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  • A Note from the Guest Editor
  • Axel Englund

What awaits opera studies beyond the performative turn? The trope of the turn implies a linear movement along a new trajectory. Giving the idea of a journey along a path, road, or river, the question––as open as it may seem––thus contains a reassuring promise of progressive exploration. And yet the ubiquity of various turns in the humanities may seem disorientating, labyrinthine even. Moreover, linearity sits uneasily with the reality of any research field––a very different geographical metaphor, which sprawls in all directions and yields a variegated harvest. On the most basic level, the turn toward the performative designates a shift of attention from closed structures to an open-ended process, which in itself resists the linearity of a turn. As such, it cannot be conclusively dated or located, but has been detected retrospectively and proclaimed programmatically many times over. In this sensÉ what we need to get beyond is perhaps just the definite article: rather than a unified paradigm shift, "the" performative turn is a meandering network of movements from artifact to action.

Such gesturing toward the performative happened in many areas throughout the twentieth century. In the early 1900s, for instance, Berlin scholar Max Herrmann advocated a shift from the text-focused study of theater, which considered it a subset of literature, to the study of its performance, thereby laying the foundation for German Theaterwissenschaft.1 From linguistic philosophy came J. L. Austin's 1950s analysis of speech acts, which under particular circumstances may effect concrete changes in the world, rather than just conveying information.2 Austin's notion of performative utterances inspired later theories of performative acts, most famously perhaps Judith Butler's notion of gender performance.3 From the 1960s and onward, theater, happenings, and performance art have explored the interaction between actors and audiences as a central part of their aesthetic project.4 Eventually, the humanities followed suit more broadly, and during the 1990s, performativity became a buzz word impossible to ignore.

As for the field of opera studies, it has been generously irrigated by performative perspectives since around the turn of the millennium. After having remained within the domain of structuralist musicology for most of the twentieth century, it admitted in the 1990s a plethora of theoretical perspectives––hermeneutics, [End Page 1] deconstruction, psychoanalysis, feminism––which were brought to bear on librettos and scores. While these were still primarily conceptualized as operatic works, it should be noted that mobilizing performativity and process against structuralist analysis was (and is) a core project for the critics associated with New Musicology–– Lawrence Kramer, Susan McClary, and others––whose work grew increasingly influential in the last decade of the century.5 From Kramer's perspective, the hermeneutic act itself is performative: it is a demonstration of meaning that operates by illocutionary force, rendering the critic's interpretation of music analogous to that of the performer's.6

If the written score rather than the operatic performance thus remained the object of interpretation, a clear move in a different direction happened in 1997, when Tom Sutcliffe published the first book-length examination of contemporary operatic staging in English.7 Sutcliffe's Believing in Opera marks the starting point of a central strain of performance-oriented opera scholarship, seeking more refined approaches to operatic production, dramaturgy, and mise-en-scéne. Another milestone along the same lines was David J. Levin's 2007 Unsettling Opera: Staging Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, and Zemlinsky, which furnished the field with a whole new conceptual toolbox for studying contemporary staging.8 From Levin's perspective, director's opera––often unsettling in the sense of being highly provocative–– foregrounds the unsettledness of the genre itself, thus articulating the openendedness favored by performative aesthetics.

The contributions to this double issue are offshoots from a conference organized at the anniversaries of these two books, in the summer of 2017. It was held at Stockholm University under the heading "Opera and Performance: Taking Stock and Looking Ahead." Bringing together scholars from Europe and the United States, its aim was to map out the continuing ramifications and bifurcations of the performative across the field of opera studies today. The resulting...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1476-2870
Print ISSN
0736-0053
Pages
pp. 1-6
Launched on MUSE
2019-12-20
Open Access
No
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