues that contributed to late nineteenth-century understanding of materiality and virtual experience throughout Europe and the United States. Bringing together opera, media studies, and the history of technology, I show how familiarity with immersive technologies reframed the relationship between body and voice onstage, influenced strategies of operatic listening and branding, and taught audience members new ways to conceptualize sound. We tend to think of virtuality as a concept that emerged with the digital age. I show that virtual experience was not only common in the nineteenth century, but also firmly linked to technologies of the past.

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Authors & Contributors
Vennen, Mareike
Bak, Meredith Anne
Burchsted, Fred
Burchsted, J. C. A.
Carandell Baruzzi, Miquel
Davis, Tracy C.
Archives of Natural History
Berichte zur Wissenschaftsgeschichte
Ambix: Journal of the Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry
Centaurus: International Magazine of the History of Mathematics, Science, and Technology
Configurations: A Journal of Literature, Science, and Technology
Interdisciplinary Science Reviews
Wallstein Verlag
Cambridge University Press
Pennsylvania State University Press
Reaktion Books
Science and entertainment; science and spectacle
Performance; demonstration
Optical illusion
Natural history
Gosse, Philip Henry
Blaschka, Leopold
Faraday, Michael
Stimpson, William
Thurneysser zum Thurn, Leonhard
Williams, John Lloyd
Time Periods
19th century
18th century
16th century
20th century
20th century, early
20th century, late
Great Britain
Massachusetts (U.S.)
Vassar College

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