Click above to read our June issue on Art Song! We have some really excellent pieces, including interviews with Dawn Upshaw, Nathan Gunn, and Nicholas Phan!
I read the article "The Gypsy 'Other' in Opera". In the USA, there is some controversy about the appropriateness and accuracy of the term "gypsy", and it has been used as an ethnic slur. I understand that in many cases, the author of the article is using a term that the composer/librettist used, and it may be near-impossible to find an accurate term for some characters. Please consider adding a note about why the author(s)/editor(s) would chose to use to the use the term "gypsy".
Thank you for letting us know. We have added a note by the author on the post.
By Ilana Walder-Biesanz
*Author’s note- “ Until someone pointed it out in comments, I had no idea the term ‘gypsy’ was sometimes considered a slur. That said, I do think it is the right term to use in this case for the reasons the asker of the question alludes to. This is the word used by both the opera librettists/composers and the academics whose work I drew on in writing the article. For me to use a different word would imply a transference of these stereotypes and literary history onto a more particularly and accurately defined ethnic group, which was not intended by those original writers and composers.”
From Carmen twirling her skirts and tossing flowers to Azucena’s horrible revenge, portrayals of gypsies appear often in opera. These representations are built on stereotypes rather than reality, but the reality is not so easy to define. Because gypsies are a geographically scattered ethnic group with various languages and no written historical tradition, even purportedly anthropological accounts are based on outsiders’ observations. These frequently conflict and are inevitably romanticized. The anthropologist of the nineteenth century (when gypsy studies became popular) looked for (and sometimes even invents) differences that would delight his readers. Following the literary currents of Romanticism, he rejected industrialism and searched for the exotic in ‘primitive’ pre- industrial cultures. As a result, the gypsies of both pseudoscience and fiction are mysterious, potentially alluring, and always dangerous ‘Others’ who defy the norms of the West and its civilizing influence.
By Jennifer Choi
Last month, I attended a performance of Der Rosenkavalier at The Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. I had bought the tickets because Renée Fleming was singing the Marschallin, and while her Marschallin lived up to all of the hype, I remember being particularly impressed by the exceptional talent of the young supporting singers. Soloman Howard sang the role of the notary and the police inspector that night, and he dazzled the audience with his commanding voice and stage presence. After being accepted into the Domingo Cafritz Young Artists Program in 2010, Howard has been taking the opera world by storm.
By Gregory Moomjy
As opera lovers, we are very familiar with Butterfly’s suicide from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. We realize that after having remained constant to her philandering husband, she puts their son in his care and, with nothing left for her, kills herself using the traditional Japanese method of seppuku. Presumably this is because she is still in love with Pinkerton and wants to die honorably. At first glance, this makes sense. Puccini is an unabashedly sentimental composer who wrote such romantic works as La Bohème and Tosca, and what could be more romantic than a young woman giving her life for the man she loves, even if he no longer loves her? However, on closer inspection, we realize that the reasons behind Madama Butterfly’s iconic ending go far beyond romantic ideals. Rather, Butterfly’s suicide is a commentary on race relations, rooted in politics contemporary to Puccini’s Japan.
By Adam Matlock
Opera has never had an easy relationship with race. The canon is full of White and Western centered stories about non-White, non-Western themes and characters, and the result is often ridden with stereotypes, problematic tropes, and clumsy musical imitation of the culture of choice. As opera has modernized, seeing contributions from composers and librettists of color as well as diverse casts and production staff, the expectations created by this problematic history has often been left on the shoulders of creators of color, unfairly influencing expectations of their work, and if or how their identity will play into their work. Black American composers must also reconcile with Jazz and Blues, or those genres’ folk predecessors, or risk having their authenticity questioned. In this article I use the term Black American as opposed to the more accepted term African American. I do so for two reasons; first, as a way of acknowledging the unique fluidity of the identity of the African diaspora in North America under chattel slavery and after it; and second to acknowledge how that experience has informed the aesthetic and thematic fluidity of music by Black Americans in a way that is visible across style and genre lines. This fluidity, and the challenge it creates in categorizing Black American music by its participants and observers alike, often results in questions of authenticity coming from within and without. By examining three operas written by Black American composers - Treemonisha, by Scott Joplin, X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X by Anthony Davis, and Trillium E by Anthony Braxton - I will examine how those questions of authenticity are often negated, if not in easily identifiable musical connections, then in thematic strategies that pepper both the musical and narrative elements of these works.
I hope everyone is enjoying this beautiful spring weather (fall for the friends in the Southern Hemisphere)! I have a couple of notes and announcements.
First some exciting encouragement! I was backstage after a performance of Der Rosenkavalier in DC last month, and I chatted with Renée Fleming about Opera21. To sum up, she was so encouraging about everything we do at Opera21. She said how she loves what we do and that we should keep up the good work! I wanted to share this with everyone, since we’re a big collaborative effort and Opera21 wouldn’t be possible without all of you lovely guys who read, write, and follow us.
On that note, our April issue on Race and Ethnicity in Opera will be coming out this week, so keep your eyes peeled! (That’s such a gross saying…)
Finally, our June issue will be on Art Song. If you’re interested in submitting something for the June issue, go check the Submission Guidelines at the top. The deadline for submissions is May 31st.
By Gregory Moomjy
Disease in opera is perhaps a cliché, and it is almost an exclusively female phenomenon. The image of the diseased heroine uttering her final, despairing words and collapsing to her death has been a popular trope on opera stages for centuries. However, on closer inspection, disease, whether it be mental or corporeal, may stand for a lot more than it represents. The plot of Bellini’s La Somnambula may seem laughable at first, but believing that the opera is about somnambulism is extremely superficial. Likewise, examining Dvorak’s Rusalka sheds a disturbing light on the opera’s fairytale aspects.
Rusalka may offer the opera world’s most famous case of laryngitis, but at its heart, the illness itself is a dark commentary on otherness and gender relations. Opera as a genre is all about singing. Therefore, if a character, to say nothing of the lead, is voiceless, it is quite significant. In an Opera News article, Fred Cohn argues that Rusalka’s silence is a keystone of the terrible bargain that she has made with Jezibaba, the witch. Their pact is important not for what Rusalka wants to achieve—the love of the prince—but what she has to do, which is to become human. In essence, she wants to become something she is not. Her lack of vocal expression becomes the most obvious manifestation of her separation from the human world, the illness that isolates her from others. It is not the only “disease” that plagues her among the humans; at the prince’s court much is made of the frigidity of her embrace. If we view sex as the consummation and ultimate expression of love, the constant references to her coldness become an extension of her otherness, namely her lack of sexual ability. This is what ultimately attracts the Prince away from Rusalka and to the Foreign Princess.