HC421H - Staging Opera's Ethics (Spring/2024)

Professor: Abigail Fine

4.00 credits

  • CRN 34952: Tuesday & Thursday, 4:00-5:20pm @ CHA 202

Opera is a troubled and troubling genre. It is a complex and lavish art form beloved by many, and it has been hotly debated since its very origins in the 17th century. In today’s world, opera becomes all the more complicated as its historical plots clash with modern ethics, presenting outdated social worlds and values. Yet these artworks are continually reinvented for a reason, as their plot tangles, moral dilemmas, and jaw-dropping drama captivate the modern public and speak (or sing) across the ages. Enter a new art form: Regietheater, or directors’ theater, which reimagines operas in ways that put the past and present in dialogue. Opera stagings—a constellation of choices made by directors, costume and set designers, casting, and lighting—grapple, either openly or behind the scenes, with the internal tensions of opera itself: its classist luxury paired with identifiable, everyday characters; its unrealistic breaking into song; its cringey or outright offensive social situations on the twenty-first century stage.

This course questions how the past and present speak to each other vs. past each other through the medium of performing art. We examine a selection of operas, first positioning their plots in a historical context, then analyzing creative stagings that reinvent the work. Topics include East-West exchange versus Orientalism, onstage sexual violence in the age of #metoo, racial caricatures, and operatic conventions that make female madness, death, or femme fatales a form of spectacle. We ask: how does Regietheater respond to ethical problems—by covering them up in a kind of apologism, or by amplifying them to speak to the continued problems of our era? And in what ways can staging reinvent an opera altogether, making it into a brand new artwork?

This course does engage with musical sound, but no background in music is required for success. Students of all interests and political persuasions will find a welcoming space for discussion that encourages a productive and diplomatic exchange of ideas.