The Tricky Balancing Act of Staging Historical Works

Photo of rehearsal for Émilie, December 2019.
Rehearsal for Émilie, December 2019.

Approaching any historical opera that treats race and non-Western settings is a tightrope act. On side is the trap of presenting or perpetuating stereotypes. On the other side is the trap of erasure, often manifesting as whitewashing, when characters of non-Caucasian backgrounds are simply swapped with white actors and problematic implications are ignored or waved away. These are active concerns when mounting a production of Émilie, ou la belle esclave.

Émilie is a late-18th-century Turkish harem fantasy by European French authors. The work was not intended to be anthropological or an accurate depiction of its setting; rather, the exotic “Eastern” setting was a familiar vehicle for telling stories that would not otherwise make sense (or, sometimes, be politically viable) in a Western European setting. Productions of Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio – itself modeled in part on Émilie – often fall into both of the above traps. The setting becomes an excuse for scantily clad dancers and revealing costumes, and the non-European characters are frequently trivialized and played to absurd comic effect. In isolation, these might be accepted, but as a dominant trend in productions, they can be collectively problematic and reinforce negative stereotypes.

The erasure trap is more insidious: by trying to sidestep one issue, other concerns are introduced. The story of Émilie is a product of its time, and there-in derives a great deal of meaning. French society was becoming increasingly divided by rising class barriers, legal inequities, and (of course) a growing emancipation movement, all of which would intersect in the French Revolution at the end of the decade. How, then, should a director approach this particular musical story?

The path that we have chosen for Émilie is to reach for the heart of these characters and their motivations. They are not perfect, nor should we try and present them as such. Understanding and presenting them as whole characters helps show some of the social commentary that the opera’s authors wove into the narrative. This, in turn, is a reminder that our present society – riven by increasing inequities and fractious, racialized discourse – has not moved as far as we’d like on some issues.