Taking inspiration from Kalle Pihlainen’s philosophy of historical representation, this essay explores some of the ways in which operatic performance can harness the ambiguity between the genre’s historicist and presentist implications to mobilize not just the difference of the past from the present but also their connection. The essay focuses on two recent examples—Heartbeat Opera’s Butterfly (New York, 2017) and The Industry’s Sweet Land (Los Angeles, 2020)—whose unconventional presentations critically engage such temporal complexity. Moving beyond the proscenium and crucially involving the music in their directorial visions, both couch history’s grip on the present in terms of the consequences of past actions. By self-staging their differences from mainstream opera-house productions, moreover, both explore whether opera can still aspire to sociopolitical relevance today. Though Butterfly tackles a controversial repertory staple, while the immersive and site-specific Sweet Land enlists the operatic genre itself to probe various modes of historical imagination, both expose continuities of historical racism in contemporary US culture. Their blurring of lines between past and present prevents audiences from confining racist positions to the operas’ allegedly historical plots: instead of presenting past alterity, the productions reveal transhistorical semblance. Opera thus becomes a medium for performing the multidimensionality and open-endedness of history.

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