Professor Ann Waltner takes history teaching beyond the classroom—to the stage.
She collaborates with opera and theater companies to craft creative performances that envelop audiences in artful and nuanced views of the past. “I love teaching and writing articles, but sometimes it’s difficult to get the information past academia,” Waltner says. “The musical programs allow me to speak to a broader audience.”
Waltner recently worked with the San Francisco Opera on the Dream of the Red Chamber, an opera based on a mid-eighteenth century Chinese novel. Waltner wrote the program notes for the show, which provide relevant information about the novel and its historical context, helping audience members understand and appreciate what happens on stage. She is considered a thought leader on both the performance and the novel and was a key resource for the opera production.
The Chinese Heritage Society, which underwrote the commission for the opera production, asked Waltner to create an interactive online course about the show, which is available to the public for free. The course, made up of four modules, provides a foundation for understanding the show and novel, and has been visited over 18,000 times. “The experience was great because it is a prime example of how an ordinary professor’s research and knowledge becomes useful in modern society,” Waltner says. “It’s essentially history, applied.”
In 2010, Waltner worked with a group of artists on a performance called Sacabuche, which was named for the Spanish term for a type of trombone that dates back to the Renaissance and Baroque eras. Waltner wrote the script and also participated in the performance. This show was based on a map of the world illustrated in Chinese by Italian missionary Matteo Ricci during the late-sixteenth century. An artistic procession wandered through the map, which was projected onstage. Performers played music and read texts that evoked the places they were “visiting." The score was mainly Italian Baroque, but also incorporated Chinese music played on the zheng and the sheng, violin-like instruments.
Waltner lent her expertise to another show based on a remarkable historical map. This one explored Venice, as documented and imagined by Italian painter Jacopo di Barbari in 1500. As with Sacabuche, the program meandered through the city via musical, visual, and vocal means.
“One of the things that my colleagues and I have been interested in from the very beginning is cultural contact—the ways in which peoples meet and interact,” Waltner says. “For example, Ricci was an Italian in China, and Venice was one of the most cosmopolitan cities in Europe.”
A new project
Currently, Waltner is involved with a new show at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick, Canada. This project explores ways in which settlers and indigenous people interacted in New France—again, using music, words, and images. Though the program is still in early stages of development, Waltner and her colleagues have already been able to collaborate with local, indigenous musicians to help bring this history to life.