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Opera, Exoticism and Visual Culture


Edited By Hyunseon Lee and Naomi D. Segal

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.
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Affirmation and Resistance: Operatic Exoticism on Film



Opera-film has a long and diverse history. In the silent era, for instance, Geraldine Farrar made a splash as Carmen in Cecil B. De Mille’s movie on the popular story. As in most early Carmen films, Georges Bizet’s music plays only an accompanimental role and, somewhat ironically, Farrar never sings a note. Prosper Mérimée’s story is the backbone of the plot. In 1975, Ingmar Bergman’s The Magic Flute launched a brilliant period that peaked in the 1980s with blockbuster films such as Franco Zeffirelli’s La Traviata (1982) and Otello (1986). More recently, Benoît Jacquot’s 2002 film of Tosca incorporates postmodernist techniques by blending the making of the film with the opera. Indeed, over its century-long history, opera-film has reflected trends in both society and cinema. This includes the concept of exoticism. Many opera-films have used exoticism prominently and sometimes in very different ways from film to film. This variety reflects changes in cinematic style and society’s view of opera and its cultural mission.

I would like to discuss a range of responses to exoticism in opera-film, along the continuum bounded by affirmation and resistance. While one example is blatantly orientalist, in others we will see how certain devices blunt or divert exoticism so that it does not become orientalism. My examples are four famous films and they cover the approximate operatic range of this book from Aida (1875) to Turandot (1924). They fall in pairs around key moments in modern...

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