restricted access Introduction: Representing Blackness on the Operatic Stage
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introduction Representing Blackness on the Operatic Stage Despite notable scholarly contributions over the past few decades, the issue of race still presents significant hurdles for many musicologists. This may be due in part to issues raised by the theoretical approach Toni Morrison advanced in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992). Much as Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) implored readers to examine how the West’s view of the East is fraught with subordinating power relationships, Morrison analyzes what she calls the “Africanist” presence in American literature. This Africanist presence refers to, in her words, “the denotative and connotative blackness that African peoples have come to signify, as well as the entire range of views, assumptions, readings, and misreadings that accompany Eurocentric learning about these people.”1 In scholarly arenas like musicology that have long emphasized traditions and practices derived primarily from white or Western European cultures (or both), Morrison’s “Africanist” paradigm obliges researchers to rethink established opinions on race in new and often challenging ways. This is not to suggest that such approaches to the subject of race are absent from the scholarly musicological literature. Samuel Floyd, Guthrie Ramsey, Ronald Radano, and Philip Bohlman, among others, have helped establish a variety of methodologies and models for addressing the issue of race within musical scholarship, particularly regarding the African American diaspora in the United States.2 Their array of case studies and theoretical frameworks for dealing with race and music led us to consider applying such perspectives within a single genre: opera. Opera’s enduring and wide-ranging popularity, rich traditions of artistic collaboration and exchange, diversity of styles, and ability to blur the lines between cultivated and vernacular forms of art make questions about the intersections between race, ethnicity, and identity within that genre both trenchant and valuable. 2 . introduction The exploration of these topics forms the backdrop for most of the essays within this collection. Featuring a cross-section of scholars working in musicology , cultural studies, sociology, German literature, women’s studies, and African American studies, this project brings a wide range of strategies and philosophies to the central theme of how “blackness” is constructed in opera. Our goal is to explore how blackness has been represented and perceived by presenting new readings of both canonical and lesser-known operas by black and nonblack composers alike—addressing what is at stake with such representations, exploring what meanings they had in their original contexts, and examining what kind of performative and cultural significance they have retained. Our focus on blackness does not, of course, preclude considering how other types of racial and ethnic differences are presented in opera generally. But the colonization of Africa and (especially for those operas that involve the United States) the repercussions of slavery provide a particular set of power relationships unique to defining a black experience, which in turn can manifest in arenas often deemed more entertaining than political, such as music. Consider, for example, the simple act of “blacking up,” the stage practice of applying dark makeup—often, though not exclusively, by white performers— in order to “pass” as a black or dark-skinned character (as often seen with the title characters in Otello or Aida, though several other operatic characters have traditionally received similar treatment).3 The opera stage is perhaps the only space in American culture today where such overt racial imitation is routinely performed without comment or query. Such a practice is all the more unusual when one recalls that the other major historical forum for blackface portrayals in America—a nation where race occupies a uniquely problematic cultural position —was the minstrel show, a locus for the establishment and reinforcement of the many negative stereotypes aimed at African Americans (for example, as lazy, ignorant, violent, hypersexualized, conniving buffoons). While today it is tempting to dismiss these genres’ shared use of blackface as coincidental and unrelated in terms of actual practice—perhaps based on grounds of high versus low art, or on changing attitudes about race and racism, or on distinctions between representing a character and playing to a stereotype—the vast scholarship on minstrelsy, which focuses on the genre’s construction and negotiation of many complicated signs of racial and cultural difference (both in America and overseas), suggests otherwise.4 The historical popularity of minstrelsy presents another formative factor for the reception of black performers by audiences and the fashioning of black characters and performers in opera, and even in the development of an operatic...