My research in the transformative power of certain rituals has led to my current interest in the unique performative ability of opera to create and sometimes transform patterns of cultural understanding. I focus on opera compositions and performances that lie outside the norms and challenge common assumptions by bringing to life what Bakhtin calls “unofficial versions of reality,” giving them compelling sound, sight and material form. Sometimes, so vivid are these creations that they can dissolve the boundaries of the stage, broadening the range of experiential possibilities available to those present.
I focus on late eighteenth century operas composed in Vienna in the years immediately preceding the French revolution, a time and place where people believed that individuals and communities could change and should change and the theatrical stage of opera was a critical site for transformation. My current book project, Mozart’s Transformative Stage (forthcoming), addresses the challenge that Le nozze di Figaro posed in 1786 to Vienna’s dominant political, economic and operatic culture in bringing to the forefront of the stage egalitarian visions of gender, person, desire, community and authority that later came to be associated with the French revolution. I propose to show how Nozze’s vision--too radical for that time and place--was quickly domesticated—through filters of a bourgeois imagination—in ways that continue to dominate its performance on the opera stage. Yet some of the sharp edges of Nozze’s challenge—in both old and new ways—reappeared in a series of four stunning performances during the fall of 1998 at the Metropolitan Opera House and left some people talking and thinking not only about the opera but about themselves. I shed light on the potential of lyric storytelling to be a potent generative site of culture as well as the ways in which the most expansive alternatives can be pushed off the stage, banished to the shadows, only to re-emerge in other times and places.
My previous research in Morocco examined popular ritual performances in the world’s oldest still-ruling monarchy that helped cultivate particular understandings of masculinity and authority, intertwining them with understandings of communal good and connection to the divine. I also examined the lasting potency of storytelling from the margins as the twentieth century began in legends of a Muslim female saint, showing how a broad reaching egalitarian community sustained itself by her stories and the specific ways in which her recollection was attacked first by twentieth century French colonialists and then by Moroccan nationalists.
Sacred Performances: Islam, Sexuality and Sacrifice. Columbia University Press: New York, New York. 1989.
Staging Nation. In The Shadow of the Sultan: Culture, Power and Politics in Morocco. Rahma Bourquia and Susan Miller, eds. pp. 176-214. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1999.
Casablanca 1993: Negotiating Gender and Nation in Performative Space. Journal of Ritual Studies 10:2: 1-35 (Fall 1996).
Etching Patriarchal Rule. In Readings in Ritual Studies. Ronald L Grimes, ed. pp. 104-117. N.J.: Prentice Hall. 1996.