Singing beasts: opera and the animal

Grize, Justin Newcomb (2017) Singing beasts: opera and the animal. Doctoral thesis (PhD), University of Sussex.

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Abstract

This practice-led project examines opera in light of the current critical attention to animals, both real and metaphorical, and their often hidden or overlooked presences in human culture.

Despite their near ubiquity in our lives, animals have only recently become the subjects of serious intellectual inquiry, and the field of animal studies is a rapidly-evolving discipline, with scholars like Keith Thomas and Harriet Ritvo considering animals as active participants in human lives and histories. Opera as a form has always concerned itself with meetings between the human and the not-human; Orpheus, the semi-divine hero of the earliest operas, subdues both gods and wild beasts through his music. It is therefore curious that no serious study of opera in relation to animals and animality has yet been undertaken. For the first part of this project I have been examining the extensive representation of animals in opera over the 400 years of its existence to understand the changing forms and meanings of animals in opera.

The voice is central to opera, and a closer consideration of the voice as the locus of human and non-human difference reinvigorates the debate about operatic representation, reinforcing opera's status as the ultimate humanist art form while exposing the vulnerability of this position in an era when humanism itself is increasingly called into question. A synthetic opera-animal approach casts important light on some concerns which are central to both fields: the porous, shifting boundary between human and non-human animals (and the way in which mimesis and performance further reinforce or erode those boundaries, building on work by Ritvo and Erica Fudge, Deleuze and Agamben); questions of anthropomorphism and authenticity as addressed by Steve Baker; notions of wonder, the metaphysical, and the uncanny as explored by Abbate and Tomlinson; even the politics and ethics of performance-as-animal.

Practical research is also central to this project, which explores, through a portfolio of documented workshops and performances, the opportunities and necessities occasioned by the creation of a new post-human music theatre that articulates and confronts head-on our own animality, moving beyond a modernism which defines itself in opposition to the animal. In fact, as public discourse turns more and more to the sciences rather than to the arts for answers to the fundamental questions of human and animal nature, animal-opera is an obvious territory on which these two epistemological frameworks, scientific and artistic, can coexist - or collide - revealing how animals might be regarded not simply as passive carriers of imposed human meaning, but generators of meaning in their own right.

The main project realised through this process of experimentation is Arthropoda, a collection of works based on the life stories of arthropods. The choice of animal is not arbitrary - their phylogenetic distance, their problematic bodies, their simultaneous familiarity and utter alienness supply particular representational challenges beyond those of more easily anthropomorphised creatures. The first work from this series, Phthirus, a cantata for human singers as human parasites, has underlined some of the limitations of traditional anthropomorphic representations, while new developments in the field of insect communication have suggested radical new directions that push the boundaries of opera as a form. A reconfigured examination of animal lives and bodies offers new source material, such as the bizarre lifestyle of the parasitic barnacle Sacculina; new musical dramaturgies, in the repurposing of entomological classics as performance texts; even new ways of producing and perceiving musical sound, such as the tymbalum, a biomimetic musical instrument based on cicada physiology. Each of these approaches seeks to bridge the perceptual divide between human and arthropod.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Schools and Departments: School of Media, Film and Music > Music
Subjects: M Music. Literature on music. Musical instruction and study > M Music > M0005 Instrumental music
Depositing User: Library Cataloguing
Date Deposited: 27 Nov 2017 11:10
Last Modified: 27 Nov 2017 11:10
URI: http://sro.sussex.ac.uk/id/eprint/70890

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