restricted access 1. From Otello to Porgy: Blackness, Masculinity, and Morality in Opera
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1 From Otello to Porgy Blackness, Masculinity, and Morality in Opera naomi andré One of the most reliably predictable figures in the grand opera tradition is the male protagonist: the heroic tenor. Regardless of whether the final curtain finds him dying for his beliefs or saving the heroine from a fate worse than death, the lead tenor has traditionally set the standard for heroism and positive masculine behavior throughout an opera.1 But around the beginning of the twentieth century, the codes for representing masculinity in opera began to change. Puccini’s Tosca (1900) provides an apt example of this transformation, in which the lead tenor is never put in the typical masculine position of having to rescue the heroine. In fact, the opposite is true: Tosca spends most of the opera trying to save her lover (and lead tenor), Cavaradossi, and is ultimately unsuccessful . Moreover, the most dynamic male character is the villainous Scarpia, who tries to sexually conquer Tosca and assassinate Cavaradossi. This is not a new position for the bass or baritone antagonist, long distinguished as the unsuccessful suitor of the soprano and perpetrator of evil deeds. What is striking is that his actions are not balanced by the presence of an equally effective and noble male protagonist. Concurrent with this transformation of character treatment was an increase in operas featuring nonwhite or non-European characters. The theme of exoticism was by that time a regular feature in opera and brought with it an added dynamic for representing the Other.2 In this essay, I focus on how the changing codes of masculinity in leading male roles are calibrated differently for white European characters and nonwhite characters with non-European ancestry (for example, African American, Caribbean, Moorish, or African) and show how masculinity and heroism are brought together differently for black and nonblack characters. In order to provide both a close reading of a specific musical moment and a larger overview of broader trends about the representation of blackness in opera, I have divided this essay into two sections. The first examines Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello (1887) and focuses on a critical moment near the end of the opera that links orchestral developments in Italy at the end of the nineteenth century with the way Verdi dramatizes Otello’s vicious murder of Desdemona. The broader overview considers four operas written in the first half of the twentieth century : Alban Berg’s Wozzeck (1925), Ernst Krenek’s Jonny spielt auf (1927), George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (1935), and Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes (1945). Two of these operas (Wozzeck and Peter Grimes) feature white European title characters, while the other two feature African American protagonists.3 The “Chocolate” Project Though English literature has examined race and themes of darkness in Shakespeare ’s Othello, practically no attention has been given to the theme of blackness in the musical settings of Othello.4 Even more striking by today’s standards, several times in the correspondence between Verdi and those who were involved in the creation of Otello are references to getting the “chocolate” ready;5 Giulio Ricordi even sent Verdi a holiday panettone (a traditional Milanese cake) around Christmas in 1881and 1882, each topped with an unfinished figure of Otello in chocolate—not-so-subtle indications that he was looking forward to Verdi’s completed opera.6 Today, it is easy to look at this situation and think of it less as a deliberate racial slur and more like a convenience of shorthand. Referring to Otello as the “chocolate project” could easily have been a casual way to talk about the possibility of composing another opera without seeming to commit Verdi to another major work. After all, Verdi, now on the cusp of his seventies, was content to retire after Aida in 1871and live the life of the gentleman farmer. There are also other frameworks that surround these comments as they are contextualized in the nineteenth century. Chocolate was introduced to Europe from the New World of Central and South Americas in the sixteenth century.7 On its own, the cocoa bean is quite bitter; while hot peppers, ginger, and other additives for cacao were sometimes used in the Americas, the need for additional sweeteners or spices became a standard requirement for the European palate. The reputation of chocolate was that it carried various powers that ranged from its being used as a therapeutic medicine, a place to hide poisons, or an aphrodisiac. Hence, this edible substance produced several...


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