- 2059:A Utopian Turning Back
"Taking stock and looking ahead" encourages an assessment of the past in view of the future: the counting and sorting of achievements, milestones, and trends are surely civilized exercises that put one in touch with mortality and capital, ever crucial ingredients of our human posthumanism. And yet, it is also an exercise premised on the fantasy of the bird's-eye view: an utterance above the fray, a state of Olympic clarity, a rhetoric of atemporal and aspatial mastery. Since we trade in the theatrical, my take starts by lowering the point of view to remain in fact on earth—and, more precisely, on the stage of institutional academic discourse. Among the metaphors that can prompt a reflection on the practice of opera studies, the most intriguing for me is that of the backward glance: that turning back of Orpheus that has been staged in opera theaters for over four centuries, marking the very history of the genre's dealings with its own performance. And also a trope marking, like a red thread, a more recent history of a critique reflecting on its own aurality.1
My starting point for the following pages is that a kind of "turning back" is crucial to the way opera studies has been engaging with opera performance. As a professional practice, the discourse on "opera and/in performance" continues to be anchored to writing. Probably thanks to our institutional conventions of measuring and weighing scholarly labor in terms of writing and reading—how much we write, how much we (are) read, etc.—the medial status of opera studies in 2019 remains the same as ever: printed texts. There is no reason to take it for granted, nor to think that over the course of the next forty years it will change into other medial configurations—say, the film essay, the podcast, the graphic novel, or the installation. It is up to us to articulate the interval between opera-as-performance (its eventness, mediatization, aesthetics, historicity) and opera-as-a-scholarly-practice (verbal and textual). The gesture of turning back is a trope marking the shift from one to the other, from the object/subject of study to the discursive engagement and vice versa: turning back is the gateway to the creation of what Rebecca Schneider calls "the interval between instances of a thing."2
One of the purposes of this article is to muse on the futurity of opera studies: not by unfolding a narrative of progress and developments, of aspirations and duties, [End Page 118] but rather as a utopian exercise, searching for the potential contained in that turning back, perhaps ultimately as a way to "entertain the vision of a different future from the one already prepared, processed and pre-mediated for us," as Thomas Elsaesser recently wished for.3 I will explore first how turning back is related to the act of giving an account, and then how backward looking and hearing amount to far more than what is given to be seen and to be heard by "the text and its performance," that couple conventionally identified as the semiotic core of opera.
Giving an account of opera, attending to opera in writing, often implies a strategy of hindsight, an aptitude for the double take, a rhetoric of afterwardness. In this sense, the academic practice has a lot in common with the journalistic review. But the two institutional modes articulate their accounts in substantially different ways. To put it roughly, for opera studies, attending to a specific production, especially if current, is still a kind of privilege, in that it means to participate in the present, to fulfill an aspiration to cultural relevance and responsibility (the dream of the public intellectual). The journalistic account instead fulfills its obligation toward the present (and the future) with a melancholic tone: its assessment of quality and skills for a global consumer (the connoisseur of the latest and the fashionable, of celebrity singers, directors, and conductors) perpetuates the fantasy of a forever lost event, of an irretrievable past. Reporting on opera is a kind of witnessing, which sells the...