Imagining Italy, Surviving America: Opera, Italian Immigrants, And Identity In Philadelphia, 1870-1924
In this dissertation, I argue that Italian opera, a prominent symbol of Italian American identity, has been entangled in the United States with issues of racial difference and social subjugation. In contrast to previous scholarship that views Italian opera as a musical genre that had already defined Italians’ cultural identity in their motherland, I show that opera came to be associated with all Italian immigrants only in the United States, while being adopted by Italian Americans themselves to improve their reputation in their adoptive country. In particular, I demonstrate that the renewed visibility and audibility that the recording industry had assigned to Italian opera at the beginning of the twentieth century contributed to this twinned process of stereotyping and reappropriation, as it enhanced the potential of opera as a vessel for racial and social uplift for Italian immigrants. My research focuses on Philadelphia, a thriving operatic city and a center of opera recording that was also home to one of the largest Italian communities in the country.
The scope of the research calls for a variety of historical sources ranging from archival materials to oral interviews with descendants of Italian immigrants. I examine these materials adopting an interdisciplinary approach that borrows its methods and interpretive frameworks from media history, historical ethnography, migration studies, and critical race studies. Chapter 1 explores the cultural presence of Italian opera in American society in thelate nineteenth century, and the extent to which this genre could be employed by Italian immigrants for purposes of social uplift. Chapter 2 analyzes the emergence of operatic references in popular songs about and by Italian Americans published in Philadelphia and other cities between the 1860s and the 1920s. Chapter 3 examines the new significance that recording industrialists attributed to Italian opera in the early twentieth century, and the political and racial implications of the marketing of home phonographs for Italian immigrants and record dealers living in Philadelphia. Chapter 4 investigates the use of Italian opera for the cultural assimilation of Philadelphia Italians in the years between the end of World War I and the Immigration Act of 1924.