Academic journal article African American Review

Aria for Ethiopia: The Operatic Aesthetic of Pauline Hopkins's of One Blood

Academic journal article African American Review

Aria for Ethiopia: The Operatic Aesthetic of Pauline Hopkins's of One Blood

Article excerpt

Beginning in the January 1903 issue of the Colored American Magazine (CAM), and continuing through May, ads appeared for a performance of Giuseppe Verdi's grand Italian opera, Aida ("Aida in English" 7). The opera was to be performed in English in New York at the Lexington Opera House, known as the Terrace Garden on 58th Street by the Theodore Drury Opera Company--one of the first African American opera companies. In the following February issue, an unsigned brief article, most likely written by the magazine's editor Pauline Hopkins appears, which, in addition to calling attention to the upcoming performance, asserts that since "this [is] one of the greatest of the Italian Operas, Mr. Drury should have ... the entire support of the musical public. The opera is especially adapted to the use of Mr. Drury's company as regards the story, for it deals with Ethiopians and Egyptians" (Untitled 2147). (1) The article about the opera performance and the ads for Drury's production of "The Grand Opera Aida (in English)" coincided with the appearance of Pauline Hopkins's serialized novel Of One Blood in the magazine. The novel was introduced in the November 1902 eclition, and while its early action took place in Boston and Cambridge, the setting shifted to Africa in the February edition as it followed its main characters on an expedition to the ancient Nubian city, Meroe. Located in modern-day Sudan, Meroe had been a wealthy and vibrant major trading city. Nubia, frequently referred to by its Greek name, "Ethiopia," was also the home of Aida, the enslaved Ethiopian princess of Verdi's opera. (2)

Considered together, the confluence of the novel's change of setting, the staging of Verdi's Aida by the all-black Drury Opera Company, as well as the appearance of the ads and the article about the opera in the CAM is incredibly intriguing. More specifically, the role of opera seems distinctive, illuminating what some might consider a surprising association with turn-of-the-century African American culture. Moreover, the article's emphasis that Drury's all-black opera company was "especially adapted" to performing Verdi's opera about Ethiopians seems to build on this connection between black culture and opera.

The links that connect blackness and opera are further enhanced by the compelling plot and thematic resonances between Verdi's 1872 Aida, and Hopkins's Of One Blood. Most obviously, both the novel and the opera share settings in Egypt and Ethiopia, and both focus on Ethiopian royalty. The action of both stories is animated by a love triangle. In Aida, after the Egyptian princess discovers that the army captain Radames is in love with Aida rather than with her, she engineers his eventual punishment and death for treason. In Hopkins's novel, Aubrey's desire for Reuel's wife, Dianthe, makes him murder his fiancee, attempt to murder Reuel, and then psychologically control Dianthe. Moreover, both texts highlight female sopranos. The texts also both employ underground tombs as significant settings. Finally, both are inspired by or draw upon contemporary historical debates about race and culture, as well as the specific relationships among Egypt, Ethiopia, and Africa.

The number of connections between these two texts and their simultaneous appearance in several issues of CAM suggests that Verdi's opera might have at the very least been a source text for Hopkins's representation of Telassar, the hidden Nubian city that Reuel discovers while on expedition at Meroe. Given Hopkins's investment, as both an editor and writer in the pedagogy and aesthetics of racial uplift, the performance by Drury's company of one of Verdi's most famous operas, and one of the few operas based on putatively African elements, may have seemed an ideal opportunity to educate African Americans and others about Africa's rich history.

Moreover, considering Hopkins's novel alongside Verdi's opera illuminates an infrequently analyzed constituent feature of African American literary traditions. …

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