Philip Gossett, one of the world’s foremost experts on Italian opera, will receive one of four Mellon Distinguished Achievement Awards, an honor that carries with it a $1.5 million prize. Gossett, the Robert W. Reneker Distinguished Service Professor in the University of Chicago’s Department of Music, is a music historian who specializes in 19th-century Italian opera, specifically the works of Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti and Verdi. His selection by the Mellon Foundation marks the first time a musicologist has been chosen for the honor.
Although the Distinguished Achievement Award is only four years old, this is the third time a University of Chicago faculty member has won the prize: philosopher Robert Pippin and historian Sheila Fitzpatrick are both previous winners. The grant, which supports research within the winner’s university, provides its honorees with $1.5 million over a three-year period in order that they and their institutions can deepen and extend humanistic research. In contrast to other academic award programs that benefit the individual scholar exclusively, the Distinguished Achievement Awards recognize the interdependence of scholars and their institutions and are intended to “underscore the decisive contributions the humanities make to the nation’s intellectual life.”
Gossett was a natural choice for the honor, said Ellen Harris, a musicologist and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “He has been largely responsible for making 19th-century Italian opera what it is today - a major field and a respected field in musicological research.” Before Gossett’s scholarship, it was considered inappropriate for a student to stray from studying the Renaissance or the great masters like Beethoven and Bach. “The only reason it doesn’t seem strange anymore is because of Philip. You can never say that someone has single-handedly done something, but to the extent that you can, he has single-handedly brought 19th century opera into the highest levels of musicological scholarship,” Harris said.
Opera News has called Gossett the “top expert in the world” on Donizetti, Verdi and Rossini; The New Yorker said he is the “single leader” in the field of 19th-century Italian opera; and earlier this year, Newsday wrote, “Some encomiasts claim that soprano Maria Callas did as much for Italian opera as Toscanini or Verdi. Musicologist Philip Gossett arguably has done as much for Italian opera as any of those geniuses.”
Author of two books on Donizetti and of the forthcoming Divas and Scholars: Performing Italian Opera (Spring 2006, Chicago), Gossett serves as general editor of The Works of Giuseppe Verdi and of The Critical Edition of the Works Gioachino Rossini. Among the operas he himself has edited or co-edited are Rossini’s Tancredi, Ermione, and Semiramide. He is currently working on Verdi’s La forza del Destino. In 1998 the Italian government awarded him its highest civilian honor, Cavaliere di Gran Croce. Gossett has also served as president of the American Musicological Society and of the Society for Textual Scholarship, as Dean of the Humanities Division at Chicago, and as lecturer and consultant at opera houses and festivals in America and Italy. Gossett, who was once a math and physics major, received his Ph.D. from Princeton University in 1970, and has been teaching at the University of Chicago since 1968.
Gossett said he plans to begin using the grant in the 2006-07 academic year to advance his more than 20-year-old project of creating new critical editions of both Rossini’s and Verdi’s works. In conjunction with this project, he will bring other opera scholars to campus to teach and do research. He plans to hold a major interdisciplinary conference examining the intersection of editorial theory, the preparation of critical editions that can be used as the basis for performance (musical or literary), and the use of these editions in the concert hall, on stage, or in other performance venues. He will also fund research trips to as yet unexplored archives in South America and Spain, where there are major theaters that were once Italian opera hubs.