This month's display blog has kindly been contributed by Emeritus Professor Nicholas Tarling who is a specialist in both Asian Studies and Music.
As a historian of Asia and lover of Western opera, I have been trying to bring these two interests together in a project that considers the relevance of ‘Orientalism’ to operas avowedly on ‘Oriental’ subjects.
‘Globalisation’ – with its advantages and disadvantages – has been ill-defined but much discussed. In this project it is seen, not only as a recent process, but as a long-term one. Throughout most of recorded history, though especially in the last five hundred years, contacts and exchanges among peoples of the world have increased and their cultures have been constituted and reconstituted.
The processes have been diverse: peaceful and also the reverse of peaceful. Contacts that have begun by stereotyping or homogenising have given way to, or even been seen to be combined with, interchange and borrowing, even recognition of commonality.
It is in this context that I also see the arguments of Edward Said, in particular those in his influential modern classic Orientalism. ‘Orientalism’, betokening a homogenising and stereotyping and thus dehumanising view of the ‘Other’, has come into common use, and has been influential in the study of literature and the arts as well as other domains.
More rarely has it been applied to ‘Western’ opera. Yet that has been and is a globalised and globalising phenomenon, and as a performance-oriented combination of other arts, it affords unique opportunities for appraising the concept of ‘Orientalism’, particularly in those cases where its concern with the ‘exotic’ focuses on ‘the East’.
Opera’s history extends over most of the past five hundred years during which the world has been subject to ever-increasing globalisation. And opera has also changed over that long period, as its component arts have changed, as their combination has changed, and its role in society has changed. Its capacity to enable comment on ‘Orientalism’ has also changed. Some operas have joined an established repertoire, and the handling of them by successive generations affords opportunity for analysis.
My tentative conclusion is that a study of opera – even of ‘oriental’ operas – does not support the accusation that Europe or ‘the West’ took a stereotyping, homogenising, or dehumanising view of the East, in which, as Said argued, a wish to dominate was at least implicit. Opera in general was and is a humanising art: indeed it could hardly help so being, since it relied and relies on a common, though unique, human attribute, the voice, and was presented by human beings representing other human beings.
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