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  • A Note from the Guest EditorsBetween Opera and Dance
  • Majel Connery (bio) and James Steichen (bio)

In 2006 Simon Morrison and Stephanie Jordan guest edited an issue of this journal entitled “Sound Moves.” In it, they announced the emergence of “choreomusicology,” a new discipline forged by scholars possessing a certain skill set, namely, “a sensitive ear” and the ability to read multiple forms of notation.1 Eight years later, the tandem study of music and dance has attained greater visibility, a fact nowhere more evident than in the establishment in 2012 of a Music and Dance Study Group under the auspices of the American Musicological Society. The Group hosted its inaugural session, “Getting Musicology to Dance,” at the Society’s 2013 annual meeting.2

In spite of these developments, however, it seems likely that at least within the precincts of musicology the study of dance will remain a marginal interest—a “Group” rather than a robust subdiscipline. However, within the field of opera studies, studious attention to dance is not a new phenomenon. Indeed, the study of dance has fit rather comfortably under the banner of opera studies for many years now. Today, a class of scholars has arrived, specializing in what we might call “dance in opera.” In addition to the scholarship of Morrison and Jordan, work by Daniel Albright, Irene Alm, Rebecca Harris-Warrick, Bruce Alan Brown, Wayne Heisler, Wendy Heller, Mary Ann Smart, and Marian Smith argues both for the necessity of studying these two artistic forms in tandem and demonstrates that the historical and analytical methods of musicology have much to offer to dance studies and vice versa.

Opera’s debt to dance is as old as opera itself—indeed, opera at one time was unthinkable without dance. Daniel Albright notes, wittily, that opera, “like Greek tragedy itself, was born as a genre intimate with sex dance.”3 “The premise of opera,” he continues, “is nakedness transposed from the skin to the larynx: vulnerability, modesty, and wild abandon are all reseated in the throat. . . .”4 Put bluntly, dance does not embellish the opera in which it is embedded. Dance inspires opera: it is its raison d’être.

Scholars of early opera have chronicled its unruly origins. The early years of opera encompassed a dizzying range of what we might today call subgenres, from the opera scenica to the attione in musica to the festa teatrale.5 But opera’s most important precursor is generally understood to be the intermedi, short but spectacular displays of song and dance that, in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, one could find interpolated between the acts of spoken or sung drama.6 For some time, the intermedi and the nascent genre of opera coexisted peaceably in “multicolored promiscuity” before the latter ultimately subsumed the former.7 From its cousin, opera acquired [End Page 151] more than just a taste for opulent theatricality. It grew accustomed to a proximity to power, as intermedi typically would be mounted for occasions requiring extravagant displays of social or political sovereignty. One could say that the intermedi stand provocatively “in between” opera and dance, anticipating the codification of ballet as an embodied discourse of courtly belonging in the circle of Louis XIV, and predicting the canonization of Metastasian opera seria as a ritual of political legitimation in the capitals of Europe and its colonies. When opera moved from the northern Italian courts to the public theaters of Venice in the 1630s, dance and dancers went with it.8 To relate the origin of opera is to tell the tale of opera’s eagerness to dance.

Few subsequent periods of operatic history have passed without some renegotiation of opera’s affair with dance. But the same might be said of the affinity of dance (especially ballet) to opera. Giselle, arguably the most canonical of nineteenth-century ballets, first appeared on a stage where opera and ballet were typically allied—ballet then was more verbose, and opera more mobile than what we are accustomed to today.9 In those days opera provided ballet with a platform for thinking through the refinement of its preferred body-type: Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Robert le diable occasioned the birth...


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pp. 151-154
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