A. Körner u.a. (Hg.): Italian Opera in Global and Transnational Perspective

Italian Opera in Global and Transnational Perspective. Reimagining Italianità in the Long Nineteenth Century

Körner, Axel; Kühl, Paulo M.
320 S.
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Jens Hesselager, Department of Arts- and Cultural Studies, University of Copenhagen

This anthology does not purport to be a global history of music. Yet, for anyone concerned with what a global history of music might possibly look like, and what might hold it together, it will surely provide plenty of food for thought, plenty brilliant insights, plenty of original and well-researched case studies, and also, to be sure, demonstrations of some of the difficulties inevitably involved in any such project.

Apart from general methodological questions concerning the transnational and the global perspective, the connective tissue of the anthology is, paradoxically, a focus on the ‘Italianness’ of Italian opera. A conspicuously national element at the very heart of what otherwise represents a determined attempt at emancipating opera historiography from methodological nationalism. But the idea is, of course, to show that nineteenth-century Italian opera and its perceived italianità in fact constituted phenomena intrinsically caught up in transnational dynamics, global exchanges and negotiations. Another central point is that adopting a transnational perspective cannot, and should not mean turning the blind eye on developments that lead from imperial and multinational foundations towards nationalism in nineteenth-century European and global history. Rather the opposite: the transnational perspective is indeed necessary for analyses of opera and nationalism, national identity, and nation building.

The theme is well-chosen. As a prism through which to study cultural processes of the internationalization and globalization of music, operatic italianità is not just a random pick. One would be hard put to find another musical phenomenon that equaled its global reach and significance over the course of the nineteenth century.

Collectively, the chapters provide an extended demonstration of ways in which Italian opera over the long nineteenth century became a “global aesthetic commodity” (p. 5). Often a much admired and popular commodity, but also very often a contested, problematic, even unpopular one, functioning, not least outside Europe, in Latin and South America and in Asia, as a sonic marker of cosmopolitanism and modernity, of elite, foreign culture as against the vernacular.

The interactions between local culture and visiting opera singers of Italian opera could sometimes follow complex, bewildering and unpredictable patterns. When, for instance, as we learn in Francesco Milella’s Chapter 4, the famous tenor, Manuel Garcia, visited independent Mexico in 1826-29 with his troupe, local audiences, being used to Italian opera being imported from Cuba and performed in Spanish, were unpleasantly surprised to find that Garcia, though Spanish-born, sang Rossini in Italian. Garcia struggled to adapt. Realizing that he had underestimated the local orchestra and therefore needed to compose a new, more ambitious overture for his opera Un’hora di matrimonio, he also prepared a Spanish version of it, with new recitatives. Yet, he still missed his target, misreading the sensibilities of the creole elite who had only relatively recently won independence from Spain.

Millela’s chapter, which mixes musical, historical and political analyses and lets the sources pose its intriguing, if partly unresolved questions, is one of several well-researched and thoughtful contributions that add nuance to how the history of Italian opera and opera singers in the Americas can be understood. Others are concerned with Brazil, Venezuela, New Orleans, and South America, and collectively they offer much new knowledge and fresh analyses.

Detailed knowledge about opera in nineteenth-century Asia is even rarer to come by, and Rashna Darius Nicholson’s and Michael Facius’ contributions on opera in South and Southeast Asia and Japan make for fascinating reading.

In South and Southeast Asia, Italian opera was felt, in the second half of the nineteenth century, to be a foreign and rather marginal element, needing to compete on market terms, selling tickets, but having a hard time winning broad popular appeal. Yet for all its marginality, the art form was culturally significant, as Nicholson argues, since it represented a cosmopolitan, imperial supra-culture: “the archetypal form of elite colonial culture, the sonic equivalent of Shakespeare facilitating the internalization of a hierarchy of values” (p. 215). But also “signifying different meanings for different publics” (p. 215). Complicating matters, American minstrel companies, performing ‘Burlesque Italian Opera’ in blackface, reached Asia before Italian impresarios Cagli and Pompei managed to introduce Italian opera in more ‘authentic’ versions. Furthermore, a local form of Parsi opera developed, relying more on the minstrel show tradition than on ‘real’ Italian opera. So, even if Italian opera was on the surface a relatively marginal phenomenon, experienced by few, it still exerted an important cultural influence, with connotations shifting from “a myth of moral advancement, civilization and progress, to cosmopolitan consumption” (p. 237).

As far as methodological and theoretical perspectives on the global is concerned, it is only natural that the chapters on the Americas and Asia should address such questions most directly. The several chapters dealing with European contexts, at any rate, while having lots of new and worthwhile things to say about transnational and cosmopolitan dynamics, do not take it upon them to substantially address or question the possible effects of globalization on European opera culture. Little intriguing details pop up here and there, though, when for instance a Brazilian jungle appears on the opera stage in Milan in 1870 (p. 239), or when we learn that Nina d’Aubigny, the author of Briefe an Natalie über den Gesang (1824), lived in Calcutta for more than 10 years, between 1807 and 1818 (p. 60). Writing about d’Aubigny, Carolin Krahn makes a case – convincingly I think – for understanding d’Aubigny’s many travels as an important background against which her ideas on ‘the Italian voice’ should be interpreted. But only her European travels are part of this analysis. This makes sense, of course, since the German-Italian relation sits at the center of the problem under scrutiny. It deserves the attention it gets. Nevertheless, given the larger framework of the volume, the curious fact that she was in Calcutta for such a long time jumps out of the page, begging the question of what that experience might possibly have meant for her attitude to opera, if anything?

The introductory chapter, by far the longest in the book, takes the reader through a thorough discussion of the theoretical and methodological challenges involved in moving from national towards transnational and global historiographical frameworks for opera studies. And it goes further, in effect outlining a brief, European and global history of operatic italianità, engaging critically with a great deal of concrete historical details, sources and narratives. Quite an accomplishment.

While going well beyond functioning as a mere preamble to the various chapters that follow, then, the introduction does, however, set the tone. In that capacity, it also touches on (post)colonialism and the slave trade – major, even inevitable themes in the global history of the nineteenth century to be sure. In fact, these themes are addressed head on, in the first section, which contrasts the presence of Italian opera in Brazil on the one hand with slavery on the other, and with reference to the cover illustration: a depiction by Jacques Arago of a square in Rio de Janeiro, with Theatro São João in the background and several black slaves in the foreground. Another illustration by Arago (shown on p. 3) illustrates the punishment of slaves by covering their mouths, and the glaring irony of the image of the muted slave in the context of opera historiography is brought out explicitly in the accompanying text.

Emphasizing this point so strongly on the opening pages raises certain expectations as to how the volume as a whole will manage to deal with colonial and postcolonial history, including, specifically, the history of “violence and objectification of slaves” (p. 4). The implication seems to be that history of slavery and the slave trade should not be ignored when revising opera history from a global perspective. How to carry out that ambition, however, is indeed a hard question, and on this theme, the contributions to this volume in effect remain largely silent, managing little more than to occasionally scratch the surface. Which may be quite understandable, all things considered. But which also points to one of the difficulties involved in rethinking opera history from a global perspective today.

The volume opens avenues for future studies to follow, leaving many problems fruitfully unsolved, questions unanswered – to which Benjamin Walton adds quite a few of his own in a brief, but dense and thoughtful epilogue. Still, the anthology navigates the long nineteenth century, Europe, the Atlantic, and the globe, in quite original ways, providing plenty of new knowledge, plenty of fine case studies, plenty of food for thought.

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