‘From Versailles to YouTube: Encounters With Redface in French Baroque Opera, Then and Now’

Caroline Elliott, Joseph McHardy

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaper


In 2004, the Opéra de Paris in collaboration with Les Arts Florissants produced Jean-Phillippe Rameau’s Les Indes Gallantes (1735), an opera of romantic intrigues set in four different “exotic” locales: the Ottoman empire, Peru, Persia, and North America. Directed by Andrei Serban (now ex-theatre professor at Columbia, having resigned due to the “pressure of political correctness”), the performance features among other elements copious amounts of redface, portrayals of North American indigenous dance as involving exaggerated limb flapping and chest beating, and the worship of an enormous golden turkey. Contemporary productions of French baroque opera and ballet follow on from a centuries-long tradition in which mythologising a colonial “other” was a key aspect of world-building, storytelling, and the identity development. This paper will ask why and how various indigenous peoples from North, Central, and South America were depicted in early modern French opera and ballet. It will show how these representations helped produce a stereotype that could be translated into a mythical concept that would become popular within the genre in the form of the “savage” trope. By incorporating studies of Ursuline “boarding houses” in Algonquian lands and their impact on convent schools in France, it will demonstrate how use of opera and ballet in early modern educational institutions for French girls racialized notions of grace, beauty, honour, and piety through the creation of a mythologized “other,” and how this racialisation influenced wider standards for said notions across early modern Europe. The COVID-19 global pandemic has periodically resulted in people’s experiences of the performing arts being mediated primarily by the algorithm and the search bar rather than the material world of performing arts institutions. As such, performances are no longer confined to attendees of the live performance or the owners of an institutionally produced DVD, but rather can appear unexpectedly to anyone who happens to type the right combination of words into a search engine. In light of this, this paper will also reflect on how 21st-century artists, institutions, and audiences have engaged with encountering the legacy of the “savage” trope in French baroque music alongside awareness of modern-day erasure of indigenous peoples and cultures across the Americas. It will discuss the aforementioned production of Les Indes Gallantes in 2004 and its reception, and contextualise it with other contemporaneous performances and critiques. It will then discuss one of the most recent productions of the opera, another production by Opéra de Paris in 2019 featuring a collaboration between choreographer Bintou Dembélé and Clément Cogitore.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusUnpublished - 12 Apr 2022
EventThe Society for the Study of French History annual conference: Enocounters/Rencontres - Exeter College, University of Oxford, Oxford, United Kingdom
Duration: 10 Apr 202213 Apr 2022


ConferenceThe Society for the Study of French History annual conference
Abbreviated titleSSFh
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom
Internet address


  • baroque
  • early music
  • French music
  • colonialism
  • performance practice
  • Digital Humanities
  • Ballet

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