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  • A Note from the Guest Editor
  • Heather Wiebe

Obsolescence is a very particular quality of pastness. It is the troublesome persistence of something that has outlived its function: the Commodore 64 in the basement, the decorative wagon wheel, and the ancient wall running through a busy thoroughfare. Obsolescence evokes the world of things: ruins, relics, artifacts, and remnants; detritus and rubbish; and the museum and the collection as modes of organization. It has overtones of the technological, suggesting those objects that most quickly fall from the height of modernity and usefulness to become embarrassing encumbrances. While obsolescence can prompt nostalgia or efforts at preservation, it can also be an unbidden intrusion, provoking more open-ended meditations on a past that persists in bits and pieces, whose role in the present is unclear.

How might the idea of obsolescence be used to press opera's relationship to the past? For much of the twentieth century, opera had been considered dead or dying, the defunct product of societies that had themselves been superseded. More than many other cultural products, it wears its anachronism conspicuously. Its embeddedness in outmoded forms of social behavior, its fixed repertory and often ossified performance style, its alien manner of expression, even its venues: all locate opera within an increasingly distant historical moment. Directorial efforts to make opera speak naturally and directly often seem interrupted by something else, by persistent traces of some other estranged historical moment. But opera's preoccupations with the past also reach further back, to its very beginnings in the reconstruction of lost forms of theater. For most of its life, opera has looked to the ancient, historical, and mythological, shunning the contemporary. If the collection, the museum, and the archive have been modernity's dominant modes of dealing with the past's traces, how might opera participate in these modes? The question is not simply one of materials, but of approach. A poetics of recovery gives way to something more urgent: the need to master and represent an unruly past, to absorb its detritus.

In place of a tradition or canon extending in a line from the past into the future, the theme of obsolescence asks us to imagine a world of the present (our present or someone else's) as littered with the cultural objects of its past. To imagine opera as such an object is to take literally metaphors about musical works and the museums that hold them, to treat with absurd concreteness the "object voice." It is to examine opera's frequent preoccupations—especially in the [End Page 3] twentieth century—with the dead and the inanimate, the mechanical and the inhuman, and to think about the material culture of opera, from its opera houses and props to sound recordings and films (as both traces of operatic performance and objects in their own right). But it is also to articulate the ways in which opera—for better or for worse—resists or escapes the world of things, how it leaks outside the language of storage they engender. Opera as performance—as a lively art—suggests the less secure modes of replay and reenactment, or the achievement of new life in the present. And more than other performance-based traditions, opera's foregrounding of the voice involves it in a powerful poetics of presence and revivification. How do such declarations of liveliness and presence inflect opera's preoccupations with the past? How does opera both fail to be and triumphantly resist being an historical object?

A persistent issue emerging in the essays collected here is a certain quality of deadness in the twentieth-century operatic voice. Janáček's The Makropulos Affair (1926) was described by one contemporary critic as an opera "that cannot, or is not able to truly sing." Jennifer Sheppard explores the meaning of this failure, while looking specifically to the opera's undead diva, the 337-year-old Emilia Marty. Sheppard sees Marty in part as a rewriting of Puccini's singer-heroine Tosca, but her bloodlessness—her status as "thing," as Sheppard describes it—also ties her to another operatic heroine of 1926, Puccini's Turandot. Arman Schwartz explores the uneasy relationship between older forms of...


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