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  • A Note from the Guest Editor
  • Sindhumathi Revuluri

What is citizenship? Who is a citizen? Such questions have been posed continuously since the birth of the nation-state, as well as many times before. A concept so often defined in academic literatures and popular discourse by its inverse or moments of greatest violence, citizenship can call to mind those outside of its boundaries: women, slaves, migrants. In comedic form, it is Tom Hanks in Terminal, limboed in a place of transit (New York’s JFK airport) because his country has dissolved overnight, while he was in flight. Far less comedic is the true story on which the film is based: Mehran Karimi Nasseri’s seventeen-year stay in Terminal 1 of Charles de Gaulle airport, Paris, after he claimed to have been expelled from Iran and while officials in France and Belgium refused him entry. In sadder terms, and in a more personal sense to those reading this from the halls of academia, it is the individuals on each and every one of your college campuses who may graduate but never work on the books, do research but never teach, hide their families in the shadows, hope to never get pulled over for speeding or a busted taillight, or any number of other considerations that most of us simply never contemplate.

Somehow always understood as precious, especially to those explicitly excluded, citizenship suggests protection through collective belonging. As a symbol of the rights conferred through a particular type of belonging, some of citizenship’s more salient and powerful features emerge. After all, belonging unto itself may be granted by other means (both social and legal): being part of a tight-knit neighborhood may offer a sense of belonging. It may even allow one the right to say that s/he is from or of a certain place. But in many contemporary polities these types of belonging confer only abstract privileges; only citizenship grants the right to vote, the right to protest, the right to congregate, the right to speak, the right to own property, or the right to hold elected office.

The operatic institution, since its birth, has many parallels to the inclusive and exclusive structures of citizenship. In its historic ties to political regimes as patrons, opera laid its foundation as a powerful institution. Seemingly open to all, access was limited by language, wealth, and education. Opera’s public structure, however exclusive, also set it up to be a source of commentary on political and social life, and, just as often, a puppet of its regime. In the abstract, opera seems to have the capacity to touch everyone equally on an emotional and visceral level. Yet in other ways, it speaks [End Page 1] to those in the know differently than all others, its deeply rooted conventions meaningful mostly to those inculcated in its histories of style and traditions of sound.

In putting the ideas of opera and citizenship in the same orbit, I therefore hope to complicate both the idea of negative definitions and the commonplace-ness of citizenship. I also hope to invite analogies between the structures of operatic and geopolitical systems, especially in the kind of pragmatic considerations that come along with being a citizen: voting, paying taxes, having access to public services. I thus use the term citizenship deliberately, to invoke the power and privilege that citizenship grants, but also to invoke the pragmatics of how citizenship is cultivated on a daily basis.

These analogies should not trivialize the profundity of the extremes of citizenship. Such a precious commodity, yet so often taken for granted, citizenship remains the unmarked category against which absence is defined; there is no word that easily sums up what it means to be without belonging in this way, except to invoke exactly what individuals do not have. Calling them “aliens” touches upon a deep need for sameness that resides within all of us. In a more extreme circumstance, in which an individual is not only displaced but unrecognized anywhere, calling him or her “stateless” highlights the absence of belonging that is required in contemporary existence to be validated and be conferred human rights.

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