• Beyond the exotic: How

    Ralph P. Locke (see profile)
    American Musicological Society, Cultural Studies, Global & Transnational Studies, Ottoman and Turkish Studies, Victorian Studies
    Musicology, Culture, History, Musical analysis, Opera, Race relations--Study and teaching, Ethnology--Study and teaching, Critical theory, Imperialism
    Item Type:
    sub-Saharan Africa, Edward Said, Khedive Ismail, Egypt history, Cultural history, Cultural musicology, Critical race and ethnic studies
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    Commentators often express disappointment that the music for the main characters in _Aida_ is not more distinctive, i.e., does not make much use of the exotic styles that mark the work's ceremonial scenes and ballets. It has also been argued that exotic style-elements here are mostly confined to female, hence powerless, characters. Such commentaries often draw on a limited selection of data and observations: the exotic style of those few ceremonial numbers, two moments for solo oboe, the opera's plot, and the circumstances of the work's commissioning (by the Khedive of Egypt). In fact, though, various aspects of words and music that are not in themselves markers of exoticism or Orientalism manifestly announce traits of this or that character (or group). Those verbal and musical elements thereby communicate indelible impressions of what Egyptians and Ethiopians supposedly are like (or were like in an earlier era). For example, the music of the priests is mostly not, as commentators regularly claim, marked by imitative counterpoint; rather, it engages in several distinct archaicizing tendencies, some of which characterize the priestly caste (and hence the Egyptian government within the opera) as rigid and menacing. New evidence for how we might understand the opera is presented here, from sources as diverse as costume designs, specific details of the sung text, stage directions in the _disposizione scenica_ for the opera's first Italian production, relevant remarks by Verdi (a late interview in which he expresses forceful opposition to European imperialism), little-known remarks by early commentators (including two Egyptians writing in 1901), early sound recordings, and Western fears/knowledge of the Wahhabist strain of Islam that was then expanding across the Middle East.
    This article was reprinted, shortened, in Cowgill, Cooper, and Brown, eds., Art and Ideology in European Opera (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2010), 264-80. The shortened version was translated by Fulvia Morabito as “Oltre l’esotico: l’orientalismo di Aida,” in Verdi Reception, ed. Frassà and Niccolai (Turnhout: Brepols, 2013), 269-85. My companion article, “'Aida' and Nine Readings of Empire,” Nineteenth-Century Music Review 3 (2006), no. 1: 45-72., is now available on HC.
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    Journal article    
    Last Updated:
    6 years ago
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