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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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The Reversal of Exoticism: Ahmed Essyad’s Le Collier des Ruses [The Necklace of Tricks]



Exoticism is a question of viewpoints, territories, cultures, politics and the imagination. It consists, first and foremost, of a double difference, geographical and human, both developed by the west. There is a geographical binary between a concept of here (generally meaning Europe) and a concept of elsewhere; and there is a human binary which distinguishes us from the others.

Exoticism is a European gaze directed at a more or less defined ‘other’ and ‘elsewhere’. This gaze is not just an act of observation; it is also an intellectual construction, an artistic creation and a phantasmatic projection. Above all, it is the manifestation of a position of power. Edward Said showed in 1978 how orientalism is, at one and the same time, an idea, a representation and an act of taking possession. It is a form of domination and authority. Based on an extreme process of generalization – or grotesque simplification – of the other and the elsewhere, it describes ‘the Orient’ in dramatic terms. Said notes, for example:

Orientalism overrode the Orient. As a system of thought about the Orient, it always rose from the specifically human detail to the general transhuman one; an observation about a tenth-century Arab poet multiplied itself into a policy towards (and about) the Oriental mentality in Egypt, Iraq, or Arabia. Similarly a verse from the Koran would be considered the best evidence of an ineradicable Muslim sensuality. Orientalism assumed an unchanging Orient, absolutely different (the reasons changed from...

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