Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Setting Operas in the Heart of Darkness

To avoid the unpleasant task of writing my book, I've decided to spend a few minutes ruminating on 19th century operas that deal with African settings and characters. Many years ago, I sent out a query to the American Musicological Society's listserve inquiring about operas that have black characters in them. Based on the answers I received, I compiled a list of operas to investigate at some point in my life. Little did I know at the time that some really great scholars were also working on interrogating blackness in opera, and they published a book later that year that's literally called Blackness in Opera:
Coolness, right? Anyway. What I want to focus on, however, are 19th century operas that specifically used an African setting or African character. Because they all share a trait that musicologists have kind of picked up on but I'm not sure anyone's discussed at length: although most of these operas claim to be set in "Africa" (as in "sub-Saharan Africa"), they're really not. 

I think the main example that people are aware of here is Giacomo Meyerbeer's popular 1865 opera, L'Africaine:
Supposedly a tale about Vasco de Gama's adventures around the world, a good chunk of it takes place on an African island where the "natives" practice a religion much more akin to Hinduism. The island also appears to be in the Indian Ocean, perhaps near Madagascar or someplace like that. Here's the wonderful opera singer Shirley Verrett singing part of it with Placido Domingo at the San Francisco Opera in 1988:
(for some reason, the blog won't let me upload the video directly onto the page today)

If you watch the clip, you'll see that Girlfriend is straight-up wearing an Indian sari in the opera. How "African" is Meyerbeer's L'Africaine, I (and numerous musicologists) have wondered?

But Meyerbeer's opera, L'Africaine, isn't the only one that side steps Africanism in its quest to be exotic. Countless scholars have debated how we're supposed to interpret Verdi's Aida:
The opera's set in ancient Egypt, and the main femme fatale/femme fragile is an Ethiopian princess. How "Ethiopian" the opera director chooses to make her has greatly fluctuated over time.

Here's Grace Bumbry as "Aida":

The fabulous diva, Leontyne Price, serving it as usual (girlfriend don't PLAY):
Violetta Urmana at the Met recently (in brownface. Yes, I said it):

And as much as audiences enjoyed the opera when it premiered, some felt uncomfortable with its black African qualities. Here's Hanslick complaining about the work in 1880:

“The politics and religion, the oddities of dress and civilization of the ancient Egyptians are altogether too strange for us [Viennese/Germans]. We do not feel at ease among a lot of brown and black painted men. It may be urged that this is merely external, yet, for all, the spectator's sympathies are chilled…Think of nothing but dark-colored singers on the stage! Then, besides, the ugly, vaulting negroes and the dancing women dressed and painted in the most repulsive manner! An opera should present something of the lovely and agreeable, and no ethnological exactness can compensate for a total lack of beauty."
 (Taken from Dwight's Journal of Music, December 18, 1880, p. 201)
Yikes. In Hanslick's review, it seems unimaginable or inconceivable that one could depict black characters in an aesthetically pleasing way.

David Brodbeck has done some really fascinating work looking at Viennese reception of Karl Goldmark's opera, Queen of Sheba (Königin von Saba). Reviews were laced with thinly-veiled (or oftentimes open and hostile) anti-Semitic remarks that claimed that the music and setting reminded the critics of a Jewish service at the synagogue (as if any of them had ever been. But whatever):

Lastly, I want to point out Franz von Suppe's operetta, Die Afrikareise, from 1885:

 Zoe has a fancy fellowship at Harvard this summer to do some digging around, and she's been flipping through the score and libretto for this operetta. So far, she's discovered that the work really isn't set in Africa at all, although they do mention the country Chad at one point. Rather, it seems to have a more traditional orientalist setting (in the Saidian sense of the word).

So what gives, 19th century opera composers? Why this weird avoidance to actually set your "African" operas in Africa? Why limit your stereotyping to Asian characters and North African/Middle Eastern ones?

I wonder, however, if this hesitancy to depict sub-Saharan Africa goes across all of the arts. Orientalist paintings usually focused on North Africa, for example:
Horace Vernet, The Lion Hunt (1836)

And Joseph Conrad's book, Heart of Darkness, might very well be one of the first major cultural products to orientalize Africa that was widely consumed by Europeans:
But it came out in 1899. Were there really so few cultural products that depicted Africa/Africans/Africanness/Blackness that held European popular attention before then?

I remain dissatisfied with our knowledge/lack of knowledge of 19th century musical works dealing with African themes and notions of blackness. All of this stuff is much more fleshed out when it comes to talking about the 20th century (Porgy and Bess, Johnny Spielt Auf, Show Boat, etc.). But there's an earlier history here, ripe for an investigation and analysis, one that can benefit from postcolonial analysis, from a musicologist's fine ear and critical eye looking at the score. Heavens knows that I can't tackle this project right now. But I encourage anyone interested in this blog post to investigate further.