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Blackness in Opera

Blackness in Opera

Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 304
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    Blackness in Opera
    Book Description:

    Blackness in Opera critically examines the intersections of race and music in the multifaceted genre of opera. A diverse cross-section of scholars places well-known operas (Porgy and Bess, Aida, Treemonisha) alongside lesser-known works such as Frederick Delius's Koanga, William Grant Still's Blue Steel, and Clarence Cameron White's Ouanga! to reveal a new historical context for re-imagining race and blackness in opera. The volume brings a wide-ranging, theoretically informed, interdisciplinary approach to questions about how blackness has been represented in these operas, issues surrounding characterization of blacks, interpretation of racialized roles by blacks and whites, controversies over race in the theatre and the use of blackface, and extensions of blackness along the spectrum from grand opera to musical theatre and film. In addition to essays by scholars, the book also features reflections by renowned American tenor George Shirley._x000B__x000B_Contributors are Naomi Andre, Melinda Boyd, Gwynne Kuhner Brown, Karen M. Bryan, Melissa J. de Graaf, Christopher R. Gauthier, Jennifer McFarlane-Harris, Gayle Murchison, Guthrie P. Ramsey Jr., Eric Saylor, Sarah Schmalenberger, Ann Sears, George Shirley, and Jonathan O. Wipplinger.

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09389-0
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. FOREWORD: Singing in the Dark
    (pp. ix-x)

    The present collection of essays attempts to identify and theorize the various ways in which the idea of blackness has worked as a practice—as a complex of representational strategies in the genre of opera. Taken as a single body of work, they do not present a unified theoretical voice, but like the practice of blackness itself, these essays forward complex ideas about race, humanity, and creativity, some familiar and others newly found and sharp around the edges. As the editors’ introduction indicates, Blackness in Opera seeks to denaturalize some of the conventions that have governed blackness’s presence in opera....

  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. INTRODUCTION: Representing Blackness on the Operatic Stage
    (pp. 1-10)

    Despite notable scholarly contributions over the past few decades, the issue of race still presents significant hurdles for many musicologists. This may be due in part to issues raised by the theoretical approach Toni Morrison advanced in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992). Much as Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) implored readers to examine how the West’s view of the East is fraught with subordinating power relationships, Morrison analyzes what she calls the “Africanist” presence in American literature. This Africanist presence refers to, in her words, “the denotative and connotative blackness that African peoples have come to...

  6. 1 From Otello to Porgy: Blackness, Masculinity, and Morality in Opera
    (pp. 11-31)

    One of the most reliably predictable figures in the grand opera tradition is the male protagonist: the heroic tenor. Regardless of whether the final curtain finds him dying for his beliefs or saving the heroine from a fate worse than death, the lead tenor has traditionally set the standard for heroism and positive masculine behavior throughout an opera.¹ But around the beginning of the twentieth century, the codes for representing masculinity in opera began to change. Puccini’s Tosca (1900) provides an apt example of this transformation, in which the lead tenor is never put in the typical masculine position of...

  7. 2 Hearing the Other in The Masque of Blackness
    (pp. 32-54)

    On January 6, 1605, Queen Anne presented her husband, King James I of England (r. 1603–25), with The Masque of Blackness, a court entertainment of unusual scale and spectacle.¹ She had commissioned dramatist Ben Jonson and designer Inigo Jones to collaborate on the project, and Alfonso Ferrabosco II (c. 1575–1628) to compose its songs. Once the king had been seated in the Whitehall Banqueting House to watch the masque, an actor presented a prologue requesting those assembled to imagine a journey originating in Africa. The stage curtain then opened to reveal a mystical ocean scene. A parade of...

  8. 3 Nationalism, Racial Difference, and “Egyptian” Meaning in Verdi’s Aida
    (pp. 55-77)

    In a July 16, 1870, letter to Giuseppe Piroli, a good friend in Rome, Giuseppe Verdi writes, “I am busy. Guess! . . . Writing an opera for Cairo!!! Oof. I shall not go to stage it because I would be afraid of being mummified. . . . If anyone had told me two years ago, You will write for Cairo, I would have considered him a fool; but now I see that I am the fool.”¹ Verdi’s humor reveals his attitude toward Egypt; like many Westerners of the period, Verdi regarded Egypt and its “civilization” as a curiosity. In...

  9. 4 Race, “Realism,” and Fate in Frederick Delius’s Koanga
    (pp. 78-100)

    On May 30, 1899, London concertgoers had the opportunity to witness Frederick Delius’s professional compositional debut. The performance, held at St. James Hall in Piccadilly, was notable for being entirely dedicated to his own works, a rare event for English composers of the day.¹ The first half of the concert featured several different pieces (symphonic poems, choral works, and an orchestral song cycle, among others), but the second half was devoted to excerpts from a single work: his new opera, Koanga.² Koanga must have seemed extraordinarily unusual to an English audience more familiar with Covent Garden’s Italianate repertory, not least...

  10. 5 Political Currents and Black Culture in Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha
    (pp. 101-115)

    The life journey of Scott Joplin (1868–1917) has become an iconic part of black history, for it is representative of many African Americans of the post–Civil War generation. Freed from oppressive fears of slavery and hoping for a bright new future, African Americans, including Joplin, pursued education ambitiously, believing that “fortune favors the well-prepared mind” and that opportunities were open to those who worked hard to find their place in American society.¹ Joplin was particularly fortunate to meet music publisher John Stark, who gave Joplin a contract and royalties from “Maple Leaf Rag” in 1899 rather than buying...

  11. 6 Clarence Cameron White’s Ouanga! in the World of the Harlem Renaissance
    (pp. 116-140)

    American literature, music, and popular culture of the 1920s are replete with works reflecting the U.S. fascination with the nation of Haiti. In this spirit, Clarence Cameron White (1880–1960), violinist and composer, and John Frederick Matheus (1887–1983), writer and literary scholar, produced the opera Ouanga! near the end of the decade, joining other African American artists who worked to counter the more sensationalistic views of Haitian culture. Haiti’s role as the first independent black-ruled state in the Western Hemisphere, as well as the prominence of its African heritage and the voudon religion, became a rich source of material...

  12. 7 New Paradigms in William Grant Still’s Blue Steel
    (pp. 141-163)

    “My love has always been opera—the theater. This love of operatic music, stimulated in my early youth by listening to operatic records, was the thing that first aroused the desire to compose. All my other work has been a means to this end.”¹ So wrote William Grant Still in 1949. By this time he had composed four operas: Blue Steel (1934), Troubled Island (1938), A Bayou Legend (1941), and A Southern Interlude (1942), and was progressing on a fifth, Costaso (1949–50). He was only two months away from the first full production of any of his operas, Troubled...

  13. 8 Performers in Catfish Row: Porgy and Bess as Collaboration
    (pp. 164-186)

    In the decades-long debate over Porgy and Bess, those offended by its depiction of African Americans have occasionally characterized the opera as a crime against the race. Some have called the work itself harmful, such as playwright Lorraine Hansberry, who noted that African Americans have “had great wounds from great intentions.”¹ Others, including Harold Cruse in his oft-quoted book The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, have viewed the opera as problematic because it ensables whites to control and profit from black artistry.² In some cases, a particular production of Porgy and Bess caused offense; this was the position of critic...

  14. 9 Searching for “Authenticity” in Paul Bowles’s Denmark Vesey
    (pp. 187-211)

    In January 1938, Juanita Hall conducted the Negro Melody Singers in an unstaged performance of the first act of Denmark Vesey for the New York Composers’ Forum. The performance, featuring music by Paul Bowles set to a libretto by Charles Henri Ford, provoked thoughtful and pointed questions from listeners. The work—never completed—was based on the dramatic true story of a slave who purchased his freedom with lottery winnings and organized a violent slave uprising in 1822 against the residents of Charleston, South Carolina. The insurrection was unsuccessful; authorities tried and executed thirty-six leaders and participants, including Vesey and...

  15. 10 The Politics of Color in Oscar Hammerstein’s Carmen Jones
    (pp. 212-235)

    I first met “Miss Jones” (Carmen Jones, that is), a few years ago when I was searching for a suitable video of Bizet’s Carmen for my opera history class, and it immediately struck me as a work that begged to be examined through the lens of feminist and cultural theory. Susan McClary, Catherine Clément, and many others have shown (with respect to operatic subjects like Carmen) that scholars need to ask who creates representations of whom, with what imagery, and toward what ends. For example, on stage and on film, Carmen Jones must be considered a box-office hit.¹ The Broadway...

  16. 11 Performing Race in Ernst Krenek’s Jonny spielt auf
    (pp. 236-259)

    Though by far his most well-known work, Ernst Krenek had an ambiguous relationship toward his fourth opera, Jonny spielt auf, or “Jonny Strikes Up” (1927). This work is an ambitious combination of European modernism, American popular music, and what Krenek took to be jazz. Its plot pits a central European composer, Max, against an African American jazz musician, Jonny, popular and vital “jazz” against an icy and intellectual modernism. In the end, Jonny wins out over his European counterpart, and the opera concludes with a panegyric to Jonny, jazz, and America.¹ Despite the daring of the experiment, audiences generally responded...

  17. 12 Il Rodolfo Nero, or The Masque of Blackness
    (pp. 260-274)

    In the fall of 1960, I made my European operatic debut at the Teatro Nuovo in Milan, Italy, singing the role of Rodolfo in Giacomo Puccini’s perennial favorite, La Bohème. One of the headlines in the news the following day proclaimed, “Il Rodolfo nero ha superato l’esame!” In translation: “The black Rodolfo has exceeded (passed) the examination!”

    I did not take this as an insult, for in Italy fifteen years after the end of World War II Blacks were still considered exotica, evoking a mix of emotions ranging from fascination to derisiveness. At that time, Otello and Haile Selassie were...

  18. Contributors
    (pp. 275-278)
  19. Index
    (pp. 279-289)
  20. Back Matter
    (pp. 290-290)