Exotic or Faux-Exotic?
In the series “Opera in Eight Parts,” produced by Lyric Opera of Kansas City, I was asked to discuss nineteenth-century operatic nationalism and exoticism. There are many well-known operas associated with exoticism, the depiction of foreign, often non-Western places by European composers, and even more national works, in which composers represent their own countries and peoples. But my talk was to focus on the Toreador Song from Bizet’s Carmen and the Csárdás from Strauss’s Die Fledermaus, two arias that Lyric Opera artists Scott Conner and Kelli Van Meter prepared in the limited conditions of the pandemic world.
These two arias proved to be wonderful examples of the diverse ways in which operatic composers can evoke distant exotic lands and express unique national identities. Carmen takes place in Spain, which is a European country, but one that had an enormous exotic allure to audiences in nineteenth-century Paris. Musical references to Spanish music feature prominently in the arias of Carmen and other characters associated with her. This includes the bullfighter Escamillo, who falls in love with Carmen and for whom Carmen abandons her earlier beau, Don José. What makes the Toreador Song seem exotic is not necessarily the music, which is generally flashy and temperamental, but the fact that on stage the music is combined with Escamillo’s colorful costume and the scene takes place in the tavern of Lillas Pastia, where the locals gather to drink Manzanilla wine, as Carmen seductively describes in her own famous aria, the Seguidilla.
Whereas the Toreador Song is a more or less straightforward exotic evocation of Spain, Strauss’s Csárdás is more complex, even subversive. The aria imitates a Hungarian dance. It starts with a slow section emulating a folk singer’s improvisation and concludes with flashy flights of coloratura. The piece could certainly be considered a national expression of Hungarian folk culture or an exotic representation of the Hungarian plains; Hungary, after all, was as exotic and alluring for the nineteenth-century Viennese as Spain was for the nineteenth-century French. But the aria’s national fervor and exotic allure turns out to be a sham!
The aria is performed by Rosalinde, a Viennese noblewoman who follows her philandering husband to a party at the palace of a Russian prince. In order to expose her husband’s infidelity, Rosalinde disguises herself as a Hungarian countess. When her own assumed identity is questioned by the party guests, Rosalinde sings the Csárdás, and she is able to pull it off splendidly. Thus, in the Csárdás, a German-speaking Austrian composer (Strauss) has a Viennese noblewoman (Rosalinde) improvise a Hungarian peasant song to prove her feigned Hungarianness, which is otherwise never mentioned in the operetta. Strauss’s Csárdás, one of the most famous national and exotic arias of the nineteenth-century operatic repertoire is a fake! But it is precisely because of this multilayered artifice that I find this aria, and many other national and exotic works of musical theater, so fascinating.
Martin Nedbal is Associate Professor of Musicology at the University of Kansas. His research focuses on opera history and cultural politics in Central Europe.
Opera in Eight Parts is available for purchase here.
Production photos by Cory Weaver