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Research Colloquium: Juliana M. Pistorius
October 10 @ 5:15 pm - 6:30 pm
An event every day that begins at 5:15pm, repeating indefinitely
‘A Traviata of irony and enjoyment’: coloured opera as political act in apartheid South Africa
Juliana M. Pistorius (Lincoln College, University of Oxford)
When the Eoan Group’s production of La Traviata opened at the Cape Town City Hall on 10 March 1956, critics hailed the event as ‘a miracle’. Performed by a largely musically illiterate cast consisting entirely of members of the so-called ‘coloured’ race, it was not only the first South African production to be sung entirely in Italian, but also the first to be performed by non-white musicians. Anti-apartheid activists however condemned the group for participating in what was commonly regarded as ‘elite white culture’, and for accepting financial support from the apartheid government. Thus, the Eoan group became embroiled in a crisis of political complicity. Despite this controversy, the group continued over the next twenty years to stage elaborate government-funded productions. They participated in symbolic celebrations of state power, and advanced the official policy of racial segregation by complying with demands to perform to separate white and coloured audiences. As a result, they were branded as aspirational and complicit in the apartheid agenda, and were ostracised by their own community. Despite being responsible for the establishment of an operatic tradition in South Africa, the Eoan group remains largely ignored in South African music history.
My paper disentangles the complex thread of complicity woven into the Eoan group’s operatic activities. Drawing on material from the group’s recently-discovered archive, I argue that the Eoan performances were ambiguous moments in which the verbal and visual hierarchies of language and race yielded to the excess of the aesthetic encounter. The Eoan group’s operas created multiple points of contact between ruling class and oppressed, thus undermining the simple dichotomy of collaboration and anti-colonial resistance, and establishing the operatic stage as a locus for Edward Said’s ‘forgetting’. Re-orientating musicology’s existing historicising discourse from a focus on heroic struggle to engagement with the quotidian cultural life of the subaltern, I interrogate how the Eoan performances may help us account for the political currency of joy, and of creating meaningful lives in the face of oppressive circumstances.
All Music Research Colloquia begin at 5.15pm in the Denis Arnold Hall at the Faculty of Music. The Colloquia feature leading figures as well as younger scholars presenting their research in papers on all kinds of music-related topics. The speakers come from Oxford and many different universities around the world. This series is organised by graduate students, Stefanie Arend and Edward Spencer. Presentations are followed by discussion and a drinks reception. Students, staff, and the general public are warmly encouraged to attend.