Operas for this time: the queer temporality of Parable of the Sower, The Ghosts of Versailles, and other contemporary works
Toshi Reagon's opera, Parable of the Sower (2015), has been described as a powerful “new -- well, old project” (Autumn and Adrienne Brown, 2018). Black sci-fi writer Octavia Butler set Parable of the Sower (1993) in a rapidly disintegrating US of 2024 following the destruction of the environment, ruthless unchecked capitalism, and the election of one president Donner. It is an uncanny tale of the future that comments on the present Butler never lived to see. Sonically, Reagon weaves spirituals from the 19th century “with music that comes out of gospel, blues, rock, and electronica” (Reagon, 2017), an archive of historically Black music to connect with a young Black woman of the future. Reagon’s opera is, like Victoria Bond’s opera Mrs. President (2002), concerned with alternative spiritualities, communing with the past, speculating on the future, and the usefulness of walls that contain citizens.
In this paper, I consider how viewing Parable through different concepts of time both questions how the present is constructed and helps us survive it. Queer temporal frameworks have ways of "engag[ing] with the past without being destroyed by it" (Love, 2007) and find potentiality of "the then and there...in the here and now" (Munoz, 2009). However, this scholarship has yet to be brought into dialogue with concepts of Black Time (Barthold, 1981) and Afrofuturism. Reagon’s opera is a fruitful space for this dialogue. Through her musical genre-time-crossings and unconventional staging that engages the audience, Reagon questions who is considered a citizen, and when.