Opera and Gendered Voices in Early Modern Europe (seminar)

For more past programming from the Folger Institute, please see the article Folger Institute scholarly programs archive.

This was a 2007 fall semester seminar.

With its union of spectacle, poetry, and music, early modern opera provides a rich repository of ideas about the voice and body that lends itself to study from multi-disciplinary perspectives. This seminar examined the many ways in which opera absorbed, expressed, and influenced gender ideologies in early modern Europe. Beginning with composers from early-seventeenth-century Italy (da Gagliano, Monteverdi, Cavalli, Mazzocchi) and paying particular attention to the Folger’s rich collection of Italian librettos, this seminar also included an examination of tragédie-lyriques (Lully) and English masque and semi-opera (Purcell), according to the interests and expertise of the participants. Among the questions considered were: What strategies did composers, librettists, and set designers use to convey notions about gender and sexuality? How did differences in local tastes, customs, and, above all, political and social systems shape gender representation on the stage? How did opera manage the conflict between the requirements of female virtue (silence and chastity) and the desire to place rhetorically powerful and dangerous women on the operatic stage? Who sang in the opera, and how did casting decisions influence perceptions of gender? How did dance contribute to thinking about male and female bodies? Seminar participants also considered the ways in which masculinity was represented in opera, and the impact of the castrato and transvestitism. In addition to consulting opera scores and librettos (with recordings and DVDs as available), participants examined a variety of sources from the Folger collection, including behavior and conduct manuals, writings on rhetoric, emblem books, costume books, contemporary literary sources relevant to the study of the libretto, documents on singers, stagecraft, and finances, as well as visual sources such as engravings of scene designs and libretto illustrations.

Director: Wendy Heller is Associate Professor at Princeton University and Director of the Program in Italian Studies. Emblems of Eloquence: Opera and Women’s Voices in Seventeenth-Century Venice (2003) is among her many publications. She is currently writing a book on the reception of antiquity in Baroque Opera.