allison.chu [at] yale.edu
I enjoy writing for multiple audiences, and I am happy to share examples of articles published in a variety of fora. Please reach out via my Contact page with questions or requests!
"Documentary Opera: Archives, Identity, and Politics in Contemporary American Opera"
Dissertation Advisor: Gundula Kreuzer
My dissertation, titled “Documentary Opera: Archives, Identities, and Politics in Contemporary American Opera,” explores the recent phenomenon of using documentary materials in operatic creation in conjunction with the representation of racial identity. I examine operas written since the year 2000, focusing on how the incorporation of these materials has invoked a long theatrical tradition of documentary theater to mark new opera as socially and politically relevant. I am interested in the ways in which this trend has revitalized the American opera industry, increasing the development of new operas while navigating calls for the diversification of its programming and personnel. While recent scholarly approaches have attended to new approaches to spectatorship, avant-garde experimentalism, and indie operas, my dissertation argues that American documentary operas employ specific narratives and lived experiences, often from individuals who have been historically marginalized, to counter hegemonic narratives of United States history. Combining theatre and performance studies approaches with theoretical frameworks from documentary studies, critical race studies, and opera studies, my dissertation considers what opera brings to the documentary project and how we can write about, analyze, and understand the cultural work of these contemporary operas.
My dissertation highlights the productive tension between operatic performance and racial performativity in the contemporary moment, building upon the performative turn in the humanities. Within opera studies, scholars have invoked performance as an analytical tool to study productions of canonic operas, emphasizing aspects of repetition and familiarity with material. I redirect this methodology to consider performances of newly composed operas and the formulation of racial identity. The American opera industry has long been perceived as fiercely protective of an exclusionist repertoire, cultivating a “shadow culture,” or the marginalization of communities of color from operatic activities. However, most contemporary documentary operas notably depict racialized subjects or were composed by creative teams of color. Programmed as main stage events, these progressive operas compete with the preservation of canonic works, rendering the presence of any new works crucial to the industry’s ongoing and forward-looking transformation. Rather than foregrounding race as a problem of opera’s history, I aim to study race as lived experience in opera. I therefore adopt ethnographic methods, which can reveal the present circumstances of people of color in the creation, production, and performance of documentary operas. In addition to close readings of scores, reviews, and recordings, interviews and ethnographic observations of workshops and performances will allow me to introduce and include the creators’ contributions to their field as expert and meaningful knowledge. It is my belief that a careful examination of American documentary opera will garner insight into future directions of opera, presenting a compelling case study to examine the transformation of aesthetic tastes, social and political relevance, and public reception in musical institutions.
The Oxford Handbook of the Television Musical, edited by Raymond Knapp and Jessica Sternfeld (Oxford University Press, forthcoming).
In 1922, George Gershwin and Buddy DeSylva premiered a “jazz opera” entitled Blue Monday on Broadway with blackface performance practice and the use of racial slurs. Forming a hybrid genre between opera, jazz, and musical drama, Blue Monday employs parody to exhibit the tensions between “high” and “popular” culture of the time. In 1953, the television series Omnibus broadcast the piece – since renamed 135th Street – as a tribute to Gershwin, with producer William Spier scrubbing the libretto clean of racial slurs and employing an all-black cast for the first time. While 135th Street presented a new genre of theatrical entertainment that appealed to the American public and to Omnibus’ mission to advocate for the performing arts, I argue that the Omnibus 135th Street hardly erased the problematic racial positions of the original version. Implications of racial parody and blackface minstrelsy remain intertwined with the musical score, the characters, and the parody of opera itself, offering insight into the effects of changing societal values on the relevance and social appropriateness of operettas and opera-parody hybrids beyond the time of their composition.
"Voicing Quietness: Madama Butterfly and the Perception of East Asian Women"
The Butterfly Process, Boston Lyric Opera, April 2022
Commissioned as part of Boston Lyric Opera's Butterfly Process, this essay explores the damaging stereotype of "quietness" towards East Asian women and its relationship to opera. This essay highlights trailblazing East Asian sopranos and their portrayals of Cio-Cio-San, examining their reviews in contemporary news publications. Foregrounding personal views, this essay adds to the chorus asking for careful reconsideration of what it means to stage Puccini's Madama Butterfly today.