Serena Guarracino

4E Transcoding Opera and Musical Theatre
Session 4 – July 2, 15:30 – 17:30

Transcodification as Hantise: Opera’s Queer Temporality in Derek Jarman and Isaac Julien

Opera has been a dead genre for about a century now: while the nature of contemporary opera remains an open issue, it is generally held that the genre as defined during its golden age is, in Mladen Dolar’s words, “emphatically finished”. After the early twentieth century opera lost its role as a popular form of entertainment; however, its canonical repertoire survives as a quintessentially hybrid theatrical form, including music, performance, and an evolving ensemble of art forms. In their turn, cinema and other visual arts have remediated opera, in many and different ways; my focus here will be on two case studies where opera excerpts – reinterpreted, cut up and remixed – conjure up different times and tempos in the cinematic flow, disrupting the concept of linear time and embodying queer forms of temporality and desire: Derek Jarman’s Depuis le jour, an episode from the movie Aria (1987), and Isaac Julien’s short film The Attendant (1993). Jarman’s work features an aria from Gustave Charpentier’s Louise (1900) as soundtrack for a meditation on love and memory; the “souvenir” celebrated in the aria resonates with the archival quality of some sections, which perform a cinematic rendition of memory. Yet the main character, an old lady in a flamboyant dress, challenges the received notion that the past must be domesticated through mourning. Julien, on the other hand, frames his reflection on the memory of slavery with a reinterpretation of Dido’s lament from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas (1689) by a black, ageing museum attendant, who is elsewhere involved in an erotic, heavily S/M-inflected relationship with a younger white man. In both cases opera, a dead art form, gets transcodified in the flow of the present without losing its being markedly out-of-time, thus giving voice to the incongruous, queer desires of the explicitly elderly bodies it haunts, and subverting both linear time and normative narratives on love and pleasure. 


Serena Guarracino is Associate Professor of English Literature at the University of L’Aquila. Her research interests encompass theatre in English, theatre translation, and postcolonial fiction, with a methodological preference for gender, performance, and cultural studies. She authored two monographic works on Italian opera in the anglophone world and a series of articles on the role of the postcolonial writer in the public arena, featuring as case studies J.M. Coetzee, Caryl Phillips and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Her more recent monographic work is La traduzionemessa in scena. Due rappresentazioni di Caryl Churchill in Italia (2017).