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Underpinning Research

Port-au-PrinceBook Project

A large portion of my current book project, provisionally entitled Master, Slave and Free: Politics and Practices in the Theatres of Saint-Domingue is concerned with the “translation” of French drama and opera to the new context of colonial Saint-Domingue. The thriving, if erratic, theatrical tradition in the colony boasted a repertoire that overlapped considerably with that of metropolitan France. Among other things, I explore how the fascinating and complex issues relating to race, gender and social relations in eighteenth-century Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) affected local productions of French works.

Performance Database

To complement my book project and make this extraordinary portion of theatre history available to a wider public, I am currently setting up an online database that will detail all the documented theatrical performances (of spoken drama and opera) that took place in Saint-Domingue during the period. www.theatreinthefrenchcolonies.org

Article: Iphigénie en Haïti: Gluck Opera in the French Colonial Caribbean

Gluck is rightly hailed as the ‘first truly international opera composer’, although his internationalism is always understood in strictly European terms. This article seeks to expand our understanding of Gluck’s international scope beyond Europe and specifically into the French colonial Caribbean. Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) enjoyed the most vibrant theatrical tradition of the whole Caribbean in the eighteenth century: hundreds of public performances of spoken drama and opera were given there between 1765 and the slave revolts of 1791. Given the local preference for light works, particularly opéra comique, it is all the more remarkable that three of Gluck’s Paris operas that had premiered in the 1770s were performed in the 1780s in Saint-Domingue: Orphée et Euridice (also performed in Martinique), Iphigénie en Aulide and Iphigénie en Tauride. Indeed, from the Saint-Dominguan perspective, Gluck was the sole exemplar of serious French opera. Drawing primarily on local newspaper accounts, performances of the three works are examined in turn. The emphasis is on performance practices in the context of local conditions, both social and practical. Gluck opera is seen to have reached a mixed, though segregated, audience that incorporated some free people of colour, including a small number of black people, and the first documented performance of a singer of colour in a Gluck opera (Orphée) is uncovered. Additional questions are raised by the participation of slave and former slave musicians in the theatre orchestras. Our understanding of Gluck’s reach, reception and status, and of the three operas in question, is thus broadened and deepened in some significant ways.

Gluck article (PDF, 557 KB)