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.
Butterflies on Sweet Land? Reflections on Opera at the Edges of History
Gundula Kreuzer is Professor of Music at Yale University and author of the award-winning Verdi and the Germans: From Unification to the Third Reich (Cambridge, 2010) as well as Curtain, Gong, Steam: Wagnerian Technologies of Nineteenth-Century Opera (Oakland, 2018). She edited Verdi's chamber music for The Works of Giuseppe Verdi and serves on several editorial boards, including as reviews editor for Opera Quarterly. In 2019, she received the Dent Medal of the Royal Musical Association and launched the annual YOST: Y | Opera | Studies Today symposium to explore contemporary experimental opera.
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Gundula Kreuzer; Butterflies on Sweet Land? Reflections on Opera at the Edges of History. Representations 1 May 2021; 154 (1): 69–86. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/rep.2021.154.6.69
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