Theses Doctoral

American Opera, Jazz, and Historical Consciousness, 1924-1994

Gutkin, David

From the 1970s through the early 1990s numerous critics commented on an apparent “rebirth” of American opera. Subsequent scholarship has increasingly sanctioned a consensus view holding up Philip Glass and John Adams as the central figures in this opera resurgence. Although I do not dispute the importance of (post-)minimalism in these decades, my gambit in this dissertation is to reframe the idea of a late twentieth-century operatic renaissance by tracing a long relationship between jazz and the concept of American opera. The jazz genealogy of American opera that I develop in this study is intended not only to draw attention to a body of work that has been largely ignored but also to unfold antinomies of postmodern historical consciousness that were manifest in the operatic resurgence more generally. Although my inquiry extends as far back as the 1920s, this dissertation by no means presents a continuous history of opera from 1924 to 1994, as the subtitle might imply. The weight is squarely placed on the 1970s through the early 1990s.

Chapter 1 explores racial dimensions of the concept of “modernity” through a study of Harlem Renaissance composer H. Lawrence Freeman’s never-performed “jazz opera” American Romance (1924-1929). Chapter 2 chronicles the Harlem Opera Society’s abandonment of its former European repertory and subsequent reinvention as the Afro-American Singing Theater/Jazz Opera Ensemble during the late 1960s and 1970s. Chapter 3 tracks the transformation of jazz in the 1980s into an increasingly historicist—or possibly posthistoricist—music through a series of works that I call “jazz-historical operas.” Chapter 4 works through a tension between “actuality” and allegory in Robert Ashley’s television opera trilogy (1978-1994) about American history.

The name of Duke Ellington winds through the four chapters as a kind of red thread. “Ellington” functions as a multivalent trope, alternatively signifying hypermodern America, the black cultural tradition, composition, and improvisational “actuality.” In a brief epilogue I identify another figure whose name has somewhat more furtively shadowed my study: Richard Wagner. I suggest that the idea of an “Ellington-Wagner matrix” in American opera both symbolizes a tradition of cultural hybridity and identifies a problematic concerning history and sonic materiality (roughly, the distinction between “event” and “representation”) expounded in the preceding chapters.

In some ways, my analysis of the deeply ambiguous status of historicity and modernity in twentieth century American culture will prove consonant with many previous discussions of the topic. But I hope that in certain fundamental respects my study may also be understood as a novel, even interventionist foray into historical theory. Race has scarcely been an overlooked topic in critical inquiry and cultural theory of the last three decades, but it is hard to ignore the Eurocentric—or Euro-American—thrust of much of the canonical discourse on postmodernity and historicity, some of which was surveyed above. My attempts to interpret transformations in historical consciousness through shifting relationships between two culturally and racially supercharged signifiers—“jazz” and “opera”—might be taken as a challenge to this tendency.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Lewis, George E.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
September 2, 2015