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Performativity, mimesis, and indigenous opera

Performativity, mimesis, and indigenous opera

Karantonis, Pamela (2011) Performativity, mimesis, and indigenous opera. In: Karantonis, Pamela and Robinson, Dylan, (eds.) Opera Indigene: Re/presenting First Nations and Indigenous Cultures. Ashgate Interdisciplinary Series in Opera . Ashgate Publishing, Farnham, UK / Burlington, USA, pp. 73-90. ISBN 978-0-7546-6989-0 (print), 978-1-4094-2406-2 (e-book)

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This chapter begins with the possibility that opera scholars and anthropologists have become collaborators. Those drawn to view, hear, compose, perform in, and study opera often do so for all its powers of imagination and expression—musically, mythically, linguistically, theatrically—while the study of the functions, customs, and belief systems of diverse peoples have entered into something of a crisis in recent decades. As this collection appears within a series devoted to interdisciplinary explorations of opera, I hope here to disclose my own misgivings about the relationship of my discipline of performance studies to opera analysis.
To account very briefly for the discipline’s history, in the latter half of the twentieth century a branch of the discipline of anthropology was renamed “cultural studies,” but not before two eminent North American scholars—Richard Schechner and Victor Turner—decided that there was a productive category to emerge from their dialogue between theater and anthropology (to paraphrase one of Schechner’s works).1 The 1980s offspring of that dialogue is now called “performance studies.”
As the name suggests, the remit in discussing any aspect of “performance” is broad, but the methodology still belongs to the ethnographic fieldwork designed to analyze ritual, and can borrow from associated disciplines such as sociology and psychology. Terms such as “performativity” and “agency” began to relate both to the ceremonial and symbolic qualities of ritual and to the
socio-political and psychological transformation possible for individuals and communities through a wide range of performing arts. So when this approach is added to the harsh social inequalities to emerge from colonial histories, in the form of postcolonialism, theater scholars and musicologists alike have a complexity of choice in their methods for discussing this very specific topic of opera and Indigenous cultures.
I want you, the reader, to be guided through the material in this chapter by a fan of the Western operatic canon, but also by an Australian whose voice is from a Greek-speaking background. I am sympathetic to the postcolonial condition of having origins that are off-center in relation to the Anglophone empire along the burdensome “Greekness” of the concept of mimesis—which, in Platonic terms, means both to “imitate” and to “represent”—something at the very heart of musical and dramatic characterization in opera. Only recently have audiences and scholars appreciated how much Indigenous cultures can theorize mimesis in terms that recognize the postcolonial condition, in terms that break down an “us and them” ethnographic version of cultural difference. This is most evident in the work of Michael Taussig in the USA and Marcia Langton in Australia (whose scholarship on Australian Aboriginal mimesis in contemporary media is most relevant to this chapter). So while the content of this chapter will survey some key operas composed by Australians and New Zealanders since the early twentieth century, it will argue in relation to these works that the staging of “character” could no longer ignore the reality of being Aboriginal or Māori in these societies.
While there will be the inevitable theoretical tangents, as “acting” in opera begins to unravel, by the end of this chapter I hope you might conclude, along with me, that as Indigenous communities engage with and develop cultural practice through opera (even as Western definitions of opera are destabilized in the process), these moments both transform opera as a genre and extend cultural expression for those cultures.

Item Type: Book Section
Additional Information: [1] Chapter 4. Pamela Karantonis is also co-editor and co-author of the Introduction and Chapter 18.
Uncontrolled Keywords: opera, first nations, theatre, indigenous cultures
Subjects: P Language and Literature > PN Literature (General) > PN2000 Dramatic representation. The Theater
Pre-2014 Departments: School of Humanities & Social Sciences
School of Humanities & Social Sciences > Department of Communications & Creative Arts
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Last Modified: 14 Oct 2016 09:21

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