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Black Opera, Operatic Racism and an ‘Engaged Opera Studies’

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  17 June 2021


Naomi André’s Black Opera: History, Power, Engagement is a call for recognition and inclusion. Over the course of nearly 300 pages, André covers a range of subjects, from long-forgotten concert performances, to opera, Broadway and opera film, to contemporary operatic composition and practice. As she does, she moves between the United States and South Africa – a striking way of approaching her material and a feature of the book that ought to prove highly influential. Some of the arguments she makes are new, some combine pre-existing thought and research in new ways. The most important moments, though, are when she pauses to describe her experiences or those of another black opera lover or group of black opera lovers.

Review Article
© The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of The Royal Musical Association

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I am grateful to James Davies, David Gutkin, George Lewis, Diana Maron, Roger Parker, Matthew Timmermans and Emily Wilbourne for taking time to comment on this review article. I owe a special debt of gratitude to Bongani Ndodana-Breen, who shared video footage of Winnie with me.


1 For a critique of the ‘post-racial’ idea, see Coates, Ta-Nehisi, ‘There Is No Post-Racial America’, The Atlantic, July–August 2015, <> (accessed 4 November 2020).Google Scholar

2 From around 2008, South Africa has suffered from waves of ‘xenophobic attacks’, attacks on immigrants from other parts of Africa that have resulted in dozens dead, hundreds displaced and many businesses and homes destroyed. A rather different development has been the emergence of the Rhodes Must Fall movement, which began at the University of Cape Town in 2015 and has now become global.

3 Pierpaolo Polzonetti, ‘Don Giovanni Goes to Prison: Teaching Opera Behind Bars’, entry on Musicology Now, the blog of the American Musicological Society, 16 February 2016, <> (accessed 4 November 2020).

4 Many of the changes are related to the work of the society’s Committee on Race and Ethnicity, established in 2017: see <> (accessed 4 November 2020). For more on the original controversy, see Cheng, William, Loving Music till It Hurts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020), 99104.Google Scholar

5 Blackness in Opera, ed. André, Naomi, Bryan, Karen M. and Saylor, Eric (Urbana, Chicago and Springfield, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2012):Google Scholar see Sears, Ann, ‘Political Currents and Black Culture in Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha’, 101–15;Google Scholar Bryan, Karen M, ‘Clarence Cameron White’s Ouanga! in the World of the Harlem Renaissance’, 116–40Google Scholar; and Murchison, Gayle, ‘New Paradigms in William Grant Still’s Blue Steel’, 142–63Google Scholar.

6 Quoted from Alyson Cambridge, ‘I Was Live with The New York Times’, 15 November 2017, <> (accessed 4 November 2020), at 7′ 36″. For a recent performance of the cycle by Cambridge (at the Glimmerglass Festival, New York, in 2020), see <>.

7 For a negative view, see Williams, Caroline Randall, ‘You Want a Confederate Monument? My Body Is a Confederate Monument’, New York Times, 26 June 2020, <> (accessed 4 November 2020).+(accessed+4+November+2020).>Google Scholar

8 See, for example, Eidsheim, Nina Sun, Sensing Sound: Singing and Listening as Vibrational Practice (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015);Google Scholar Technology and the Diva : Sopranos, Opera, and Media from Romanticism to the Digital Age, ed. Henson, Karen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016);CrossRefGoogle Scholar Wilbourne, Emily, Seventeenth-Century Opera and the Sound of the Commedia dell’arte (Chicago, IL, and London: University of Chicago Press, 2016);CrossRefGoogle Scholar and Kreuzer, Gundula, Curtain, Gong, Steam: Wagnerian Technologies of Nineteenth-Century Opera (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 2018).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

9 Eidsheim, Nina Sun, ‘Marian Anderson and “Sonic Blackness” in American Opera’, American Quarterly, 63 (2011), 641–71, repr. in The Race of Sound: Listening, Timbre, and Vocality in African American Music (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019), 6190;CrossRefGoogle Scholar Thurman, Kira, ‘Black Venus, White Bayreuth: Race, Sexuality, and the Depoliticization of Wagner in Postwar West Germany’, German Studies Review, 35 (2012), 607–26;Google Scholar and Thurman, , ‘When Marian Anderson Defied the Nazis’, New Yorker, 15 July 2020, <> (accessed 4 November 2020).Google Scholar Three of the many important texts on performance in African American studies and critical race theory are Hartman, Saidiya, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997); Fred Moten, In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2003)Google Scholar; and Brooks, Daphne, Bodies in Dissent: Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom, 1850–1910 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006).Google Scholar

10 For the Black British Classical Foundation, which includes among its leadership the mezzo-soprano Grace Bumbry, see <>; and for the Pegasus Opera Company, which is led by the soprano Alison Buchanan, see <>.

11 I am grateful to Steven Rosenberg for the demonstrations.

12 The comment was in response to a question about Netrebko’s original post; the question was: ‘But is the blackface really necessary?’ See <>. I should note that if blackface and blacking up have long been unacceptable beyond opera, examples of the practice regularly emerge and cause controversy.

13 Such exchanges would also engage with recent work on the legacy of minstrelsy in American popular music and music pedagogy: see Morrison, Matthew, ‘Race, Blacksound, and the (Re)Making of Musicological Discourse’, Journal of the American Musicological Society, 72 (2019), 781823,CrossRefGoogle Scholar and Ewell, Philip A., ‘Music Theory and the White Racial Frame’, Music Theory Online, 26 (2020), <>.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

14 ‘Lift Every Voice’, Los Angeles Opera Conversation on Racial Disparity and Inequality, initiated and hosted by the mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges, with the sopranos Julia Bullock and Karen Slack, the tenors Lawrence Brownlee and Russell Thomas, and the bass Morris Robinson, 5 June 2020, <> (accessed 4 November 2020), at 49′ 25″. I have slightly rephrased Thomas, whose original statement was addressed to singers. For Thomas as Otello, see a brief clip from his performances with the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto in 2019, <> (accessed 4 November 2020).

15 For BBC minstrelsy, see <> (accessed 4 November 2020). See also Graham Devlin Associates, Opera Training for Singers in the UK: How Should It Evolve to Meet the Changing Needs of the Profession? A Study Commissioned by the National Opera Studio, August 2016, <> (accessed 4 November 2020), 15. This report was based on exchanges with around 200 opera professionals, including staff at leading British conservatoires and opera companies.

16 The decision to give Carmen a habanera involved the first Carmen, the mezzo-soprano Célestine Galli-Marié, who had previously created several exotic (trouser) roles: see my Opera Acts: Singers and Performance in the Late Nineteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 48–87.

17 Predictably, one of few to have imagined Carmen as blonde is the iconoclastic Spanish director Calixto Bieito in a production for English National Opera that was running until recently. See <> (accessed 4 November 2020).

18 The film originated in a production by Dornford-May’s theatre company Dimpho di Kopane; he and the South African soprano and actress Pauline Malefane (who plays Carmen in the film) later co-founded the Isango Ensemble, whose opera productions have been successful internationally but had a more mixed reception in South Africa itself. For more, see Davies, Sheila Boniface and Davies, James Q., ‘“So Take this Magic Flute and Blow. It Will Protect Us as We Go”: Impempe Yomlingo (2007–11) and South Africa’s Ongoing Transition’, Opera Quarterly, 28 (2012), 5471.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

19 For more on amakwaya, see Detterbeck, Markus, Makwaya, South African Choral Music: Song, Contest, and the Formation of Identity (Innsbruck: Helbling, 2011).Google Scholar

20 See, for example, Technology and the Diva, ed. Henson. See also Novak, Jelena, Postopera: Rethinking the Voice-Body (New York: Routledge, 2015), and the ‘Articulations’ section of Opera Quarterly, 35 (2019), 130–46Google Scholar, which includes brief thought-pieces on operatic ontology by Wayne Heisler, Gundula Kreuzer, Ryan Minor and Heather Wiebe.

21 For more, see Pistorius, Juliana, ‘Predicaments of Coloniality, or, Opera Studies Goes Ethno’, Music and Letters, 100 (2019), 529–39.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

22 Trevor Nelson is working on a doctoral dissertation at the Eastman School of Music on mid-twentieth-century British music and decolonization. Uchenna Ngwe is working on a doctoral dissertation at Trinity Laban Conservatoire in London in which she explores the lives and contributions of historical black British musicians from the perspective of a performer–curator–activist. Maria Ryan is working on a doctoral dissertation at the University of Pennsylvania on how Africans and individuals of African descent engaged with Western art music in the nineteenth-century British colonial Caribbean. Wayne Weaver is working on a doctoral dissertation at the University of Cambridge on the roles of globalization, migration and the slave trade in musical life in the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century British colonial Caribbean. I am grateful to Jennifer Oates for letting me know about these scholars and to the scholars themselves for discussing their work with me.

23 See also New Voices in Black South African Opera, ed. André, Naomi, Mhlambi, Innocentia and Somma, Donata, special issue (on Winnie), African Studies, 75 (2016), 197Google Scholar; the issue includes articles by André, Mhlambi, Somma and the composer Neo Muyanga.

24 See <>, at 1′ 40″ and 8′ 15″. For brief clips from the première itself, from the torture scene in Act 1 and the scene at the Mandela United Football Club in Act 2, see <> and <>.

25 Tomlinson, Gary, ‘Monumental Musicology’, review of Taruskin, Richard, The Oxford History of Western Music, Journal of the Royal Musical Association, 132 (2007), 349–74 (esp. pp. 365–8),CrossRefGoogle Scholar and Bloechl, Olivia, Native American Song at the Frontiers of Early Modern Music (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).Google Scholar See also Opera Indigene: Re/presenting First Nations and Indigenous Cultures, ed. Karantonis, Pamela and Robinson, Dylan (New York: Routledge, 2011),Google Scholar and Opera in a Multi-cultural World: Coloniality, Culture, Performance, ed. Ingraham, Mary, So, Joseph and Moodley, Roy (New York: Routledge, 2016).Google Scholar

26 Operatic Geographies: The Place of Opera and the Opera House, ed. Aspden, Suzanne (Chicago, IL, and London: University of Chicago Press, 2019).Google Scholar See also Volpe, Maria Alice, ‘Remaking the Brazilian Myth of National Foundation: Il Guarany’, Latin American Music Review, 23 (2002), 179–84;CrossRefGoogle Scholar Bittencourt-Sampaio, Sérgio, Negras líricas: Duas intérpretes negras brasileiras na música de concerto (séc. XVIII–XX) (Rio de Janeiro: Letras, 2008);Google Scholar Walton, Benjamin, ‘Italian Operatic Fantasies in Latin America’, Journal of Modern Italian Studies, 17 (2012), 460–71;CrossRefGoogle Scholar and Budasz, Rogério, Opera in the Tropics: Music and Theater in Early Modern Brazil (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

27 For the Black Opera Research Network (BORN), see <>.

28 Three of the many important texts on geography in African American studies and post-colonial theory are Gilroy, Paul, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993);Google Scholar Chakrabarty, Dipesh, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000);Google Scholar and Mohanty, Chandra, Feminism without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practising Solidarity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003).Google Scholar