Naomi Andre

Faculty / Academic Staff
Opera in South Africa
Intellectual Biography: 

My analysis of how opera projects meaning around nationhood and identity in South Africa has come out of a long journey. As a scholar, my work has focused on how opera as a genre has engaged cultural issues around gender, race, class and identity. I started out asking questions about nineteenth-century Italian opera and representations of women. My book (Voicing Gender, 2006) specifically queried the practice of having women sing male characters in the first decades of the century. Hence, unlike their gendered roles in nineteenth-century Italian society, on the opera stage women’s voices were considered both feminine and masculine, were heard as the best voice for the male hero, and portrayed characters that had access to power that far exceeded their singers’ realities off stage.
I next started exploring how the opera stage was the last place in the United States (as well as across Europe) where the practice of blackface was being used, and yet it was virtually ignored as a controversial practice that harkened back to minstrelsy and harmful stereotypes. That study led me to examine how blackness more generally in opera was portrayed: blackness in terms of operas written by black and non-black composers as well as issues surrounding “colorblind casting” where the race/ethnicity of the performer does not necessarily have to match that of the character. In my work around editing a collection of essays on this topic (Blackness in Opera, 2012) I first became aware of a new opera scene unfolding in South Africa.
Unlike other countries on the African continent, South Africa has had a solid opera presence throughout most of the twentieth century, with increase vigor after WWII when Italian POWs stayed on and strengthened the opera tradition. Throughout this time, and especially after mid-century, the South African opera world was white. Yet after the dismantling of apartheid, opera began to flourish among black South Africans with black singers performing Western operas in standard productions as well as in new types of productions that adapted these operas to South African settings (for example, when I was visiting the Cape Town University opera program in 2010, they were mounting a production of Mozart’s 1786 Marriage of Figaro now set on a wine estate in Stellenbosch where the class tensions so strong in the original pre-French Revolutionary period were reflected in the current racial dynamics of the integrated cast). Furthermore, black South African composers have begun writing operas about their own history (e.g., Mzilikazi Khumalo’s Princess Magogo, 1999 and Bogani Ndodana Breen’s Winnie, 2010). To help expedite my research—since South Africa was a new area of study for me—I have been fortunate to forge research collaborations with two wonderful Wits faculty (Professor Brenda Mhlambi in African Languages and Professor Donato Somma in Music) that has led to our three articles on Breen’s opera Winnie (these articles are currently under review in Wits’s journal, African Studies).
Since the 1970s, opera studies have looked at representations of the “Other” in terms of an exoticized or orienalized figure. Based heavily on Edward Said’s Orientalism, this discourse has been framed around the power dynamics surrounding the West’s hegemony in defining the East as weak and subordinate. Though this paradigm was helpful in asking questions around who has the power to define whom, Said’s orientalism focused on the East-West dichotomy (which invoked an exotic Eastern foreignness) and positioned the primary vantage point as the West looking at the East.
Through a different lens, the Global South comes out of a background that draws upon global studies and transnationalism. An examination of opera that opens up the Global South allows for a more comprehensive view of the North, specifically Western norms in opera, queried from the vantage point of South Africa. In this way, the Global South speaks for itself as it becomes an important producer of operas. Moreover, the vantage point has shifted; it is now South Africa that gets to re-define opera on its own terms through its adaptations of Western operas in South African settings and the creation of new South African operas.
As South Africa defines itself as a nation built on post-apartheid values, the opera stage once again has become an arena for working out nuanced cultural issues around gender, power, heroism, and modernity. With two of the first full-length operas by black South Africans based on the lives of two strong female political figures—Princess Magogo kaDinuzulu and Winnie Madikizela Mandela—this new South African voice in opera resonates with the Western European tradition where women’s voices are specially marked and get to carry power and authority. As political women whose public lives were also shaped by their private roles of mother and wife, their negotiations between professional and domestic spheres are given operatic treatment that help shape new memories of a modern nation. In the case of Princess Magogo, her role as a well-known musician informed her operatic portrayal as her music is infused with her ughubu melodies that have been preserved on historical recordings. In the case of Winnie Mandela, her courage as the waiting wife for so many years as Nelson Mandela was imprisoned and her own experience with torture is juxtaposed with her admitted guilt at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings. As a divorced, convicted woman living today in a South Africa she helped to build, this opera boldly opens up an opportunity for a millennial operatic heroine that is not only modern in Pretoria, but also for the rest of the world. In post-apartheid South Africa opera has become a critical space that fuses past histories with current aspirations for the future while also engaging intersections of gender with race and nation.

Presentation Title: 
My current projects involving South Africa are: 1. An article under review for Wits's African Studies, "Winnie, Opera, and South African Artistic Nationhood" 2. An article under review for a special issue of Opera Quarterly, "Bizet's Carmen in Africa" 3. My current book (monograph) manuscript on recent operas (1986-2012) in the US that work out issues around African-American history and race. I will also bring in connections with the recent opera scene in South Africa.
Davies, James. and Dovey, Lindiwe. (2010), ‘Bizet in Khayelitsha: U-Carmen eKhayelitsha as audio-visual transculturation’, Journal of African Media Studies 2: 1, pp. 39–53. Gauthier, Christopher R. and Jennifer McFarlane-Harris. “Nationalism, Racial Difference, and ‘Egyptian’ Meaning in Verdi’s Aida,” in Blackness in Opera, edited by Naomi André, Karen M. Bryan, and Eric Saylor. Urbana: University of Illinois Press (2012), 55-77. López, Alfred J. “Introduction: The (Post)global South,” The Global South vol. 1, nos 1&2 (2007), 1-11. Said, Edward W. “The Empire at Work: Verdi’s Aida” in Culture and Imperialism. New York: Vintage Books (1993), 111-132, 344-345 (notes). Zien, Katherine. “Race and Politics in Concert: Paul Robeson and William Warfield in Panama, 1947-1953,” The Global South, vol. 6, no. 2 (Fall 2013), 107-129.
I am very excited about this opportunity to expand my work on opera in South Africa. This workshop is a wonderful way for me to become more engaged with a larger context around South Africa and the Global South. I also look forward to sharing a perspective from the humanities and arts with the other areas covered by the workshop participants.