Sissieretta, Treemonisha, and Hip Hopera: Opera and The Performativity of Race and Class
This article is forthcoming.
In this article I analyze the career of Sissieretta Jones, the Scott Joplin ragtime opera Treemonisha, and the contemporary made-for-MTV hip hopera Carmen. I claim that African Americans like Jones and Joplin utilized strategic interdisciplinary moves to bridge highbrow and lowbrow artforms in order to “argue” for African Americans’ inclusion in opera. Opera then became another important venue for chipping away at the case for black inferiority. The tactics by which Jones and Joplin created their artistry and managed their careers lend invaluable insight into America at the turn of the century. I then turn to a similar contemporary example of African American opera genre-bending and ask if the negotiations have changed in a century.
Analysis of cultural hierarchy leads to questions of double consciousness in the present moment. Is there still a dual awareness in the constructions of art and identity? Scholars have since articulated a triple consciousness (or tresconsciousness) to account for the figuring of class in the racial identity. It describes the awareness of one’s class status in addition to being a black person in a white world. However, I argue that this term is also inadequate in describing the modern condition and indeed a concept of multiple consciousness is needed to account for the myriad possible influences on any given individual’s identity formation. Adopting a multiple consciousness allows for a both/and reading of the work of Carmen The Hip Hopera and opens up possibilities for critical discourse that attends to the complexities of contemporary identity formation. .