Considering the Other in Indianist Opera: Separation and Assimilation in Victor Herbert's Natoma

By Waters, Robert | The American Music Research Center Journal, January 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

Considering the Other in Indianist Opera: Separation and Assimilation in Victor Herbert's Natoma


Waters, Robert, The American Music Research Center Journal


When discussing racial othering, some specialists in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century opera have used the term "Orientalism."1 Yet few have examined Indianist opera, particularly its intersections with racial identity. Opera composers Mary Carr Moore, Charles Cadman, Frederick Converse, Arthur Nevin, Eleanor Freer, William Hanson, and Victor Herbert treated Native American themes that highlighted their Eurocentric prejudices.2 Their works set in transcultural landscapes asserted Darwinist ideals sometimes fused together with Hegelian notions of cultural progress, and these viewpoints affected both their librettos and music.3 These early twentieth-century American opera composers turned to Indianist works in a quest for a national character, but did so despite opera's inherent structural constraints in echoing authentic Native American music and culture. Composers portrayed Native Americans exotically and mimetically, as Indianist compositions became part of the American Romantic lexicon.4 Although operas often contained approximations of Native American gestures, modes, and melodies, which were then harmonized, their composers set them with harmonic characteristics found in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century European music, including Wagner's music dramas as well as Puccini's operas. These composers who borrowed from Wagner and Puccini include operetta composer Victor Herbert, who initially claimed that Indianist opera was not representative of Anglo-American culture and the idea of a soprano portraying a Native American woman unpalatable:

If the subject be an American one, it is not necessary that the dramatis personae be either Indians or Puritans. Indians are not a suitable subject for an opera. The state of the Indians is pathetic, it is true, but in an opera they would not strike audiences seriously. You will see what I mean; suppose an Indian tenor, taking a high C and then trilling on a high D in order to touch the emotions of a soprano . . . prima donna squaw!5

Herbert nonetheless composed Natoma in 1911 with librettist Joseph Redding, as they treated four races textually and musically, exploring Native American, Spanish, Caucasian, and biracial characters through racial, national, economic, and religious conflict.6 The work is set in 1820s California under Spanish rule and shows fixed and emerging social hierarchies, both through the Spanish treatment of Native Americans, and through the encroaching Anglo-American culture's behavior toward the Spanish.

In Natoma, national identity issues were worked out by the othering of races through distinctive musical devices, such as themes, musical gestures, modes, and melodies. These devices speak to Herbert's depiction of this otherness to be resolved by ethnic assimilation, specifically the Christianization of Natoma, the principal Native American character at the opera's conclusion. Natoma becomes the sacrificial martyr, an allegorical representative of a disappearing culture through religious conversion, and Herbert similarly reflects this in the music. Dramatically and musically, assimilation eliminates the "other," allowing the dominant social group to remove a perceived threat. This trope of assimilation works in contrast to many nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century operas, such as Giacomo Puccini's Madama Butterfly, Camille Saint Saëns's Samson et Dalila, Arthur Nevin's Poia, and Mary Carr Moore's Narcissa, in which the ethnic distinctiveness of the characters is preserved, thereby emphasizing the otherness of various races. This essay will not only address the other in Indianist opera, but will also discuss assimilation, particularly within Herbert's Natoma, and will consist of three parts: first, an introductory exposition on the rising interest in Native American culture in Herbert's day; second, important early influences on Indianist music; and third, otherness and assimilation conveyed through Indianist musical gestures in Indianist opera, principally Herbert's Natoma. …

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