Activist Operatic Spaces in Puccini’s La Bohème with South Africa’s Breathe Umphefumlo and Larson’s Rent
Rey M. Longyear Lecture
Sponsored by the Division of Musicology & Ethnomusicology
Dr. André is Professor in the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies, Women’s and Gender Studies, and the Residential College at the University of Michigan. She received her B.A. from Barnard College and M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard University. Her research focuses on opera and issues surrounding gender, voice, and race in the US, Europe, and South Africa. Her publications include topics on Italian opera, Schoenberg, women composers, and teaching opera in prisons. Her book, Black Opera: History, Power, Engagement (University of Illinois Press, 2018) won the Lowens Book Award from the Society for American Music. Her earlier books include Voicing Gender: Castrati, Travesti, and the Second Woman in Early Nineteenth-Century Italian Opera (2006) and Blackness in Opera (2012, co-edited collection). She has edited and contributed to clusters of articles in African Studies and the Journal of the Society for American Music. Currently, she is a co-editor for the essay collection African Performance Arts and Political Acts (University of Michigan Press, forthcoming in 2021). She is the inaugural Scholar in Residence at the Seattle Opera and a founding member of the Black Opera Research Network (BORN).
"Avant-garde opera productions in the West (particularly in Europe and the United States) are moving towards a broader portrayal of lived experiences where modern audiences can more easily see themselves reflected onstage. Adapted from Puccini’s 1896 beloved La Bohème opera about young struggling bohemian artists in Paris’s Latin Quarter, two modern adaptations present sonic soundings and visual embodiments of black and multi-racial experiences that are site specific (NYC late 1990s, South Africa2010s) and relevant to their times. Jonathan Larson’s rock opera updates the story to New York City’s Lower East Side where a multi-racial cast of LGBT queer young people are confronting HIV/AIDS. Across the Atlantic, South Africa’s Isango Ensemble tackles the resurgence of tuberculosis in the township of Khayelitsha outside of Cape Town in a production that is now translated in Xhosa and re-orchestrated for tuned percussion and township choir. Breathe Umphefumlo (2015) and Rent (1996) have a growing relevance to a global audience of seasoned opera fans who desire innovative directions as well as newer operagoers who want something true-to-life they find relatable. Such portrayals write fresh histories and create new politics around the unlikely, and redefined, genre of opera."
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