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Opera, Exoticism and Visual Culture


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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Eroticizing Antiquity: Madame Mariquita, Régina Badet and the Dance of the Exotic Greeks from Stage to Popular Press



In the 1906 programme for the Opéra-Comique’s production of Aphrodite (Camille Erlanger’s opera based on Pierre Louÿs’ exotic novel of the same name), images from antique vases mingle with photographs of Mary Garden (1874–1967) dressed as the courtesan Chrysis.

The juxtaposition of Mary Garden’s thoroughly modern gown and the antique motifs borrowed from vases and bas-reliefs illustrates the opposing and conjoining forces involved in the production and reception of operas and ballets invoking the imagery of ancient Greece in fin-de-siècle Paris: images both modern and antique, yet indisputably fashionable. In a review of this performance in Le Théâtre, the dancer Régina Badet (1876–1949) is shown wearing a costume that closely adheres to the traditional images from antiquity. Badet is in heavy drapery, which cascades loosely over her frame and her head is bound with fabric and veils wrapped across her forehead and under her chin to represent a paradigmatic ‘oriental’ costume worn by ‘exotic’ dancers like Ida Rubinstein (1885–1960). The dresses for this production, designed by Marcel Multzer (1866–1937), combine elements of the past with the present – the oriental and the occidental – in an erotic fantasy of an imagined antiquity for a fashionably modern audience.

Exoticism exists in many forms throughout the printed ephemera which promoted, reviewed and documented early twentieth-century Parisian opera and dance. Of all these images, I shall focus in this essay on ← 73 | 74 → those that simultaneously exoticize...

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