Revealing Masks: Exotic Influences and Ritualized Performance in Modernist Music Theater

Revealing Masks: Exotic Influences and Ritualized Performance in Modernist Music Theater

Revealing Masks: Exotic Influences and Ritualized Performance in Modernist Music Theater

Revealing Masks: Exotic Influences and Ritualized Performance in Modernist Music Theater


W. Anthony Sheppard considers a wide-ranging constellation of important musical works in this fascinating exploration of ritualized performance in twentieth-century music. "Revealing Masks "uncovers the range of political, didactic, and aesthetic intents that inspired the creators of modernist music theater. Sheppard is especially interested in the use of the "exotic" in techniques of masking and stylization, identifying Japanese Noh, medieval Christian drama, and ancient Greek theater as the most prominent exotic models for the creation of "total theater."

Drawing on an extraordinarily diverse--and in some instances, little-known--range of music theater pieces, Sheppard cites the work of Igor Stravinsky, Benjamin Britten, Arthur Honegger, Peter Maxwell Davies, Harry Partch, and Leonard Bernstein, as well as Andrew Lloyd Webber and Madonna. Artists in literature, theater, and dance--such as William Butler Yeats, Paul Claudel, Bertolt Brecht, Isadora Duncan, Ida Rubenstein, and Edward Gordon Craig--also play a significant role in this study.

Sheppard poses challenging questions that will interest readers beyond those in the field of music scholarship. For example, what is the effect on the audience and the performers of depersonalizing ritual elements? Does borrowing from foreign cultures inevitably amount to a kind of predatory appropriation? "Revealing Masks "shows that compositional concerns and cultural themes manifested in music theater are central to the history of twentieth-century Euro-American music, drama, and dance.


Still, you may ask me, if its results are to be the ground of our final spiritual estimate of a religious phenomenon, why threaten us at all with so much existential study of its conditions? Why not simply leave pathological questions out?

To this I reply in two ways: First, I say, irrepressible curiosity imperiously leads one on; and I say, secondly, that it always leads to a better understanding of a thing's significance to consider its exaggerations and perversions, its equivalents and substitutes and nearest relatives elsewhere.

William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1901–2)

This book offers an interpretive survey of a neglected genre or phenomenon in the history of Euro-American modernist music and theater. I start with the premise that eccentric works can often reveal elements central to our understanding of a given period. In the twentieth century, many innovative works arose from a desire to create new forms of music theater. “Music theater” is a loosely defined designation for a genre of staged works developed in opposition to the styles, structures, and social functions of nineteenth-century opera. In studying these diverse works, I soon discovered that modernist music theater was very often inspired by exotic models valued for integrating the arts in forms of total theater, for their disciplined and detached performance style, and for their ritual status and function. I argue that the term “exotic” can indicate both temporal and geographical distance and that the three most prominent exotic models for the development of modernist music theater were Japanese Noh, medieval Christian drama, and ancient Greek theater. Indeed, a good number of modernist works were based on some combination of these models. Each of them was understood or imagined imperfectly—a fact that I find to have intensified their appeal.

Many aspects of these music theater pieces—their musical and dramatic structure, the form and style of their texts, the relationship between their performance and the audience space—were shaped by the aspiration to create modern rituals to serve divergent political, didactic, and moralizing purposes. The desire to control human expression on the stage prompted the use of masks, choreographed symbolic gestures, and stylized or extended vocal techniques. I argue not only that music theater was a vital modernist genre, but also that the compositional concerns and cultural themes manixi . . .

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