Larry Wolff


On his book The Singing Turk: Ottoman Power and Operatic Emotions on the European Stage from the Siege of Vienna to the Age of Napoleon

Cover Interview of March 22, 2017

The wide angle

On the one hand, this book addresses the well-known literature on Orientalism, and argues that singing Turks were not understood as simply exotic “others” on the European stage. On the contrary, European audiences were supposed to recognize themselves in the singing Turks who addressed European issues of power and emotion, of relations between rulers and subjects and between men and women. At the same time, the book addresses Samuel Huntington’s idea of a “clash of civilizations” between the Muslim and Christian world, and I attempt to show that such a clash was decidedly not fundamental for the eighteenth-century world of the European Enlightenment. Even wearing their magnificent robes and dramatic moustaches, singing Turks were recognizably European in their characters and dilemmas, and European audiences responded to them accordingly, as figures with something to say about European issues and identities. Handel’s Sultan Bajezet (in the opera Tamerlano of 1724) had been conquered and defeated by Tamerlane, but the Ottoman sultan in captivity offered a model of Muslim Turkish pride and dignity — and served as a lesson in character for the European public.

This book emerges from a long commitment to trying to understand the cultural dimensions of East and West in European history, dating back to my research in the book Inventing Eastern Europe (1994). I argued in that book that Eastern Europe was liminally European, which made it seem both exotic and familiar at the same time. The figure of the singing Turk fundamentally illustrates this paradigm of simultaneous exoticism and familiarity. At the same time, The Singing Turk emerges from a broader attempt by historians to understand Europe’s relation to the Ottoman empire as not simply an oppositional encounter, but one of complex cultural encounter and exchange in Southeastern Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean. I’m interested in the fact that both Vienna and Venice, the capitals of states neighboring the Ottoman empire (at the Habsburg Croatian frontier and the Venetian Dalmatian frontier) were also both opera capitals, and, therefore, Vienna and Venice were very important research sites for me.

Finally, I should say that, because of my role at NYU as director of the Center for European and Mediterranean Studies, I’ve been closely engaged while working on this book with the contemporary issue of Turkey’s relation to the European Union and the possibility (no longer likely) of eventual accession to the EU. This has, in turn, posed the question of Turkey’s historical and cultural relation to Europe, which the book partly explores, and this is of broader relevance for thinking about contemporary and historical encounters between Europe and the Muslim world.