JHI Alumni Spotlight—Joe Cadagin

January 11, 2023 by Sonja Johnston

Joe Cadagin holds a PhD in Musicology from Stanford University, and has been a long-time journalist in the world of opera. He is a regular features writer and recording critic for Opera News, and a former contributor to San Francisco Classical Voice and Fanfare. His public writing centres on opera with emphasis on works written in the past 60 years, particularly those by little-known, underrated, and underrepresented composers. He's currently doing a postdoctoral fellowship in Bucharest, Romania at New Europe College. Joe was the JHI's 2021-22 New Media Public Humanities Fellow.

JHI: Tell us about the project you worked on while at the JHI?

JC: I’ve always been fascinated by the obscure and the out-of-the-ordinary. For instance, during my time in Toronto, I fell in love with the curiosity shop Panoply (489 Dupont St.), which is stocked with miraculous and bizarre objects. You can read my feature on the store in the Canadian Society of Decorative Arts’ magazine Ornamentum. My project at JHI started out as a kind of operatic equivalent of a curiosity shop. I envisioned a podcast, titled Opera Obscura, that would excavate forgotten works of contemporary opera on unusual themes. For my first episode, I selected the 1983 Ra by Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer. More than a mere opera, it is an all-night work of ritual theater in which the audience participates as robbed “initiates,” undergoing the ceremonies and trials of the Ancient Egyptian afterlife. I ultimately decided to devote my time at JHI to a deep dive into Schafer’s multisensory vision of the underworld and produced a standalone audio documentary on Ra. You can check out the documentary on YouTube.

JHI: What was your JHI experience like?

JC: I appreciated most the fact that the JHI showed a commitment to journalism and public humanities, which are often denigrated in academia as “lesser” forms of scholarship. In my capacity as an opera critic, I approach a recording review with the same care and rigor as I would a research article. JHI’s leadership recognized the value of my work—whatever form it took—as well as the importance of reaching a broader audience. My fellowship allowed me to balance these two sides of my career: in addition to the podcast episode, I continued writing monthly features and reviews for Opera News magazine (including my first cover article, an interview with conductor superstar Gustavo Dudamel), but I also had time to complete my first academic article, which was recently accepted for publication. On top of all this, I was given the opportunity to design and teach my first class as an instructor—a survey of modernist ballet and opera from the first decades of the 20th century.

What was particularly refreshing was the fact that I wasn’t simply a token journalist, but one of many fellows in my cohort whose work spilled over into the “real world.” In addition to serving as a professor of Chinese cultural history at U of T, my JHI office neighbor Linda Rui Feng is a published author. I had the privilege of reading her first novel and discussing it in detail with her over lunch. And Irina Dumitrescu, who held the “big-kid” version of my position at JHI, provided invaluable advice about navigating between academia and journalism.

JHI: What is your most vivid memory of the JHI?

JC: One unusual feature of R. Murray Schafer’s Ra was the composer’s incorporation of olfactory leitmotifs. He assigned a scent to each Egyptian god and goddess, and these perfumes and incenses accompanied the deities whenever they made their entrances. I managed to track down phials of essential oils for these aromas at the Toronto new-age staple Piya’s Boutique, down a few blocks on Bloor from the Jackman Building. Coincidentally, Linda Rui Feng’s project at JHI investigated the culture of aromatics in late medieval China, so she was even more deeply engrossed in the strange and sensual world of fragrance than I. We also discovered that our JHI colleague Anna Paliy, a U of T doctoral candidate in dance studies, regularly ordered literary-themed perfumes from an Etsy seller. One day, we three pooled our collections of sample bottles and spent a half-hour sniffing the tiny phials of pale green-, pink-, and amber-colored liquids. (My favorite was Egyptian musk, which Schafer assigned to Anubis. I used to dab a little inside my surgical mask to make it a little more bearable to wear when I was in the subway—in much the same way that plague doctors used to fill the beaks of their frightening masks with lavender or other sweet-smelling substances.)

JHI: What are you doing/working on now?

JC: I recently started a second postdoc fellowship in Bucharest, Romania at New Europe College, a research center in the same vein as the JHI. Here I’ll be writing an article on Hungarian composer György Ligeti, who was the subject of my dissertation. His final vocal work, Síppal, dobbal, nádihegedűvel (“With Drums, Pipes, and Reed Fiddles,” 2000), is a setting for mezzo and percussion of seven nursery-rhyme-like verses by his friend and compatriot, Sándor Weöres. These Hungarian-language songs are uncharacteristically whimsical and tuneful for a composer that most listeners associate with orchestral sound masses (Stanley Kubrick featured some of Ligeti’s more nebulous and unsettling pieces on the soundtracks for 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining). I’ll be examining how Síppal, dobbal is representative of a nostalgic streak in Ligeti’s late period. I suspect that the imaginary childhood conjured in this cycle functioned as a form of musical healing for a composer beset by old age and coming to terms with the traumas of his youth—including the deaths of his brother and father in the Holocaust and his flight from Soviet-suppressed Budapest in 1956. I’m particularly intrigued by the cycle’s subtle musical and textual allusions to the magical arts of ancient Magyar shamans, who were believed to employ noisemakers and musical instruments in their healing practices.

JHI: Do you have any advice for our incoming fellows?

JC: Make the effort to come into the office daily—even if that means trudging through two feet of snow. The JHI is more than a line on a CV. It’s a physical space (and a beautiful one at that!) that’s designed for fellows to occupy and interact in. The pandemic only exacerbated a tendency that was already present among many academics: to withdraw into monk-like solitude. That kind of self-seclusion couldn’t be further removed from the mission of the JHI, which is intended as a “community of research and study.” You can’t contribute to a community if you don’t show up.