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Blackness in Opera
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS
Copyright © 2012 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.
Introduction Representing Blackness on the Operatic Stage
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 signify, as well as the entire range of views, assumptions, readings, and misreadings that accompany Eurocentric learning about these people." In scholarly arenas like musicology that have long emphasized traditions and practices derived primarily from white or Western European cultures (or both), Morrison's "Africanist" paradigm obliges researchers to rethink established opinions on race in new and often challenging ways.
This is not to suggest that such approaches to the subject of race are absent from the scholarly musicological literature. Samuel Floyd, Guthrie Ramsey, Ronald Radano, and Philip Bohlman, among others, have helped establish a variety of methodologies and models for addressing the issue of race within musical scholarship, particularly regarding the African American diaspora in the United States. Their array of case studies and theoretical frameworks for dealing with race and music led us to consider applying such perspectives within a single genre: opera. Opera's enduring and wide-ranging popularity, rich traditions of artistic collaboration and exchange, diversity of styles, and ability to blur the lines between cultivated and vernacular forms of art make questions about the intersections between race, ethnicity, and identity within that genre both trenchant and valuable.
The exploration of these topics forms the backdrop for most of the essays within this collection. Featuring a cross-section of scholars working in musicology, cultural studies, sociology, German literature, women's studies, and African American studies, this project brings a wide range of strategies and philosophies to the central theme of how "blackness" is constructed in opera. Our goal is to explore how blackness has been represented and perceived by presenting new readings of both canonical and lesser-known operas by black and nonblack composers alike—addressing what is at stake with such representations, exploring what meanings they had in their original contexts, and examining what kind of performative and cultural significance they have retained. Our focus on blackness does not, of course, preclude considering how other types of racial and ethnic differences are presented in opera generally. But the colonization of Africa and (especially for those operas that involve the United States) the repercussions of slavery provide a particular set of power relationships unique to defining a black experience, which in turn can manifest in arenas often deemed more entertaining than political, such as music.
Consider, for example, the simple act of "blacking up," the stage practice of applying dark makeup—often, though not exclusively, by white performers—in order to "pass" as a black or dark-skinned character (as often seen with the title characters in Otello or Aida, though several other operatic characters have traditionally received similar treatment). The opera stage is perhaps the only space in American culture today where such overt racial imitation is routinely performed without comment or query. Such a practice is all the more unusual when one recalls that the other major historical forum for blackface portrayals in America—a nation where race occupies a uniquely problematic cultural position —was the minstrel show, a locus for the establishment and reinforcement of the many negative stereotypes aimed at African Americans (for example, as lazy, ignorant, violent, hypersexualized, conniving buffoons). While today it is tempting to dismiss these genres' shared use of blackface as coincidental and unrelated in terms of actual practice—perhaps based on grounds of high versus low art, or on changing attitudes about race and racism, or on distinctions between representing a character and playing to a stereotype—the vast scholarship on minstrelsy, which focuses on the genre's construction and negotiation of many complicated signs of racial and cultural difference (both in America and overseas), suggests otherwise. The historical popularity of minstrelsy presents another formative factor for the reception of black performers by audiences and the fashioning of black characters and performers in opera, and even in the development of an operatic tradition in the United States.
In fact, as a dynamic nexus of popular and highbrow theater, minstrelsy provided diverse opportunities for black and white performers alike. For white performers, it provided a point of mimicry and domination, as well as a transgressive and socially uninhibited space for embodying the Other. The shows themselves appealed to white audiences by invoking elements of nostalgia for an imagined past (for example, benevolent slaveholders and peaceful plantations with happy workers). Minstrelsy did, of course, entail greater challenges for black performers who donned the burnt cork, obliged as they were to present horrendous stereotypes that systemically reinforced notions of white superiority and models for self-deprecation. Ironically, however, minstrelsy's grotesque imitations of black life also provided black performers with one of the earliest socially acceptable public spaces (and often the only one) for professional musicianship. Given the limited public performance venues deemed appropriate or suitable for African Americans prior to the latter half of the twentieth century, it is not surprising that many black performers who might have been involved with opera were funneled into minstrelsy.
Indeed, minstrel companies, touring concert companies, and black opera companies became intertwined, as performers sang with all three groups as performing opportunities arose. (The close relationship among them is reflected by one of the nicknames for minstrelsy popularized during Reconstruction: "black opera.") Traveling minstrel troupes would often perform on the same stages where touring opera companies were featured, whether this was in a rented town hall, a schoolhouse, or the town's "opera house," which led to certain expectations on the part of audiences as to what performers (of either genre) should present onstage. As a result, there were frequently close connections between the songs, music, acting, and dancing of the minstrel tradition and the performance of opera scenes, with the latter sometimes adapted and inserted—usually with an eye toward parody or satire—within a minstrel show. Well into the early twentieth century, minstrel stereotypes provided a coded norm for how blackness was performed in a musico-dramatic setting and thus became potent models for depicting blackness on the operatic stage, whether in terms of story lines, characterization, or the simple application of dark makeup.
Hence, the division between minstrelsy and opera performances by black artists is not always easy to discern and reflects the tension that irresistibly follows black performers into the opera house. Even the seemingly progressive issue of color-blind casting raises certain practical concerns. For instance, how should makeup be applied to light-skinned black people? Should the goal be to have lighter skin tones blend into a white or European hue (that is, to "pass" as white) for roles initially designated as "nonblack"? Conversely, should a light-skinned black singer be given darker makeup when he or she is singing a black characteractually to "black up" for the role? And if color-blind casting is appropriate for black performers in opening up opportunities for talented singers, we come full circle by asking what happens to this power dynamic if producers cast nonblack performers in specifically black roles.
The point is that getting a black opera singer onstage involves successfully negotiating many professional and cultural barriers, but achieving that aim can lead to new and equally limiting obstacles. Like Morrison's paradigm of the "Africanist" presence whose "shadow hovers in implication, in sign, in line of demarcation," what we are calling the "representation of blackness in opera" allows us to examine a multivalent system in ways that give meaning to questions about race and identity that are inextricably tied to questions of musical presentation. The practice of blacking up represents only one aspect of a larger phenomenon that not only animated our initial interest in this collection, but undergirds most of the essays within it: the treatment of darker-skinned people as exotic or Other.
Such practices might be assumed to be most conspicuous in the essays dealing with operas set in the United States. As a phenotypically distinct group of people, many of whom are legatees of the Middle Passage and slavery, African Americans embody a specialized racial history that continues to have repercussions today. As one of the primary social challenges in American political culture—analogous to class status in Britain or religious affiliation in France—themes relating to racial conflict in the United States emerge in works written both by American composers and by European composers choosing to engage with the United States' distinctive cultural attitudes toward race. However, the treatment of black characters—as well as the attitudes of black and white composers and performers alike—often undermines or complicates intuitive assumptions about the presence of race in operas by Americans or set in the United States.
For example, can white composers or librettists ever create "authentic" black characters, or are they compromised from the outset by not having lived an "authentically black" experience? Does it make a difference if their creative approach is powerfully shaped by collaboration with black musicians (for example, George Gershwin in his preparation for Porgy and Bess) or by careful study and presentation of black culture (as with Paul Bowles and Charles Henri Ford's preparation for Denmark Vesey)? What if the composer is not directly implicated with America's racial struggles, but instead comes to it as an outsider, fascinated with and appreciative of a new culture (for example, Europeans like Frederick Delius or Ernst Krenek)? If none of these criteria suffices to bridge the racial divide, then does this imply that any black composer's operatic effort, regardless of how stylized or lacking in verisimilitude, is automatically a more "authentic" representation of blackness (or the black experience) simply by virtue of its creator's skin color?
That issue of skin color—intuitively, the most obvious marker of what constitutes blackness—is itself surprisingly challenging to parse, largely because its conceptual connotations have changed over time, ranging from now discredited theories on biological difference to signifying who has access to cultural or social power. (Notably, this last point is often divorced from skin color; throughout American history, ethnic groups such as Irish, Jews, and Italians have all at some time fit under the racial rubric of "black.") As such, this collection acknowledges that black taxonomy is unstable. However, we realize that a working outline for how we are thinking about blackness is necessary. In this collection, we use the terms black and blackness to refer to dark-skinned people from countries on the African continent, the islands of the Caribbean, and portions of Latin America, as well as diasporic communities of people from these locales living in the United States and Europe. This encompasses a broad spectrum of operatic characters, ranging from actual Africans (discussed by Eric Saylor and the team of Christopher Gauthier and Jennifer McFarlane-Harris), to slaves and citizens of the United States or Caribbean nations (discussed by Eric Saylor, Ann Sears, Gwynne Kuhner Brown, Karen Bryan, Gayle Murchison, Melissa de Graaf, and Melinda Boyd), to diasporic figures in European culture (as addressed by Jonathan Wipplinger, Sarah Schmalenberger, and Naomi André).
As noted previously, however, "blackness" is often applied as shorthand for "Otherness" and—as the previous discussion of "blacking up" clearly indicates—can function in contexts that transcend skin color. Thus, we complicate the conception of "blackness" when George Shirley reflects on his experience as a professional singer in the twentieth century (particularly in Europe), or when we observe how certain groups of white-skinned people can be considered "black" in the context of the seventeenth-century English imagination (as demonstrated by Sarah Schmalenberger), or when we consider how different groups of dark-skinned people established hierarchies of power within their race based on the specific shade of their skin, even if such distinctions were typically ignored by whites (as in Saylor's essay on Delius's Koanga or Gauthier and McFarlane-Harris's discussion of Verdi's Aida).
Of course, the demarcation of Otherness between blacks and nonblacks is not limited to skin color alone. Quite often, phenotypical distinctions are aligned, rightly or wrongly, with certain cultural ones as well, and few traditional aspects of African-derived culture have captured the imagination of white observers more effectively than religion, particularly as practiced in the African diaspora. This much is clear from the frequency with which the use of powers connected to the supernatural recurs over the course of this collection (notably in the essays by Bryan, de Graaf, Murchison, and Saylor). The most common vehicle for such powers is the religious tradition of voudon (our preferred spelling; it is also commonly known as voodoo or hoodoo), though it is also observable in Candomblé and Santería and discussions of Conjure and the use of Roots. While these practices vary in their geographical, cultural, and theological origins, all retain connections to the worship of spiritual ancestors, a belief system present in many African cultures that survived the Middle Passage to be reintroduction worked throughout the New World, specifically in the American South, Caribbean colonies, and the Brazilian coast. Several of the operas featuring characters from such locales emphasize the spiritual link between these diasporic peoples and their African ancestors; however, the dramatic rationale or application of these religious practices varies widely and reveals a great deal about the changing attitudes toward such beliefs over the better part of a century.
Somewhat paradoxically, this fascination with representing the irrational and supernatural in black culture reached its high point during the Harlem Renaissance, a movement dedicated to viewing black culture through the lens of the era's innovative cultural accomplishments, ranging from representations of the "New Negro" and the "Romantic savage" to the exoticism of Haitian voudon to the noble failure of Denmark Vesey's slave uprising of 1822 (discussed in Bryan, de Graaf, Murchison, Saylor, and Sears). Several of the essays also reveal the critical position Haiti had for the Harlem Renaissance. While Toussaint L'Ouverture's overthrow of Napoleon's French imperialist forces and the establishment of black indigenous rule in Haiti was undoubtedly inspiring for African Americans, the U.S. occupation of Haiti (1915–34) posed a challenge for Harlem Renaissance artists to grapple with, balancing the veneration of past black achievement with the uneasy—and often violent—imperialist aspirations of their home country.
As the first generations of African Americans born after the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation came of age, the years surrounding the Harlem Renaissance proved to be a fertile ground for black and nonblack composers to write operas with African American characters. Five essays (by Sears, Bryan, Murchison, Brown, and de Graaf) span the years 1911–38 and provide a cross-section of the subjects and characterizations allowed in portraying blackness onstage beyond minstrelsy. The first three essays focus on operas written by African Americans (Scott Joplin, Clarence Cameron White, and William Grant Still) and the last two by nonblack composers (Paul Bowles and George Gershwin).
Excerpted from Blackness in Opera Copyright © 2012 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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