Undergraduate Research

Lena (Huizhou) Yang '24

OUR Featured Researcher: Lena (Huizhou) Yang '24

Photo Credit: Jacob Strauss
Photo Credit: Jacob Strauss

Lena (Huizhou) Yang  (she/her) is majoring in Musical Studies. She is conducting mentored research under Professor James O'Leary. Her project is titled “How Does Nico Muhly Update Benjamin Britten for the 21st Century?".

Please describe your project: 

Contemporary composer Nico Muhly’s opera Two Boys was based on a true crime: a 13-year old boy created a series of online profiles, seduced a fifteen-year-old boy, and then convinced the fifteen-year-old to kill him. The opera premiered at English National Opera in 2011. In interviews, Muhly said was largely influenced by 20th-Century English composer Benjamin Britten. I analyzed how Nico Muhly updates Britten’s musical techniques in opera compositions to portray 21st-Century taboos.   

A brief summary (the elevator speech) of your research project:

I approached this comparative project through four main perspectives(in my paper): the use of chorus, themes represented by fragments/leitmotifs, use of gamelan scales(in depicting desires), and boy voices. I compared how Muhly’s composition is different from Britten’s and discussed how the different contexts influence their writings. For example, Muhly uses the chorus to symbolize the online chattering society while Britten’s use of chorus represents the struggling relationship between the individual and the crowd.

Why is your research important?

Nico Muhly represents one of the most prominent new voice of a new generation of composers. He is the youngest composer commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera, and he viewed himself as updating 20th-Century opera convention. For example, Two Boys is a cyber narrative opera written based on an actual crime, and the composition reflects the fake love in the online society in the 21st Century.  

What does the process of doing your research look like?

Since my research mainly focuses on contemporary opera research, I first found both primary and secondary sources about the composers, including the interview videos and concert reviews. Meanwhile, I listened to the recordings of the opera and analyzed the scores. After finishing the first stage, I started concentrating on finding the musicology and music theory resources in the conservatory libraries, like textbooks about the late 20th Century, Benjamin Britten, and Balinese Gamelan music.

What knowledge has your research contributed to your field?

I discovered that Nico Muhly updates Britten’s use of musical elements mainly based on the online society in the 21st Century; for example, Muhly highlights the fake identity in the anonymous online world by quoting the gamelan modes, and the chorus represents the chattering world unlike the way Britten portrays the relationship between the individual against the society.

In what ways have you showcased your research?

I showcased my research at the 2022 Oberlin Summer Reseach Institute Symposium.

How did you get involved in research? What drove you to want to seek out research experiences in college?

I aspire to pursue a further career in musicology after graduating from Oberlin, and OUR program gives me a platform to begin my research works. I also would like to thank Professor Miyake who recommended me to the OUR program during my first semester on campus. Last but not least, my last winter term experience Contemporary Opera Dramaturgy which was led by my mentor Professor O’Leary inspired me to conduct research about contemporary operas.

What is your favorite aspect of the research process?

Final presentation during the Symposium. My favorite part during the presentation is when I successfully introduced my investigations about the opera as well as my musical understandings to more colleague researchers in different fields.  

How has working with your mentor impacted the development of your research project? How has it impacted you as a researcher?     

I have learnt how to better narrow down the topics and structure my papers; as a researcher, I have become more adept at using and integrating different kinds of resources together. Moreover, my mentor made me build a better understanding in Musicology; for example, I learnt to reflect the deeper meanings of the link between music and society.

How has the research you’ve conducted contributed to your professional or academic development?   

Throughout this experience, I have become a better researcher in not only conducting research but also in generating ideas. More importantly, my daily communication with my colleagues in OUR program makes me both study in an interdisciplinary way and build a deeper understanding of the meaning of doing research.

What advice would you give to a younger student wanting to get involved in research in your field?      

I strongly encourage you to discuss and brainstorm more research ideas with your professors when you find some research topics that interest you! And don’t hesitate to have a try generating interesting, unique ideas in research!