Black Opera: History, Power, Engagement by Naomi Andre, University of Illinois Press, US $27.95, Pp 270, June 2018, ISBN 978-0252083570
Opera is an old and revered genre that is also élitist or overly intimidating. Because there is no mandatory music education in the United States and in many other countries that includes opera studies, the genre appears to be of secondary importance as an art or a vehicle of political and social change. Yet American and South African artists and composers have used opera to reclaim black people’s place in history. This is evident from classic films like Carmen Jones to more recent works like The Diary of Sally Hemings. In Black Opera, Naomi André explores how the genre of opera brings out the suppressed truths about black people. She writes, “I have experienced in real life many times: opera can be relevant, provocative, and empowering. [The] Opera is an art form that has the potential for being a site for critical inquiry, political activism, and social change.”
Naomi André says that the history of black involvement with opera in the United States can be seen as a shadow culture to the all-white and segregated opera scene existent in the United States through the first half of the twentieth century. A similar thing could be said about opera in South Africa in 1994. Uncovering this shadow culture reveals a different narrative of opera that has a parallel, yet obscured, lineage to the dominant tradition in opera in both countries. This new story of opera achieves much of what the dominant opera culture had accomplished, but it traces different terrain and addresses a different question. Naomi André writes, “In contradistinction to the dominant opera traditions in the United States and South Africa, the shadow cultures I am identifying feature black participation and black subjects in ways that involve a deep engagement and care in representation that is not present in the dominant culture. The dominant culture focuses on stories about black characters in ways that exoticize the subjects; for example, Verdi’s 1871 opera Aida is a made-up story by Italians and Frenchmen set in the time of the Pharaohs with little knowledge of the historical Egyptians and Ethiopians and makes no reference to living Egyptians or Ethiopians during the late nineteenth century.”
Naomi André says, for South Africa, a shadow opera culture involves a new post-apartheid situation where, for the first time, blacks are legally allowed to participate and receive training in opera programs. This has had a remarkable effect in less than a full generation. There is currently an incredibly vibrant opera scene with black singers performing at the highest levels in domestic and international opera houses, production of repertory operas in Western productions, productions of repertory operas in South African settings, and newly composed operas by black South Africans.
Naomi André’s approach has greatly been shaped by feminist theory and pedagogies that originated outside the academy; these influences are reflected throughout the book. She writes, “I am writing from the vantage point of the audience. As a black woman, my voice interweaves my experiences of gender and race. Such racialized and gendered experiences show how people who share a social situation may express shared and similar experiences that empower collective consciousness and political action. I also am aware that marginalized communities interact with the dominant culture in ways that can be damaging as well as liberating.”
Naomi André shows how blacks in the United States and South Africa have recently used the genre of opera not just as performers, especially singers, but also as composers and librettists. Not only are operas from the Western European tradition being performed in traditional productions across the world with black performers, but they are also present in avant-garde stagings where the action is placed in all-black settings and gives new meanings. She says that black artists are working with non-black artists in interracial collaborations and composing new stories with narratives around black experiences. Opera has become a space where black people are writing themselves into history. In a genre where blackness had been routinely seen in negative stereotypical ways, a new generation across the Atlantic in the United States and South Africa is rewriting the terms for representing blackness in opera. Such a move is empowering and liberating and one that can harness political action.
Black Opera is a fascinating and insightful study of the black opera. With her unmatched academic credentials, Naomi André shows that opera can be and is used as a cultural and political force that liberates blacks. Naomi André shows a new approach to look at the role of black opera in unearthing the truth about oppressive race relations in the United States and South Africa. Well-researched and brilliantly written, Black Opera provides new perspectives and deep analysis of the role opera play. If opera helps unearth the oppressiveness of racism, Black Opera shows how race has reshaped opera in the United States and South Africa. Black Opera will benefit everybody who is interested in studying the role of political and social roles of opera.