Before the twentieth century, opera was a kind of cultural glue: it was both a medium of mass-communication, and a powerful shaper and reflector of the popular imagination in the way TV and film are today. In Opera and the City: The Politics of Culture in Beijing 1770-1900 (Stanford University Press, 2012), Andrea S. Goldman explores the history, urban culture, and gender dynamics of opera in the Qing capital of Beijing (a locality with empire-wide influence) from about 1770 to 1900. Goldman’s book traces the ways that the state and different urban populations manipulated opera performances as a means to various ends, including pleasure, moral education, and political commentary. Along the way, Goldman offers sensitive close readings of some fascinating historical sources, including a form of hybridized connoisseurship-cum-city guidebooks (“flower registers,” or huapu) and playwrights’ desk copies of operas. In this extraordinarily rich and carefully-wrought story, we learn of the spaces and markets of operatic performance and the varied attempts (some successful, others not) at state regulation of late Qing opera. We learn of the intricate tracings of gender and class in the selective staging of scenes from literary operas on the commercial stage, as this selective performance could dramatically change the meanings that audiences gleaned form operatic performances. In this book full of brothers, adulterous women, boy actresses, and sugar daddies, Goldman has managed to make the social and cultural history of opera feel not just relevant, but deeply necessary for understanding the politics and society of the Qing. Enjoy!
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