- Predicaments of Coloniality, or, Opera Studies Goes Ethno
Over the Past Decade or so, opera scholarship has enjoyed a remarkable expansion of both geographical and disciplinary territory. The result, articulated in such volumes as Pamela Karantonis and Dylan Robinson's Opera Indigene (2011),1 Naomi André, Karen Bryan, and Eric Saylor's Blackness in Opera (2012),2 and the three texts under consideration here, has been a valuable proliferation of perspectives and methodologies. Engaging repertories, voices, and spaces until recently unaccounted for in opera scholarship, these studies have examined opera not merely as artefact, but as a site for contemporary social and political meaning-making.
The turn towards supposedly peripheral operatic cultures, however, appears to have reinforced a disciplinary distinction between opera scholarship's mainstream and its others. In what resembles the divide between ethnomusicology and musicology, studies of operatic activity located outside the deracialized canons of the West seem to have been relegated (and, occasionally, self-sequestered) to a disciplinary dust bowl. For a field as fundamentally interdisciplinary as opera studies, the paradox is glaring. Moreover, as the three books discussed here show, the division is neither necessary nor productive.
With the exception of five chapters in Mary Ingraham, Joseph So, and Roy Moodley's Opera in a Multicultural World: Coloniality, Culture, Performance,3 to which I shall return, each of the three books deals with non-mainstream operatic cultures: non-mainstream, either because of where they take place, or because of the subject matter of their compositions, or because of the cultural and political identities of their participants. Hilde Roos's monograph The La Traviata Affair: Opera in the Age of Apartheid reconstructs the story of one South African opera company active under the apartheid regime.4 Explicitly historiographic in both approach and content, it forms a valuable counterpart to Naomi André's Black Opera: History, Power, Engagement, which looks to opera 'as a place for exploring black experience' (p. 29) in the United States and (post-apartheid) South Africa.5 Whereas both Roos and André limit their texts to one [End Page 529] or two socio-political locations and historical epochs, Opera in a Multicultural World embraces a racially, culturally, geographically, and temporally expansive view. It collects diverse perspectives (from audiences, singers, and creators) and describes a wide range of repertories. In critical orientation and subject matter the collection takes after Blackness in Opera and Opera Indigene. Though it appears under the Routledge label, Opera in a Multicultural World does not form part of Routledge's Ashgate Interdisciplinary Studies in Opera series—a demonstration, perhaps, of what Olivia Bloechl has described as the series' turn towards 'more recognizable topics' since its publication of Opera Indigene.6
Despite their ex-centric focus, there is much that is recognizable in each of the three texts. André and Roos deal almost exclusively with canonical repertory. They shape their inquiries around the unusual meanings produced by interactions between the canon and socio-politically marginalized communities. Opera in a Multicultural World, in turn, uses familiar critical frameworks—coloniality and multiculturalism—to examine repertories and practices that range from the conventional to the absurd. The conditions are set throughout for a stimulating deliberation on opera's place and power outside its Western centre, and for an introduction of non-Western musical epistemologies. What the books offer, though, is a selection of largely historical or ethnographic reflections seemingly severed from both 'mainstream' opera studies and current post- and decolonial theoretical models. The result: a brand of scholarship I'd like to call, not without humour, 'ethno opera studies'.
André describes black involvement in opera as a 'shadow culture', one that traces 'a different narrative of opera that has a parallel, yet obscured, lineage to the dominant tradition' (pp. 9; 15–16). While this shadow culture, especially in the first half of the twentieth century, resembles 'dominant opera culture' in terms of performance practice and repertory, André observes that its significance lies in the 'different questions' it addresses and the 'different terrain' it traces (p. 16). In recent years, some of the most important American players in this narrative have entered musicological consciousness, with excellent work on...