Mediating Opera for America: Magazine Biographies, Opera Singers and National Identity

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Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
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Siefert, Marsha

How can singers in an art form imported from Europe become stars in a culture like America where so-called “high art” in general and opera in particular are not natural candidates for popular stardom? This dissertation argues that magazines, as mainstream media, have played an important role over time in representing opera singers as viable celebrities for national attention and as contributors to American cultural achievement. Using Bourdieu’s theory, I argue that opera represents an international cultural field in which the United States was historically a periphery. America participated by importing singers and later by establishing an institution similar to national operas in European capitals—the Metropolitan Opera of New York City. Given that no American operas or composers are represented in the canon, I expected that performers at the Met would represent America’s contribution to opera as a cultural field. A systematic selection of the first magazine article representing over 130 singers, half of whom were American, was analyzed for its reproduction of the cultural field. Biographical and story elements were identified to explain how the opera singer could be presented as a viable American celebrity. The analysis offers the following results. Eighty-five percent of the articles incorporate the Metropolitan Opera and a majority feature performances of standard repertoire. All exceptions are American singers. The stereotypes of opera singers as fat and effeminate are mediated through asserting the Americanness of slim women and heterosexual cues. Black American singers are portrayed with far more qualifications for legitimacy than white singers and their race is most often the stated occasion for the magazine story. An analysis of over 20 magazine cover stories for opera superstars yields a pattern of mediation that glamorizes the all-American girl as the American contribution to opera as a cultural field. The alternation of this discourse with the periodic rise of non-American superstar tenors is related to both media developments and closure of master narratives about the eventual international triumph of the American opera soprano.

Larry Gross
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