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  • Operatic Migrations: Transforming Works and Crossing Boundaries
  • Christopher Morris (bio)
Roberta Montemorra Marvin and Downing A. Thomas, eds.: Operatic Migrations: Transforming Works and Crossing Boundaries Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006290 pages, $124.95, £65.00

Why did musicology claim opera as its own? Why, as it flowered in the second half of the twentieth century, did scholarship on opera find its seemingly natural home in the expanding musicology departments of our universities? Was it a matter of translating into academic terms the musical hegemony that had long prevailed in operatic practice? Certainly, the charge that opera is merely a costumed concert is often wide of the mark, but there is some truth in it, too: witness the authority historically afforded singers and conductors in the opera house. And what of the composer, that imaginary author-figure to whose authority critics and scholars persistently turn when they detect a failure to respect the "work," the "score," or the "tradition"? They speak so easily of Mozart's Don Giovanni or Verdi's La traviata, relegating librettists and every other creative contributor to a supporting role.

Or was this musicological monopoly a case of recruiting opera in the interests of the formation of a discipline? Like other fields in the humanities, musicology developed an autonomous scholarly vocabulary and rigorous methodologies, in part, as a means of self-legitimization. Opera-as-music represented rich territory for the exercise of musicology's dominant paradigms of source study, textual criticism, and formal analysis. Besides, wasn't opera repeatedly overlooked by musicology's sister disciplines for its indulgence of music at the expense of literature, dance, and theater?

These are some of the questions underlying Operatic Migrations: Transforming Works and Crossing Boundaries, a collection of essays by participants in a research seminar held in 2001 at the University of Iowa. In her introduction, coeditor Roberta Montemorra Marvin avoids any claims for the novelty of the book's interdisciplinary focus per se. Just as musicologists working on opera have increasingly sought productive models for their studies in the cross-fertilization of ideas from a range of disciplines, so scholars from other disciplines have challenged the musicological grip on opera. As Marvin's bibliography of recent work on opera by nonmusicologists acknowledges, the last two decades or so have witnessed a flowering of publications by scholars in the fields of literary, film, and theater studies, as well as work by philosophers, historians, and cultural theorists, although the list omits what is perhaps the [End Page 120] most obvious model for the book's multidisciplinary, multiauthored format: Opera through Other Eyes (Stanford University Press), a 1993 collection edited by David J. Levin, featuring essays by Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Slavoj Žižek, among others.

What Marvin does claim for the book is an unapologetically vigorous resistance to what she sees as a musically oriented backlash against the new interdisciplinarity in operatic scholarship. More traditional scholars, she fears, have grown weary of the perceived "neglect of music" (1) in recent work and demand a restored focus on the "element that makes opera opera" (6). But the work of interdisciplinary scholarship, she counters, continues to open up new and productive perspectives on opera, offering specifically to illuminate the contingencies of operatic production and reception. This investment in the value of sensitively attuned historicism is evident both in the book's title, with its emphasis on mutability, and also in the title of the seminar from which the essays in Operatic Migrations are drawn: "Opera in Context: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Creation, Performance and Reception." What should be resisted above all, Marvin argues, is a monolithic interpretation of the operatic work, as though it could be read or decoded in absolute or neutral terms, without reference to the circumstances of its creation, distribution, and consumption. To understand opera, in other words, is to contextualize it. Or, as coeditor Downing A. Thomas puts it in his brief "epilogue," to approach opera is to take account of its "migrations" and to acknowledge that the fixed entity we call the "work" will always slip through our hands (266).

The essays in Operatic Migrations, then, can be understood as case studies in contextualization, whether in relation to the...


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