Brazilian Opera and the Precarities of National Identity

Batterman Headshot

by Chris Batterman, 19C Music
Fox Undergraduate Humanities Honors Fellow

My thesis, at its core, discusses the music of Brazilian operatic composer Antônio Carlos Gomes (1836-1896) with respect to the Brazilian nation-building project of the late 19th century. In short, I examine the ways Gomes’ music engages with and reproduces Brazilian elite society’s ideologically-constructed notions of race, nation, and history, connecting Gomes’ musical productions to the elite debates regarding questions of “Brazilianness.” Specifically, my thesis argues that the notions of “Brazilianness” constructed in Gomes’ music are built upon a politics of exclusion, one that consistently privileges European identities while dismissing and occluding black or indigenous ones.

Indeed, his music came at a rather turbulent time in Brazilian history—the Empire had recently emerged victorious from the Paraguayan War, though at tremendous economic, social, and political costs. As prominent 19th-century intellectual Sílvio Romero noted, the war opened up not only an economic crisis for the country, but a crisis of identity as well. Debates to posit a defined national identity and a common national narrative, then, became central to elite intellectual discourses. The national narrative that the Brazilian elite settled on was—unsurprisingly—the same one that Gomes presented in his operas, one that idealized, trivialized, or even neglected any mention of African or indigenous contributions to Brazilian society.

While my thesis focused on Gomes and his music, arguing that he presents an exclusionary notion of “Brazilianness,” I see my research as engaging in larger questions regarding nation-building and nationalism. Gomes’ music, in its projection of imagined concepts of “Brazilianness,” highlights the inherently exclusionary nature of nation-building in 19th-century Brazil. The project of defining a national Brazilian identity involves deciding who is Brazilian and who is not. The exclusionary nature of Brazil’s nation-building is not limited to the 19th century. Rather, I contend that the continuous development of Brazil and the search for “Brazilianness” that extends well into today have also been characterized by a discourse of exclusion. Even beyond Brazil, notions of nationalism and nation-building have been characterized by a politic of exclusion. Indeed, nationalisms and nationbuilding projects all over the world, both in historical contexts and today, are based in practices of exclusion. In defining the “imaginary community”—to apply Benedict Anderson’s concept—that forms the base of national consciousness, in-groups and out-groups must be defined. In other words, boundaries between “Self” and “Other” must be established and drawn. This thesis, then, is only a case-study in a larger issue of nation-building, intending to demonstrate that any process that involves defining national identities is inherently plagued by an exclusionary element.

What I hope to convey with this study (and what is indeed my main argument in this research) is that national identities are not to be taken lightly. Rather, nationalisms and national consciousnesses are to be carefully scrutinized and examined as sites of tension. In defining oneself, one must also define the “Other.” As history has shown us, this categorizing of the “Other” has consistently led to policies of inequality, inequity, and division. What I suggest, then, is that we as scholars and citizens continue to deeply problematize our own national loyalties, affiliations, identities, and nationalisms. How have we, as North Americans, Mexicans, Brazilians, etc., unintendedly supported rhetoric of exclusion? How have we helped to construct ideological “Others”? This thesis, obviously, is not an answer. Rather, I hope to have contributed to the body of scholarship that highlights this concerning historical pattern of exclusion, marginalization, and difference.

Moving forward with my research into graduate school and beyond, I plan to continue this research agenda. I plan to further examine historical and contemporary intersections of race and nationalism, all the while problematizing music’s place in reifying (or at times contesting) dominant narratives and ideology. The Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry has provided me an invaluable intellectual space to explore these themes throughout this thesis research. Events in which I discussed my research with prolific senior fellows or with my peers—all dedicated and curious scholars themselves—have allowed me to deepen my understanding of the humanities and have pushed me to consider my project’s place within larger academic discussions.

Chris Batterman is a senior majoring in Music, with a focus on musicology/ethnomusicology, with additional concentrations in Latin American Studies and Portuguese. His senior honors thesis takes an interdisciplinary approach to the music of Brazilian composer Antônio Carlos Gomes (1836-1896). Based in archival research conducted in Brazil, his thesis examines Gomes’ operatic works through the lens of race, nationalism, and indigeneity. Situating these operas within the Brazilian nation building project of the 19th century, Chris hopes to demonstrate the ways in which Gomes’ works are reflective of the dominant discourse on race and nation. Specifically, he argues that Gomes used his operas to present and disseminate certain notions of brasilidade (Brazilianess) and contribute to the popular construction of “a raça brasileira” (“the Brazilian race”).

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