Embodying Race, Gender, and Performance on Stage

Naomi André

This paper explores how operatic performance portrays cultural identities through race and gender with a specific emphasis on black male and female singers. What is at stake are the visual and sonic representations when we tell stories about the past and the present. In addition to the composer, poet, and other artists involved in creating the work, this study also includes the roles that the legible and less visible racial and ethnic identities of the performers and audience play in interpreting the work in performance.

The opening of Gershwin’s American Folk Opera, Porgy and Bess provides an unlikely, albeit instructive, case study. Through the energetic activity in the orchestra and chorus, the diegetic moment of Clara’s lullaby “Summertime” presents a contrapuntal set of meanings around performances of race, ethnicity, and expectations. In one instance, who wrote her music, the black female body singing the music, and the audience member who hears the music crash together in a cacophonous puzzle.

Black voices resonate with meaning and black bodies in concert halls matter. Both on stage and in the audience, the sonic sounding and visual embodiment of black experiences have direct impact on how we understand narrative and representation. This study also identifies a shadow culture of black musical experience that parallels the mainstream non-black repertoire, and illustrates how new voices and different narratives are written into history. Such stories reveal not only the past, but also the way these musical experiences generate meaning today.