- Casting Metal:Opera Studies after Humanism
Among the calls for papers for the 2017 meeting of the Royal Music Association's Music and Philosophy Study Group at King's College London was the following for a themed session on the topic "Musical Nonhumans":
Frustrated with the limitations of late twentieth-century constructionism and hermeneutics, music scholars have recently begun to pay closer attention to the agency and materiality of musical "things." Aspects of the so-called new materialism are now evident in emerging research on the materiality of print sources, instrument technologies and media infrastructures, the material dimensions of subjective properties including identities, bodies and voices, and the ways that various aesthetic objects circulate and exert influence in the musical world. Most, however, treat the concern with musical things as a benign complement to traditional understandings of the musical object and its human use. In spite of increasing efforts in philosophy and media studies to revisit matters of political subjectivity and public formation in light of the material turn, the musicological categories of the human and the nonhuman remain largely undisturbed.1
The claim that musicology has left intact the binary of human and nonhuman is couched with the qualifier "largely." If any fields of musical enquiry might justify this qualifier, they are those associated with music technology, sonic design, and contemporary music theater. The rise in prominence of installation-based performance, for example, has arguably refocused thinking on music by situating it as a sonic object partnered with physical objects and presented within the materially specific environs of venues such as public spaces, museums, and other non-traditional venues. Equally, music theater has long experimented with engagements between human performers and technologies that interact with body, voice, and instruments in ways that challenge conceptions of human subjectivity and the agency of the performer. If we can speak of posthumanism in music scholarship—that is, scholarship that problematizes human exceptionalism—it is to be found in the literature generated through and around these practices.2 It would be easy, though, to exaggerate the impact these perspectives have had on music scholarship more generally, [End Page 77] and the authors of the RMA call for papers are no doubt justified in characterizing the wider field as they do.3
Rebecca Schneider has recently made similar observations with respect to performance and theater studies. She notes the rise and impact of time-based media and performance in galleries and other arts venues, of "curated" events, and even the emergence internationally of the "human book," a person borrowed for conversation and consultation.4 But if she detects the emergence of an important shift in practice, Schneider doubts whether these new conceptions of creative agency and its relationship to things have registered meaningfully in scholarship: "If living humans are not present to a performance themselves, then living humans must hide somewhere in the wings of actions, or be the ones to ultimately bear agential responsibility for the actions of objects or animals or plants Props, computers, projectors, pullies, dollies, light boards, costumes, cameras, and other paraphernalia of (co)production, curation, choreography, and display serve human artists, not the other way around."5 The priorities and biases Schneider identifies in thinking about theater and performance prompt me to ask what "the other way around" might mean for opera studies.
Again, a qualification is in order. There is no question that scholars have begun to explore the agential capacity of opera's objects, not least in the pages of this journal, and I will consider the trajectories mapped out by some of this recent work.6 Part of what appears to have motivated this scholarship is a fascination with the abundant, not to say lavish, materiality of operatic practice, of props and sets, of costumes and makeup, of interior surfaces that reflect and absorb sound and light, of mouths, limbs, lungs, and vocal cords. What binds the gesturing arms of singers in Mary Ann Smart's Mimomania (2004) with the singing mouth shaped into an "O" in Lawrence Kramer's Opera and Modern Culture (2007) and with the embodied performance and spectatorship as presented in Linda and Michael Hutcheons's Bodily Charm: Living...