Naomi André is a professor, scholar, director, published author, and musicologist expanding music historiography. Her academic concentration focuses on how narratives are developed and shaped about music history with special respect to the roles of women and people of color.
Naomi’s work focuses on the roles of black people in opera and the themes that are connected to them as both characters in a story, as well as performers working in the arts industry. Women and people of color are commonly relegated to particular roles in traditional opera. For example, unfortunately it is common for women in opera to be killed by the end of the performance (as much as 40% of the time). She dissects these roles in one of her publications, titled Voicing Gender, which explores the so-called “trouser roles” where actresses portray male characters. She co-edited a book titled Blackness in Opera, looking at characters such as Othello, a Black man whose role in society is one where he is exceptional due to his difference — his blackness. Naomi even looks at performances casting Black actors as White characters. For example, in the opera Maria Stuardo, Noluvuyiso Mpofu in the role of Maria appears in Tudor English dress and a pancake white face of makeup.
What is Black Opera?
Black Opera is not just performances with Black actors. Naomi specifies three distinct classifications: One are canonic operas, performances of classics that cast Black actors; two, Western operas respun into new settings, such as performances being retold in South Africa; and three, new operas, which are written by Black and interracial writers and directors. Generally, Naomi explained that Black opera is a construction of opera featuring Black participation, subjects, and perspectives/experiences, which gives them special care and consideration when they typically aren’t afforded the same respect in the dominant culture.
It is crucial, in exploring new work in opera, to remember the work made for and by Black people in the past. There are Black operas that are written and performed that are lost to time or simply weren’t able to gain traction and popularity. It is easy for people who lack familiarity with Black culture to struggle to conceptualize elements of these works. For example, in Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut up In My Bones, the roles of college fraternities are different for the Black and White students. While Greek life is seen as a social club for some, the Black students had to utilize it as a means of protecting one another.
Naomi is at the very forefront of activist musicology. Whether it is teaching students about the history of women and people of color in opera, writing and researching the influential plays, or talking with scholars about the artists in the Kulturbund. How will we deal with the harm done by our predecessors? How will we harness care to repair hurt? What will we do moving forward to heal and expand the field? These are all questions she and her emerging field seek to answer. Activist musicology is a rapidly evolving academic area. We can create new discourse through scholarship, by engaging in democracy, and by patronizing the operas that support women and people of color.
Supporting literature from Naomi André