Imperial opera: the nexus between opera and imperialism in Victorian Calcutta and Melbourne, 1833-1901

Esmeralda Rocha

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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The nineteenth century was a period during which European powers raced to conquer the
world—not only geographically, but (more significantly) ideologically and culturally. The
British were arguably the most determined and most successful colonisers of the era, and
Calcutta, the ‘City of Palaces’, and Melbourne, the ‘Marvellous’ metropolis of the south,
became the jewels in the crown of British imperialism. Meanwhile, due to social, political
and economic factors (consider the rise of the middle class, political upheaval in Europe
and the Industrial Revolution), the nineteenth century saw opera ascend to the zenith of its
accessibility, influence and prestige. The simultaneity of the rise of imperialism and the
Golden Age of opera is a connection that has long been ignored by musicology, yet it is a
relationship which illuminates the intersectional relationship between of music, culture,
politics and society in the nineteenth century.
Whilst the past decade has seen increasing scholarly interest in the nexus between opera
and colonisation, these studies have consistently approached the opera-colonial relationship
solely through analyses of the representational, that is how notions of the ‘Orient’ or
‘Other’ were created or reinforced by the operatic canon. By contrast, this thesis looks at
the interactions between the art-form, the coloniser and the ‘other’ in occupied lands, using
Calcutta and Melbourne as case studies. This dissertation discusses the role of opera in
colonised territories and reveals the ways in which opera both reflected and aided the
imperial attitudes of those cities’ inhabitants. By doing so it will advocate that discussion of
opera in extra-European settings (in terms of both sociology and performance practice)
not only sheds light on the different roles and guises operatic culture assumed as it spread
across the globe, but also adds to our understanding of the art-form itself in the
nineteenth century.
The thesis is in four parts; the first consists of an introduction and a cultural history of
British imperialism, with particular reference to the two case studies examined in the thesis,
Calcutta and Melbourne. In the second and third sections, the discussion turns to the
development of operatic culture in each of these cities, with an emphasis on the way that
opera adapted and contributed to the imperial project at local, regional and global levels.
The final part of the thesis compares the roles that opera played in each centre in order to
draw conclusions about the relationship between the art form and socio-economic and
imperial models. This section particularly focuses on opera as a tool of colonisation and/or
marginalisation and its employment within colonial British societies as a means of
expressing and perpetuating idealised versions of Britishness and colonialism.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Publication statusUnpublished - 2012


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