James O’Leary

  • Frederick R. Selch Associate Professor of Musicology

Areas of Study


  • PhD, Yale University
  • MA and MPhil, Yale University
  • MSt, Oxford University
  • BA, Williams College


James O’Leary specializes in popular music and opera, and focuses his research on Broadway musicals of the 1940s. He investigates the ways in which composers have strategically and self-consciously projected aesthetic hierarchies (high art versus popular, highbrow versus middlebrow) to intervene in political debates during World War II and the early Cold War.

He has published work in the Journal of Musicology and he is currently editing his book, which will be published by Oxford University Press.

He has presented his work at a number of conferences, including annual meetings of the American Musicological Societyat the Society for American Music, and at the Sorbonne. In August 2017, O’Leary won the Transnational Opera Studies Conference Award for best paper by a scholar in the early stages of his career for his research on Kurt Weill.

In addition to his written work, O'Leary has lectured for the Metropolitan Opera and has worked as a pianist, music director, and arranger for the Yale School of Drama, the American Repertory Theater Oberon Stage, and the Williamstown Theater Festival.

O’Leary founded the Frederick R. Selch Center for the Study of American Culture, which sponsors student research and invites distinguished scholars from a wide variety of fields to work with members of the faculty. His professorship draws upon the Frederick R. Selch Collection of American Music History.

Exit Right: Broadway and America’s Hidden Avant-Garde (New York: Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2018) [ca. 325 pp.]

“They Begat the Misbegotten GOP: Finian’s Rainbow and the US Civil Rights Movement,” The Musical from Stage to Screen and from Screen to Stage, ed. Julie Vatain-Corfdir (Paris: Presses de la Sorbonne, 2018).

With Danielle Ward-Griffin, “Digging in Your Own Backyard: Archives in the Music History Classroom,” Journal of Music History Pedagogy, vol. 27, no. 2 (2017), 1 – 18.

“From Left to Gauche and ‘In Between’: the Politics of Voice in Duke Ellington’s Beggar’s Holiday (1946),” Sillages critiques, (Paris: Les Presses Universitaires Paris Sorbonne, 2016), 1 – 12.

Yolanda Kondanasis, Ginastera: One Hundred (Oberlin, 2016), liner notes [10pp.]

Oklahoma!, ‘Lousy Publicity,’ and the Politics of Formal Integration in the American Musical Theater,” Journal of Musicology, vol 31, no. 1 (January 2014), 139-182.

“Keeping Faith With John Q. Public: Cole Porter, Billy Rose, and Seven Lively Arts,” A Cole Porter Companion, ed. Don Randel, Matthew Shaftel, Susan Forscher Weiss (Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 2016), 165 - 81.

“Se non è amore, è propaganda comunista: Finian’s Rainbow (1947) e il musical politico postbellico,” in Protest Music in the Twentieth Century, ed. Roberto Illiano, tr. Nicola Usula (Brepols, forthcoming 2015), 67 - 78.

Yolanda Kondonassis, Ravel Intimate Masterpieces (Oberlin, 2013), liner notes [10pp.]

CMUS 104: American Popular Music

CMUS 105: Musical Snobbery

MHST 221: American Music

MHST 238: Musical Theater from Berlin to Broadway: the Music of Kurt Weill (in conjunction with Oberlin’s StudiOC collaborative courses)

MHST 255: Romantic Music

MHST 275: Music Since 1914 (upcoming, Spring 2019)

MHST 321: Fin-de-siècle Music in Germany, Austria, and France, Oberlin Conservatory

MHST 334a: Music History and Material Culture

MHST 334b: Making American Music with the Frederick R. Selch Collection

MHST 336 / PHIL 231: Music and Philosophy

MHST 337a: Introduction to Organology (in conjunction with the Frederick R. Selch Collection)

MHST 337b: What’s That Sound? The History and Development of Instruments (in conjunction with the Frederick R. Selch Collection)

MHST 338: History of the Broadway Musical

Spring 2024

Twentieth-Century Art-Music Tradition — MHST 276
Fin-de-Siècle Music in Germany and France — MHST 342

Fall 2024

Musical Snobbery — FYSP 095
American Music — MUSY 221


James O'Leary Awarded Fellowship from Society for American Music

March 21, 2022

James O'Leary, Oberlin Conservatory’s Frederick R. Selch Associate Professor of Musicology has been awarded the 2022 Virgil Thomson Fellowship from the Society for American Music. This competitive award aids scholars whose research interest is focused on the history, creation, and analysis of American music on stage and screen, including opera. O’Leary will use the award to continue working on a book about Stephen Sondheim that he started during the pandemic. This summer, O’Leary will be speaking about Sondheim at the Transnational Opera Studies Conference in Bayreuth, Germany.


A Singer Gets Philosophical

January 14, 2019

Double-degree mezzo-soprano Perri di Christina '16 looks back on her Oberlin years and ahead to a special reunion.