From Plantation to Paradise? Cultural Politics and Musical Theatre
in French Slave Colonies, 1764-1789, Lansing, Michigan:
Michigan State University Press, 2014
From Plantation to Paradise? . . . . is about the clash of two very strong cultures – African and French – and the constant struggle of one culture for equality with (and independence from) the ruling class. It is about WHEN, WHY, and HOW did music–especially opera — occupy such a prominent space in the lifestyles of these two cultures. The study commences by defining the various attempts of the monarchy to control all cultural activities. Concurrently, however, the discussion clearly illustrates how the repertoire of colonial theatres reflected the complexities of the politics of colonization and issues of slavery. The time is 1764-1789, commencing two and one-half decades prior to the French Revolution. The place is the French Caribbean slave empire (Guadeloupe, Martinique, and Saint-Domingue [now, Haiti]).
This unique study explores the status of nonwhite artists in colonial society, the types of operas in which they performed, accomplishments, criticisms, praises, etc., and the various ways in which créole texts were used in several productions. Function and types of theatre architecture, décor, repertoire, seating arrangements, and types of audiences receive special treatment. Both negative and positive contributions of the Catholic Church to colonial society are examined, particularly the types of musical training the enslaved received from priests—the results of which can be linked to the first appearance of black violinists on the concert and opera stages. The discussion also focuses on musical functions and official responsibilities of the military that relate specifically to operas and concerts produced in the colonies.
The study concludes with an examination of the ways in which colonial opera was affected by slave uprisings, the French Revolution, and the emergence of “patriotic theatres” –as well as the impact of these events on performers and on subsequent operas produced in the colonies and in the United States. In sum, the author explores the strong bonds between art and society by focusing on operas performed in the colonies, the level of participation of black artists (freed and enslaved), the conditions under which they were allowed to perform, and the enormous contributions of these artists to one of the most fascinating trends in the history of music in the Americas.
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