Opera, Exoticism and Visual Culture

by Hyunseon Lee (Volume editor) Naomi D. Segal (Volume editor)
©2015 Edited Collection 289 Pages


As a uniquely hybrid form of artistic output, straddling music and theatre and high and popular culture, opera offers vast research possibilities not only in the field of music studies but also in the fields of media and cultural studies. Using the exotic legacy of the fin-de-siècle as its primary lens, this volume explores the shifting relationships between the multimedia genre of opera and the rapidly changing world of visual cultures. It also examines the changing aesthetics of opera in composition and performance and historical (dis)continuity, including the postcolonial era. The book comprises eleven interdisciplinary essays by scholars from eight countries, researching in music, theatre, literature, film and media studies, as well as a special contribution by opera director Sir Jonathan Miller. The book begins with an examination of operatic exoticism in various cultural contexts, such as French, Latin American and Arabic culture. The next sections focus on the most beloved figures in opera performance – Salome, Madame Butterfly and Aida – and performances of these operas through history. Further interpretations of the operas in film and new media are then considered. In the final section, Sir Jonathan Miller reflects on the ‘afterlife’ of opera.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Figures
  • Introduction
  • Part I Confronting Distant Cultures: Operatic Distances and Differences
  • Caught in Transition: Exoticism in Gaspare Spontini’s Fernand Cortès
  • Bibliography
  • Daniel Catán’s Butterflies; or, The Opera House in the Jungle
  • Bibliography
  • The Reversal of Exoticism: Ahmed Essyad’s Le Collier des Ruses [The Necklace of Tricks]
  • Bibliography
  • Part II Exotic Ladies and Fin-de-Siècle Visual Culture
  • Eroticizing Antiquity: Madame Mariquita, Régina Badet and the Dance of the Exotic Greeks from Stage to Popular Press
  • Bibliography
  • Loïe Fuller and Salome: The Unveiling of a Myth
  • Bibliography
  • The Kawakami Troupe in Early Twentieth-Century Europe in the Context of Media History
  • Bibliography
  • Part III Performing the Other
  • Global Butterfly: Visual Exoticism, or its Reversal, in Silent Film and Opera Performances
  • ‘Operatic’ Dimensions of Visual Exoticism: Madama Butterfly
  • Cinematic Butterfly
  • Reverse Exoticism: Robert Wilson and Anthony Minghella, and Saegusa Shigeaki’s Junior Butterfly
  • Bibliography
  • Scandalizing Orientalism: The Aida Productions by Hans Neuenfels (1981) and Peter Konwitschny (1994)
  • Bibliography
  • Performing the Icon: The Body on Stage and the Staged Body in Salome’s ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’
  • Bibliography
  • Part IV Operatic Exoticism in Cinema
  • Affirmation and Resistance: Operatic Exoticism on Film
  • Bibliography
  • The Fatal Attraction of Madame Butterfly
  • Bibliography
  • Part V Epilogue: Directing Opera
  • Subsequent Performances
  • How I Got into Theatre
  • And then Opera
  • The Afterlife of Operas
  • Conceptualism in Opera and Theatre
  • Pretending/Practical Joking as a Directing Style
  • Transposition/Correspondence
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index
  • Series index


Samuel N. Dorf, ‘Eroticizing Antiquity: Madame Mariquita, Régina Badet and the Dance of the Exotic Greeks from Stage to Popular Press’

Figure 1  Review of Aphrodite (1914), Comœdia Illustré 6e Année, no. 13 (5 April 1914): 624–5.

Figure 2  Advertisement in Opéra-Comique Program and photograph of Mary Garden in Salome (29 June 1910).

Hyunseon Lee, ‘Global Butterfly: Visual Exoticism, or its Reversal, in Silent Film and Opera Performances’

Figure 1  Film still from Harakiri (dir. Fritz Lang, 1919).

Figure 2  Film still from Harakiri (dir. Fritz Lang, 1919).

Naomi Segal, ‘The Fatal Attraction of Madame Butterfly’

Figure 1  Film still from Fatal Attraction (dir. Adrian Lyne, Paramount 1987), 01.50.48 [DVD, 2000].

Figure 2  Film still from Fatal Attraction (dir. Adrian Lyne, Paramount 1987), 00.28.08 [DVD, 2000].

Figure 3  Film still from Fatal Attraction (dir. Adrian Lyne, Paramount 1987), 00.59.40 [DVD, 2000].

Figure 4  Film still from Fatal Attraction (dir. Adrian Lyne, Paramount 1987), 00.46.18 [DVD, 2000].

Figure 5  Still from Fatal Attraction (dir. Adrian Lyne, Paramount 1987), Special features: ‘Visual attraction’, 08.01 [DVD, 2000]. ← ix | x →

← x | 1 →



Opera is a long-established genre of musical theatre. Although it is over 400 years old, it is still alive, vital, widely loved and undergoing change, transformation and cultural transgression. It is challenging itself and adjusting to various cultural demands and historical conditions. One of the unique aspects of opera lies in the co-existence of various media within it. As a new art form created in the late sixteenth century, it united at least two media, when a group of Florentine noblemen known as the Camerata attempted to revive the power of Greek tragedy by combining music with words.

The idea of uniting music and words – in other words, musical drama – shows opera as an art form best described by the term intermediality, which stresses contact, dialogue and relationship between media. This intermedial character has, over the course of opera’s historical development, become more compulsive, and the intervention of other media has become more elaborate. Since music and theatre themselves have changed and developed within changing historical conditions, so the concept and understanding of musical theatre has changed as well. The fascinatingly complex nature of opera as a medium encourages diverse approaches both in its performance and in research upon it.

Despite this clearly hybrid character it is undeniable that opera has primarily been the object of research in musicology departments. No one would deny the priority and dominance of music in the opera or the fact that the main discipline in which it is studied is musicology. Indeed, Opera Studies has become a major field within the musicological discipline in recent decades and it is still a very popular subject, attracting large numbers of researchers as well as students. There are numerous opera-specific modules being taught at universities at both undergraduate and postgraduate ← 1 | 2 → level, particularly in the English-speaking countries such as the UK, the USA and Australia.

However, opera belongs in the theatre as well. For too long, it has been understood primarily as a musical drama which can be read in the classroom quite independently of its theatrical performance. One can imagine and see opera at home; one can read music or hear its performance through audible media. However, one can hardly enjoy a theatrical performance without seeing it in the theatre. Opera as a performing art form draws attention to the medium of theatre and the dynamism of this art form, and the term ‘musical theatre’ also emphasizes the fact that opera is a hybrid medium. Intermediality, with its stress on contact and dialogue, is an inherent condition of the medium of opera, but it can also be understood as an aesthetic strategy enacted in any performance event. The focus on the inherently theatrical aspect of opera allows us a different kind of approach to the genre – an interdisciplinary approach. Much major research on opera has been carried out not only by music scholars but also by scholars from literary and other fields. The significance of their contribution to research on opera cannot be gainsaid.

Some critics argue against the opera research of non-musicologists, since it does not focus on the music. In her classic feminist discussion, L’Opéra, ou la Défaite des femmes (1979; translated as Opera, or The Undoing of Women, 1988), Catherine Clément notes that she does not listen to, or try to understand, the words in an opera performance on the first hearing, but rather concentrates on the music (and this in a book that is a work of feminist scholarship, not musicological research). Conversely, Sir Jonathan Miller, who was originally a medical doctor, mentions in his contribution to this volume that when he began directing opera – and even today – he could not read music (p. 247).

The intermedial character of opera corresponds to the centrality of an interdisciplinary approach to opera as a research object. As the concept of intermediality is concerned with dialogues and relationships with other media, it also draws attention to the question of how opera deals with otherness. What happens to opera when the medium, already itself complex and hybrid, comes up against other new media? At the same time, the parallel question of how ‘pure’ or adulterated an art form itself may ← 2 | 3 → be – viewed negatively in an art-for-art’s-sake perspective or positively in praise for cross-fertilization or hybridity – has grown in importance in the last century and a half. It is predominant in the arts in general, and hybridism became particularly evident in twentieth-century visual culture.

The question of how to deal with the other is one of the most important issues of modernity. In modern societies and cultures, contacts with the other – including others of sex, race and culture – became more significant from the late nineteenth century onward. The fin-de-siècle as a key moment of the confrontation of western culture with otherness is particularly interesting in this context. The modernization and industrialization of western society ran in parallel with the inventions of technological media and intercultural encounters, such as those demonstrated by world exhibitions. The rapid development of visual culture occurred alongside this process. The crisis of the system of literary representation affected not only literature but also western sign systems as a whole, including (musical) theatre, which sought for new forms in other cultures, as its musical and visual exoticism demonstrate. Operatic exoticism is an expression of the encounters with elements of foreign or exotic musical cultures in this era.

This volume deals with the intermedial aspects of the medium of opera in relation to the emerging visual culture in the late nineteenth century and its development in the twentieth century. It is no coincidence that a lot of exotic operas were composed at the fin-de-siècle, when various arts were discovering new modes of expression and representation. The crisis of opera at the start of the twentieth century was connected not only to the crisis of culture in general but also to the emergence and development of new audiovisual media such as the photography, gramophone and film. In this context exoticism marks both how western artists saw other cultures and people, and how they dealt with other media, confronting the problem of their own media of expression.

It was in this spirit of a more interdisciplinary and international interrogation of operatic exoticism that the international interdisciplinary conference ‘Opera, Exoticism and Visual Culture: The fin-de-siècle and its Legacy’ was held in September 2008 at the Institute of Germanic & Romance Studies and Institute of Musical Research at the School of Advanced Study, University of London, co-organized by Katharine Ellis, Naomi Segal and ← 3 | 4 → Hyunseon Lee. We began from the assumption that opera is not dead: its death may have been frequently predicted but, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, we see it reborn in forms using avant-garde, new media and postmodern media aesthetics that challenge and disrupt dominant forms of artistic production. Yet it remains bound to its history. We examined the implications, across more than a century, of one strand of that history, the visual exotic as it has been manifested in works such as Aida, Salome and Madama Butterfly. We were especially interested in the role of the exotic in opera as it confronts the historical context of interculturality and cultural globalization.

The results of that conference are now presented here in Opera, Exoticism and Visual Culture. The main questions remain. How, in a postcolonial age, can one best represent the opera of a colonial past? To what extent can new visual media with their modern technologies help us reinterpret such opera in a new era? How do the exotic ideals of the fin-de-siècle relate to highbrow and lowbrow operatic traditions of the Far and Near East or twentieth-century operatic interpretations of them? What challenges for staging and visual representation do such examples of cultural exchange present?

This volume focuses on operatic exoticism and its relation to composition, aesthetics, performance and representation of the exotic other, in its own and in other (visual) media. Exoticism in opera has been explored quite widely for the past few decades; however, many elements to be examined in this book remain largely unexplored in existing opera studies. The working assumption in this volume is that the primary means of constructing the exotic is visual, and that visual culture has evolved and thrived in part by exploiting its affinities with the exotic. Film is to be considered as the main visual medium of the twentieth century, but theatre and dance also play important roles, as many of the essays show. The contributors offer new perspectives on opera’s relationship to painting, sculpture, scenic design, costume, dance printed media and film – particularly silent – and opera-films.

The chapters are divided into five sections. The first section ‘Confronting Distant Cultures: Operatic Distances and Differences’ deals with hitherto neglected repertories and areas of the world. The study of operatic exoticism has concentrated largely on the Near, Middle and Far East and Africa. The ← 4 | 5 → chapters by Maria Birbili, Roberto Ignacio Díaz and Hervé Lacombe offer an imaginative new angle, as they refer to rarely performed operas set in remote times and different continents. Birbili goes back to the pre-history of operatic exoticism with her essay ‘Caught in Transition: Exoticism in Gaspare Spontini’s Fernand Cortès’, whereas Díaz and Lacombe examine recent contemporary non-European operas – Díaz, Mexican composer Daniel Catán’s Florencia en el Amazonas and Lacombe, Le collier des ruses, by Moroccan-born, Viennese-educated Ahmed Essyad. The latter two essays demonstrate that interesting operas are beginning to come from composers outside Europe and North America.

Gaspare Spontini’s Fernand Cortès (1809, 1814 and 1817), one of the very first exotic operas of the early nineteenth century, which has only been revived a few times since then, presents a clear political message about the ‘otherness’ of the colonized peoples in opposition to Spanish colonial power. Birbili’s research is based on different versions of the opera and newly discovered manuscript sources. She argues that Fernand Cortès not only reflects the intense scientific and ‘anthropological’ interest of contemporaries in other cultures but also contains intensely eclectic, mixed musical material, with short, conservative pieces evocative of pre-Revolutionary opera thrown together with long, ‘multi-media’ scenes which in their musical, visual and scenic complexity laid the ground for the birth of grand opéra.

Butterfly is a popular and much loved motif not only in Europe but also in Latin America. In his essay ‘Daniel Catán’s Butterflies; or, The Opera House in the Jungle’ Roberto Ignacio Díaz discusses a relatively new work, Florencia en el Amazonas [Florencia in the Amazon] (1996) by the Mexican composer Daniel Catán. Díaz deals with an opera that few have seen but which is the most successful opera by a Latin American composer; as a referee quite rightly pointed out, the only obvious rivals could be Il Guarany by Antônio Carlos Gomes (1870) and one of Alberto Evaristo Ginastera’s works (1964, 1967 and 1971). Díaz’s chapter focuses on the libretto and largely does so by bouncing aspects of it off other literary works and literary-associated anecdotes: the gift of Brazilian butterflies from Victoria Ocampo to Virginia Woolf, a novel by Julian Barnes, Werner Herzog’s film Fitzcarraldo. It is, in fact, something of a tour de force, situating the narrative of the opera, which culminates in the apparition of a giant butterfly, ← 5 | 6 → in a multifaceted frame of reference that incorporates Darwin, Virginia Woolf, Nabokov, Marquez and Puccini, among others.

Hervé Lacombe’s essay on Le Collier des ruses also engages with operatic exoticism across geographical distance and in an intercultural context. In his essay ‘The Reversal of Exoticism: Ahmed Essyad’s Le Collier des Ruses [The Necklace of Tricks]’ he shows an example of reverse exoticism, where the poetic and musical Arab-Berber culture meets the western genre of opera. The western viewpoint that peopled nineteenth-century operas with exotic subjects is here turned on its head: a composer of Moroccan origin uses the western models of lyrical and musical writing in order to express his native cultural world. The paradigm of exoticism reaches, moreover, beyond the westernized interculturality of opera or simply the encounter between two different cultures into a transcultural dimension of a globalized world.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (January)
music theatre aesthetics literature Jonathan Miller
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2015. X, 289 pp., 6 coloured ill., 5 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Hyunseon Lee (Volume editor) Naomi D. Segal (Volume editor)

Hyunseon Lee is Privatdozent in Modern German Literature and Media Studies at Siegen University and Research Associate at the Centre for Film Studies, SOAS, University of London. She is also guest lecturer of Korean Studies at Tübingen University. Her publications include the monograph Metamorphosen der Madame Butterfly. Interkulturelle Liebschaften zwischen Literatur, Oper und Film (2015) and the co-edited volumes Mörderinnen (2013) and Akira Kurosawa und seine Zeit (2005). She has published various works on music theatre, film and media aesthetics, German literature and Korean culture. Her current research interests focus on the Cold War in cinema and literature (Korea/Germany), film and history. Naomi Segal is Professorial Fellow at Birkbeck, University of London. She is the author of seventy-nine articles and fourteen books on comparative literature, cultural studies, gender, psychoanalysis and the body. Her monographs include Consensuality (2009), André Gide: Pederasty & Pedagogy (1998), The Adulteress’s Child (1992), Narcissus and Echo (1988) and The Unintended Reader (1986, 2010). She is currently retranslating Anzieu’s Le Moi-peau and has two more monographs at the planning stage. She is a Chevalier dans l’ordre des Palmes académiques and a member of the Academia Europaea.


Title: Opera, Exoticism and Visual Culture