Racialization in Contemporary German Theater

Performing Race on the Opera Stage

[Race] delineates the points of a process, a set of filters that sift between those who might be groomed for inclusion (and potential values) and those set aside for exclusion and superfluity (or determined to be without value). This is why the application of its categories acquires a mobility that can only be understood as situational and concrete, never abstract or ahistorical.
— Angela Mitropoulos1

As a scholar of opera presenting at a conference entitled Blackface, Whiteness and the Power of Definition in Contemporary German Theatre, I wanted to explore ways in which race has been constructed and materialized in the opera. Making use of Mitropoulos’s framework above, I ask: which set of filters are used here by white artists and academics to (re)create race on the opera stage? In order to understand this nexus of practices and discourses, I make use of the concept of racialization. In the introduction to their edited collection, Racialization: Studies in Theory and Practice, Karim Murji and John Solomos define racialization as the “processes by which racial meanings are attached to particular issues” (p. 3). In German theater, these processes can be articulated in many ways, at many levels, and through many filters. In this essay, I will focus on three filters in particular: racialized dramaturgy, the racialized stage, and racialized embodiment.

Filter One: Racialized Dramaturgy

In the history of the opera, racialized dramaturgy, or the construction of characters and situations based on race, is a late phenomenon. Between the 16th century and the middle of the 18th century, operatic characters were developed primarily according to the category of class. While “good characters” knew their place and stayed in them, “bad characters” tried to leave their classes all the time, failed, and were punished for their hubris.2 These characters were classified by two fundamental principles: affect and temperament.3 For example, the Christian hero Rinaldo is characterized by his sanguine temperament, the Muslim prince Tamerlano by his choleric temperament, the abandoned Dido by a phlegmatic temperament, and Orfeo is the most successful melancholic character in the history of opera. Corresponding affects (hope, love, desire, sadness, anxiety, jealousy, compassion, etc.) were subsequently linked to these more general temperaments. The ethics of opera was determined by this classification system. With the opening of opera houses to a regular paying audience and subsequent developments in the 18th century,4 opera became a very spectacular form of performance. Librettists had to find situations in which strong emotions could be articulated with musical virtuosity and extraordinary visual effects. In this context, female characters that did not accept the rules of Italian, French, or English baroque societies were constructed as dangerous and assigned magic powers.5 Sorceresses like Circe (Homer), Medea (Euripides), Alcina (Lodovico Ariosto), or the Syrian Princess Armida (Torquato Tasso) used their magic powers to seduce and destroy heroic Christian men. For this reason, sorceresses in opera should be understood as more than an aesthetic appropriation of Greek drama for baroque opera. These sorceresses were also the result of particular European discourses on religion (good Christian versus bad Muslim) and gender (emotional woman versus rational male hero). At the end of the 18th century, sorceresses became very popular: their musical virtuosity, their magnificent costumes, and their spectacular stage effects (like flying or disappearing) turned them into stars. It is very interesting to observe that this success also corresponds with the beginning of the racialization of sorceresses.

By the middle of the 18th century, sorceresses began to be exoticized through costumes, stage sets, language, and “deviant” behavior. At the same time, non-white6 queens and princesses, like Cleopatra, were increasingly eroticized and began to break more often with their class rules by dancing, seducing, and manipulating. Though sorceresses and non-white queens lost their magic powers, and became more irrational and destructive, they were still very interested in seducing and threatening the Christian hero. While white Christian males were characterized as the subject, white Christian females were characterized by their penchant for purity and motherhood. White and non-white female characters were here based on a bipolar conception of womanhood – the evil Eva on the one hand and the good Maria on the other – so that both characters were not only opposite but also deeply dependent on each other. That is why there is no Cleopatra without Cornelia or no Carmen without Michaela, no femme fatale without a femme fragile. In this context “abnormal behavior” was assigned to characters of color. Then it was necessary to create behavioral deviance on the stage in order to legitimate the colonial violence against people of color outside of the opera house.7 Carmen, Dalila, and Salome were constructed by white artists to entertain white audiences. Accordingly, the myth of the femme fatale is linked to the racialization of women of color on the one hand, and to the process of universalizing white women on the other hand.

Filter Two: The Racialized Stage

We can distinguish two main analytical approaches within the discipline of theater studies, which is concerned with the relationships between real bodies (performances), written bodies (characters), symbolic bodies (stage interpretation/production), and their very different contexts (reception). The first and older approach is the semiotic approach. Bodies on stage are read as the representation or symbolization of a dramatic character. For this reason, the seventeen-year-old Octavian, the elderly Nero, or the fifteen-year-old Butterfly can be embodied by an old, white woman without causing a shock. The body of the performer is equated with the body of the character s/he represents. It does not matter what the performer actually looks like. The second, more recent approach is the performative approach. Stage bodies are here understood within a nexus of dramatic, sociological, political, ideological, and cultural frames. Taking these different approaches into account, then, I ask the question again: how does racialization work on the opera stage? To answer this question, I will introduce the story of Salome who, next to Carmen, Dalila and Cleopatra, is one of the most successful femme fatale in the history of opera.

To begin, I looked at five successful performances of Salome at internationally recognized opera houses between 1946 and 1980.8 In addition to the instances of dramaturgical racialization mentioned above, I distinguished three additional moments. Up until the 1950s, Salome was always racialized through costumes and settings. Producers and directors made use of an inherited exotic repertoire based on an abounding colonial fantasy.9 During this time, various white singers, like Christel Goltz, Ljuba Welisch, and Anja Silija, developed a repertoire of gestures that exceeded the more static performances of contemporary opera singers. In the 1970s, the racialization of Salome became more sexualized, aggressive and even mad. Teresa Stradas’s final scene in Götz Friedrich’s production (1974) illustrates this shift very well.10 In the 1980s, singers of color who had been cast in leading roles in the 1970s, began to be selected to embody dramaturgically racialized roles.11 This was the beginning of a politics of racial casting that persists today. In this context, the dances of women of color – considered insane but attractive, beautiful but dangerous, and always focused on white male desire – became central to the construction of the character. All the while, this performance of the voyeuristic fantasies of white artists has been construed as the desire of women of color who want to seduce white audiences by exhibiting their exotic bodies. For this reason, the dance of Salome, Cleopatra, and Carmen is always linked to a colonial imaginary: it is not possible to understand these operas without acknowledging how race has been (re)constructed in visual and performance arts.

Filter Three: Racialized Embodiment

While the body of the singer of color has been categorized as a raced body, the body of the white performer has been constructed as a universal subject. In this short article, I cannot do justice to the concept of embodiment in all its phenomenological and anthropological complexity.12 I do want to use this popular but problematic term, however, to describe the processes through which operatic characters have been perceived, conceptualized, and reduced along racial lines. From this point, when I refer to racialized embodiment, I mean the racialization of stage elements – from stage direction to the politics of casting as Jürgen Kesting, the author of the German encyclopedia of singers, wrote: “You do not have to be a nationalist to see the choice to cast a French woman from Martinique as Constanze as a strange one and as an indication that either the politics of casting are moving in strange directions – or that it has become difficult to make adequate and clear-sighted choices/contracts.”13

With the emergence of Postcolonial Studies and other critical disciplines that question the legitimacy of hegemonic knowledge, it was no longer possible to present white reality as universal experience. In the German context, white academics and theater researchers could no longer pretend to be color-blind. However, they did not have the tools (or perhaps the interest) to analyze their own white positionality as a historically, socially, racially, and culturally particular discourse. Into this situation emerged a new generation of theater researchers with a double qualification: as theater researchers they knew the fields and tools of theater studies, but they also knew and made use of the critical discourses of Postcolonial Studies, Gender Studies, Cultural Studies, and Critical Whiteness Studies. They called into question the ethnological and anthropological references of theatrical knowledge and proposed new analytical strategies to analyze performance.14 Dorinne Kondo shows how the notion of the universal subject emerged from a very particular white perspective and how this position has been constructed discursively as an objective, neutral, and transhistorical category. She writes: “The universal as a transhistorical category marks the place of the Master Subject and deflects critical consideration of such a Subject’s always already historically, culturally and racially specific meanings and positioning.”15 This process of universalizing whiteness is the key to understanding how the power of definition works in the German theater and in Theater Studies.

  1. A. Mitropoulos, “The Materialisation of Race in Multiculure,” darkmatter (February 2008), web, www.darkmatter101.org/site/2008/02/23/the-materialisation-of-race-in-multiculture, last accessed 04 Apr. 2014. []
  2. Monteverdi’s Poppea is not an exception to this rule, because the audience knew very well that she had been “punished” for her hubris in spite of the opera’s “happy end.” []
  3. See, for example: R. Descartes, Les passions de l’âme (1649), ed. by G. Rodis-Lewis and D. Kambouchner, Paris: Vrin, 2010; A. Kircher, Musurgia Universalis (1650), ed. by U. Scharlau, Hildesheim: Olms, 1999; J. Mattheson, Der vollkommene Capellmeister (1739), ed. by M. Reimann, Kassel: Bärenreiter Verlag, 1995. []
  4. D. Daude, L’influence des spectateurs aux débuts de l’opéra à Venise 1637–1669, Université Paris 8, 2001 (unpublished manuscript). []
  5. B. Heinel, Die Zauberoper: Studien zu ihrer Entwicklungsgeschichte anhand ausgewählter Beispiele. Von den Anfängen bis zum Beginn des 19. Jahrhunderts, Frankfurt am Main: Lang, 1994. []
  6. Because of its ethnocentric premise the term “non-white” is very problematic. I use it here as a provisional term to introduce the binary starting point of racialization in operatic dramaturgy. []
  7. Men of color have been constructed as objects of fear and desire: being aggressive to white men, oppressive to women of color, and obsessively focused on white women. For example: Monostatos in Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute, Mozart), Osmin in Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio, Mozart), Otello in Otello (Rossini, Verdi, etc.), Omar in Abu Hassan (Weber). []
  8. The selected Opera houses are: Königliches Opernhaus in Dresden; Covent Garden in London; Opéra Garnier in Paris; Wiener Staatsoper; and the Metropolitan Opera in New York. The performers were: Marie Wittich (1868–1931) who created the role in 1905; Marjorie Lawrence (1907–1979) who was successful in the ’30s; Christel Goltz (1912–2008), a very successful Salome in the ’50s and ’60s; Ljuba Welitsch (1913–1996), successful in the ’50s and ’60s; Grace Bumbry (born 1937), very successful in the ’70s; and Anja Silja (born 1940), successful in the ’60s and ’70s; and Leonie Rysanek (1926–1998). []
  9. R. Gulrich, Exotismus in der Oper und seine szenische Realisation (1850–1910): Unter besonderer Berücksichtigung der Münchener Oper, Anif: Müller-Speiser, 1993. []
  10. Richard Strauss’s Salome, musical direction by Karl Böhm, directed by Götz Friedrich, Wiener Philharmoniker, 1974. []
  11. Grace Bumbry performed Amneris (Aida) in Paris in 1960 and Venus (Tannhäuser) in Bayreuth in 1961; Simon Estes made his debut as Ramfis (Aida) in Berlin in 1965; Jessye Norman performed Countess Almaviva (The Marriage of Figaro) in Florence in 1971; Barbara Hendricks performed Susanna (The Marriage of Figaro) with Barenboim in Berlin in 1978. []
  12. See, for example: M. Merleau-Ponty, Phénoménologie de la perception (1945), Paris: Gallimard, 1998; M. Merleau-Ponty, L’Œil et l’esprit, Paris: Gallimard, 1964; H. Maturana and F. J. Varela, The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding, Boston: Shambhala, 1992; F. Varela, E. Thompson and E. Rosch (eds), The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience, Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1991; T. Csordas, Embodiment and Experience: The Existential Ground of Culture and Self, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994; G. Lakoff and M. Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought, New York: Basic Books, 1999. []
  13. Jürgen Kesting is referring here to the internationally recognized soprano Christiane Eda-Pierre (circa 1932). See: J. Kesting, Die großen Sänger, Düsseldorf: Classen, 1986. In the original German: “Man muß kein Nationalist sein, um die Besetzung der Constanze mit einer Französin aus Martinique als befremdlich zu empfinden und als Indiz dafür zu werten, daß entweder die Vertragspolitik der Firmen seltsame Wege geht – oder daß es schwer ist, adäquate oder weitsichtige Verträge abzuschließen.” []
  14. D. Daude, Oper als Aufführung: Neue Perspektiven auf Opernanalyse, Bielefeld: transcript, 2014. []
  15. D. K. Kondo, About Face: Performing Race in Fashion and Theater, New York: Routledge, 1997, p. 19. []