Liberate libretti, push for jobs

December 17, 1999

The MLA's new president sets out her agenda

Opera - which is enjoying a revival of interest in North America - became a passion for Linda Hutcheon, the MLA's incoming president, in her days as a graduate student at the University of Bologna.

Speaking by telephone from her office at the University of Toronto, Hutcheon remembers "sitting up in the gods for very little money and getting hooked on the combination of spectacle, narrative and music".

She carved out a career in the 1980s as an authority on postmodernism. But she found her excuse to work on opera when asked to speak about disease and literature at a conference. Her husband, Michael, a professor of medicine and respiratory specialist, noted that the classic operatic disease is consumption, as tuberculosis and similar wasting diseases were known.

The disease, Hutcheon says, is "all about inspiration and expiration". The result was a book written with her husband, Opera: Desire, Disease, Death. They wrote: "The diseases that are represented in opera - tuberculosis, syphilis, cholera - do not get there by accident, and they have been represented by European and North American society in ways that are particularly powerful in their conjunction of sexuality and death."

Hutcheon sees her work at the MLA moving on several fronts, particularly employment concerns. But at the MLA this year, she will help set up a discussion group on opera, meaning that panels on the subject will be built into the MLA programme to examine opera as a literary and dramatic form. She also hopes to add opera to the MLA's all-important bibliography.

Hutcheon says the move into opera by literary scholars was the result of an opportunity missed by musicologists. They "tended to do formalistic analogies of the music, as if it did not have a verbal text or a dramatic situation that the music was attached to and written for. They wrote about it as if there were no words to be sung."

Hutcheon, who is "working-class Italian", says she has always loved the MLA for providing an intellectual snapshot of the profession and the diverse interests of its 30,000 members. "We are at an interesting moment in the profession. The past 30 years have seen such an expansion of what we consider to be the field. It came with the rise of various identity politics: African-American, lesbian, gay and queer studies, the earlier rise of theory in literature departments. I see real value in the richness and expansion of the curriculum. We are heading towards a stage where nothing is dominant and everything is open to consideration."

Hutcheon spent six years as an adjunct doing part-time work and struggled to get a tenure-track job. That, and seven years in Toronto as a career placement officer, gives her insight into a generation of PhDs who complain that they are being exploited as low-paid, part-time labour. She has worked with the Coalition on the Academic Workforce, set up two years ago in response to the growing use of part-time and adjunct faculty.

At the same time, the past two years "have seen constant improvement in hiring, which is very exciting. The number of jobs advertised reflects the demographics of the North American academy: more and more retirements, a positive feeling about the economy that has helped public universities especially get funding for faculty and the increasing sense that we risked a generation of young scholars going to waste." TC

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