- Orientalism and the Operatic World by Nicholas Tarling
Edward Said’s influential monograph, Orientalism (New York: Pantheon, 1978; New York: Vintage, 1979; reprint, 1994; [End Page 721] 25th anniversary edition, 2003), continues to spark dialogue and prompt various approaches to studying the representation of a broadly conceived East in Western art music. Included in the long line of studies inspired by Said’s work is Nicholas Tarling’s recently published book, Orientalism and the Operatic World. Tarling’s book examines operas that represent what is often signified in music as the exotic Other. Using operatic terms, he organizes the book into ten chapters divided in two parts—“Aria” and “Recitative”— which are framed by an introduction (“Overture”) and conclusion (“Finale”).
Tarling’s work aims to study opera throughout Western music history while questioning Said’s notion of orientalism. In his view of orientalism as a “description” that stems from a “long process of worldwide cultural exchange” (p. 16), Tarling refutes Said’s idea that the Orient was “almost a European invention” comprising stereotypes of “romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, [and] remarkable experiences” (Said, [New York: Vintage, 2003], 1). His “overall conclusion is that a study of opera—even of oriental operas—does not support the accusation that Europe or ‘the West’ took a stereotyping, homogenising, or dehumanising view of the East in which, as Said argued, a wish to dominate was at least implicit” (p. x). Instead, Tarling argues, “opera in general is a humanising art” (p. x). This basic premise returns throughout the book; Tarling contends that the incorporation of humans on stage, and the fact that humans work together to create opera, uphold his concept of opera’s humanism.
In the afterword of Orientalism, Said addressed the assertion made by critics that his book was accusatory and anti-Western. Said most regretted the book’s “alleged anti-Westernism” and the ascription that it connoted a “predatory West and Orientalism” that “violated Islam and the Arabs” (Said, 330–31). Said noted this was not his intent; rather, he hoped the book would be seen as a “critique of power using knowledge to advance itself ” (Said, 335). Tarling, however, makes no mention of Said’s response to critics and, throughout the book, fails to engage in a close reading of Said’s work. Tarling’s argument that opera is a humanizing art creates a binary distinction between Said’s notion of orientalism and humanism. Yet, Said himself sought to use humanism to break down reductive categories and labels and bring to the fore the multifarious and unique qualities of diversity and difference. In the preface to the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of his book, Said notes, “My idea in Orientalism is to use humanistic critique to open up the fields of struggle” (Said, xxii). He continues, “the point I want to conclude with now is to insist that the terrible reductive conflicts that herd people under falsely unifying rubrics like “America,” “the West,” or “Islam” and invent collective identities for large numbers of individuals who are actually quite diverse . . . must be opposed” (Said, xxviii). Instead of questioning labels such as East and West, Tarling further propagates the reductionist terms that Said sought to dismiss. For example, he uses the word “oriental” several times in his book as an adjective to describe the operas that comprise his study. Indeed, he employs the term to describe people (p. 142) and works (p. 223) without a definition or acknowledgement of the complicated history of the word, thus ignoring Said’s argument that the scholarly specialization or academic discipline of oriental studies is reductionist, fixed, and vague (Said, 50, 86, 346).
Other scholars have acknowledged the limitations of Said’s Orientalism (for example, see Homi Bhabha, “The Other Question,” in The Location of Culture [London: Routledge, 1994], 94–120, and John M. MacKenzie, “Edward Said and the Historians,” Nineteenth-Century Contexts 18 , 9–25). Tarling’s critiques of Said tend to be expressed in more general and...