Q&A with Naomi André, author of “Black Opera: History, Power, and Engagement”

Naomi André is an associate professor in the departments of African and Afroamerican Studies and Women’s Studies and the associate director in the Residential College at the University of Michigan. She is the author of Voicing Gender: Castrati, Travesti, and the Second Woman in Early-Nineteenth-Century Italian Opera and coeditor of Blackness in OperaShe recently answered some questions about her new book, Black Opera: History, Power, and Engagement.





Q. In the introduction you say your book “departs from the solitary goal of understanding how music might have had meaning in the past” and instead focuses on the effect on current audiences. Can you elaborate on that concept and how it informs your book? 

In this book, I realized that my basic approach to analyzing music, and opera specifically, had evolved from how I was taught as a musicologist in graduate school. In my training, the primary emphasis had been on uncovering what we could understand and prove from the past—focusing on facts and data about performance practice, compositional genesis, and trying to construct informed understandings of how the music was received around its initial performances (a work’s early reception history). In Black Opera, I saw that the types of questions I was bringing to this project were more rooted in the present. Rather than starting with the past, I began with the vantage point of how do these works have meaning today? This line of inquiry was shaped by my lived experience of seeing these works performed and teaching, whether that be in the classroom, enrichment seminars for seniors and alumni, or other audiences such as educational classes in prisons and pre-concert lectures before a performance.

A big part of this approach is connected to the knowledge we gain from looking at music in the past; I see my analysis as building on what we know from the methodologies I learned in my training as a traditional historical musicologist. With the starting point in the present, I have developed a set of paradigms that I call an engaged musicology that complements and extends how we think about music. Engaged Musicology has overlapping goals with other directions in music scholarship. Similar to the energy in Public Musicology, I am interested in having the knowledge we have gleaned from our scholarship to reach a broad audience that extends outside of the academy and specialists. Moreover, there are close connections to the important discipline of Ethnomusicology in exploring how music functions in and as culture.

With Engaged Musicology, my goal was to address three basic rubrics in my analysis that connects the present to the past. First, who was on the artistic team for the work; for opera, who were the composer and the librettist? How do their lived experiences and vantage points shape and inform what they write into their works? Second, who is on stage performing the work? In opera studies, a trenchant theme I explore in the book concerns racial/ethnic representation and issues around true-to-color casting and the use of blackface as well as yellow-face for Asian characters or brown-face for Latinx roles. Embedded in this practice is the open-ended question of who is allowed to portray whom? The third parameter I set up is who is in the audience and interpreting the work? Rather than using this as a censoring club to point out biases, the aim of this line of inquiry is to highlight the different vantage points we all have. While we learn to write in an authorial voice that points out facts and truths, how we tell the story—how we shape the larger narrative in content and structure—reflects the individuality of our voices as commentators on art. Such questions help celebrate the strengths in the voices of music writers and, when necessary, help identify potential limits in their critiques.

Q. Why did you choose to focus on black opera in the United States and South Africa?

Through my work co-editing the collection Blackness in Opera (2012) I found an adaptation of Bizet’s Carmen that had been set in Khayelitsha—a township outside of Cape Town, South Africa—called U-Carmen eKhayelitsha and made into a film in 2005. I saw it, was fascinated, and wanted to learn more; was this a one-time thing or was there a movement of opera in South Africa that had black and mixed-race singers participating in this first generation after apartheid. I was able to follow up with a trip to Cape Town University and was very impressed with the opera program there. I had the opportunity to be in residence for a week, teach a few classes on opera and music history, watch rehearsals, and meet several people key in teaching in their opera program including Kamal Kahn, Angelo Gobbiato, and Virginia Davids. At a reception, I met Bongani Ndodana-Breen and Warren Wilensky and they talked about their plans for an opera based on Winnie Madikizela Mandela. I knew I needed to learn more; the vibrant opera scene, high level of accomplishment, and beauty of the voices got me hooked. I came into contact with a few South African scholars who are professors at Wits (the University of the Witwatersrand) in Johannesburg who were interested in the emerging opera scene in South Africa and we were able to attend Ndodana-Breen’s Winnie: The Opera in Pretoria. Our collaboration resulted in a cluster of articles about the opera and our work together continues to this day.[1]

Initially, I thought I would keep my work on opera in South Africa and opera in the west (US and Europe) separate. However, as I was working on how stories around blackness were being told in opera, I saw a similar situation on both sides of the Atlantic. I try to be very careful to keep the differences in the foreground, because each country has different histories and contexts. However, putting these two opera scenes in conversation ended up feeling like the best way to discuss them.

Both the US and South Africa presented rather hostile environments for black people to participate in opera. Opera was segregated and black people did not have access to the socio-economic resources to easily mount their own productions. The context for black musical theater performance was also shaped by the negative stereotypes in minstrelsy. Though minstrelsy was born in the US in the late 1820s, I was surprised to learn that we have evidence that it was exported to South Africa as early as the 1860s. On both sides of the Atlantic, black performers were singing opera, despite the incredible barriers. In the US we find singers (such as Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield and Sissieretta Jones), composers (Harry Lawrence Freeman and Scott Joplin), and opera impresarios (the Theodore Drury Grand Opera Company and Mary Cardwell Dawson’s National Negro Opera Company) who were participating in a “shadow opera culture” (a term I use to describe a different opera culture happening alongside the mainstream white opera culture) that is still being recovered and written into history. In South Africa, during colonialism and apartheid, black singers were deeply engaged in a strong choral tradition that included adaptations of opera arias, choruses, and tunes from ensembles. So the two stories formed a dialogue: in both the US and South Africa, black people were actively engaged in opera, despite many obstacles.

Q. How does black opera operate as a site for activism and push for social change?

In uncovering the shadow opera culture happening in black communities I noted that in recent years, since the 1980s in the US and since the dismantling of apartheid in 1994 in South Africa, opera has become a space for presenting new narratives of black lives. Rather than being reliant on minstrelsy, with the negative stereotypes of the Mammy and Jezebel for women or the Buck and Zip Coon for men, operas on black subjects now presented black people in an honorable light. In the US, we are still recovering earlier examples, but since the 1980s, I think of Anthony Davis’s operas X, Life and Times of Malcom X (1986) and Amistad (1997) as being pivotal works that have led to Margaret Garner (2005), Champion (2013), Charlie Parker’s Yardbird (2015), We Shall Not Be Moved (2017), I Dream (rev 2018), Blue (2019) and many others including several I have heard that are still in the pipeline. In South Africa, in addition to Winnie: The Opera (2011), there is Princess Magogo (2002), The Mandela Trilogy (2010), The Flower of Shembe (2012), A Man of Good Hope (2016), and others. These operas being composed and produced by interracial teams are inventing a new narrative for how blackness in general, and the specific lives of black people, are being represented. On both sides of the Atlantic, opera is providing an unlikely space for writing black narratives into history. For me, as an opera lover and scholar, opera is now beginning to feel like a space of change and liberation.

Q. You mention several adaptations of the opera, Carmen (Carmen Jones, Carmen: A Hip-Hopera, U-Carmen eKhayelitsha). Can you describe the process of “remaking” operas to fit modern times? How do the story/characters/themes change, if at all?

It is true that these adaptations create new visual and sonic landscapes; there are different locations and translations into different languages (for example, U-Carmen is sung in Xhosa). Rather than primarily describing the several adaptations, I explore how themes are treated across the versions. I look at the establishing shots in the beginning that set the tone and create the world of the opera. I concentrate on themes that highlight Carmen’s difference and how she stands out from her surrounding black community. I also focus on the ending and how her trajectory leads to her death and how this death has meaning in its specific context.

Bizet’s opera Carmen from 1875 brings many things together at once: memorable tunes, a story about an outsider, and the portrayal of an independent woman. This female character is controversial for using her seductive body not only to give men what they want, but also to withhold her affections and make choices that they do not want (including rejecting them). Carmen is, perhaps, the most adapted opera into innovative productions on the opera stage as well as into other media (film, ballet, theater). The fact that she is the quintessential outsider, has made her story especially attractive for black settings; this highlights the fascination with what is considered exotic and different from the perceived norm. She is a character that cannot be manipulated, except for the final scene when her transgressions become too great and she must be silenced.

One of the most provocative elements of the multiple Carmens I explore in the book is to see how different versions treat her. These settings involve all-black casts and a critical issue is how she is accepted and rejected by people who look like her and are outside of the background power of the white patriarchal hegemony. Frequently Carmen is empowered and her death seems to be more of a sacrifice of someone who is trying to escape oppression rather than a punishment for her sins. Sometimes Carmen fits into her environment and she emerges more as an “every woman” who is strong, yet also a little more vulnerable than her peers.

Q. What does Opera achieve or convey to audiences that other musical forms cannot?

Opera is a fascinating thing because it speaks on many planes simultaneously. For those who are familiar with opera, there is always the issue—especially in recent new works—of how this opera interacts and articulates the conventions of the form. For those new to opera, each work confronts the complicated history of being considered an “elitist” genre only for wealthy, older, white patrons. Having an opera on black subjects about black experiences, sometimes with more black bodies on stage than in the audience, presents an impact on the audience and performers that supplements the semantic content (the plot) of the opera. Hence, being in the theater seeing opera performed live presents many “meta-issues” around the power dynamics of how opera is consumed.

Within the performance, opera utilizes the wonderful ability to say many things at the same time. There are the words that carry the story and present the semantic narrative. However, there is also the orchestra that can support the text in its message or say something different through the use of musical quotation or presenting a different mood (e.g., providing a sinister accompaniment to a lyrical melody where the singer is trying to convince someone of something, but the orchestra alerts the audience that the person is lying). There is also the delivery, the interpretive actions, that the performer and director can add that presents another line of narrative. Winnie: The Opera and Nixon in China are two strong examples of controversial political figures (with operas written when both were alive) who are given multi-dimensional portrayals where the audience gets to figure out how they want to see these characters. The title characters of both works are presented as complicated, heroic, and flawed. What opera can do especially well is that these elements can happen at the same time in a lyrical moment, as well as happening at different times for each member of the audience.

The grandness of opera allows us to examine hyper-real spectacle in ways that can slow things down to take a miniature moment and present it as monumental. Opera can distort real time in ways that can be instructive and take us on a journey that helps us bring different viewpoints into focus. While people may complain that opera is “over the top,” I’ve always believed that certain lived experiences are “over the top” and, indeed, opera can help make life feel more real.

[1] Our five articles appeared in African Studies, vol. 75, no.1 (2016).


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