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Siren Songs

Siren Songs: Representations of Gender and Sexuality in Opera

Edited by Mary Ann Smart
Copyright Date: 2000
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Siren Songs
    Book Description:

    It has long been argued that opera is all about sex.Siren Songsis the first collection of articles devoted to exploring the impact of this sexual obsession, and of the power relations that come with it, on the music, words, and staging of opera. Here a distinguished and diverse group of musicologists, literary critics, and feminist scholars address a wide range of fascinating topics--from Salome's striptease to hysteria to jazz and gender--in Italian, English, German, and French operas from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries. The authors combine readings of specific scenes with efforts to situate these musical moments within richly and precisely observed historical contexts. Challenging both formalist categories of musical analysis and the rhetoric that traditionally pits a male composer against the female characters he creates, many of the articles work toward inventing a language for the study of gender and opera.

    The collection opens with Mary Ann Smart's introduction, which provides an engaging reflection on the state of gender topics in operatic criticism and musicology. It then moves on to a foundational essay on the complex relationships between opera and history by the renowned philosopher and novelist Catherine Clément, a pioneer of feminist opera criticism. Other articles examine the evolution of the "trouser role" as it evolved in the lesbian subculture offin-de-siècleParis, the phenomenon ofopera seria's"absent mother" as a manifestation of attitudes to the family under absolutism, the invention of a "hystericized voice" in Verdi'sDon Carlos,and a collaborative discussion of the staging problems posed by the gender politics of Mozart's operas.

    The contributors are Wye Jamison Allanboork, Joseph Auner, Katherine Bergeron, Philip Brett, Peter Brooks, Catherine Clement, Martha Feldman, Heather Hadlock, Mary Hunter, Linda Hutcheon and Michael Hutcheon, M.D., Lawrence Kramer, Roger Parker, Mary Ann Smart, and Gretchen Wheelock.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-6671-7
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-2)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 3-16)

    One Saturday before Easter a few years ago, I turned on the Metropolitan Opera broadcast to catch the tail end of the quiz. The performance wasSalomeand, as if in penance for the gender politics the audience was about to be subjected to, the quiz was devoted to the topic of women in opera, the panelists all female. Most of the questions were of the usual type: five recordings of a fragment of the Habañera were played, and the contestants had some difficulty identifying the singers; this wasn’t one of those quizzes where the participants elbowed each other out...

  5. Through Voices, History
    (pp. 17-28)

    As a philosopher who was educated in France during the heyday of structuralism, my approach to opera is an idiosyncratic one. Music is far and away the most difficult field to analyze. Why? This question in itself is a philosophical problem. Rather than a science, music is a confused and passionate art form, perhaps more suited to anthropological than philosophical methods of explication; and within the realm of musical aesthetics, the global vision of opera, thanks to the irresistible power of the voice, occupies the mysterious place of the heart in a body, which, according to Christian tradition, is also...

  6. The Absent Mother in Opera Seria
    (pp. 29-46)

    Opera seria was founded on the myth of the good king. As a prototypical tale aimed at legitimizing the prevailing political ideology of absolutism, the myth of the good king crystallized various propositions about the divinely ordained nature of the world and the role of the male monarch as a virtuous engine of its control. The king was the prime mover on earth, politically and morally, in a cosmic order that cascaded downwards from God through him to the different social orders below.

    Such at least was the message codified, disseminated, and naturalized through the narratives of the classic Metastasian...

  7. Staging Mozart’s Women
    (pp. 47-66)

    Konstanze and Zerlina, “Martern aller Arten” and “Batti, batti.” Both characters and both arias may give modern audiences—especially those with even an inkling of feminist consciousness—pause. Konstanze goes on and on (and on) in ways that seem out of proportion to the comic-opera threat she is under. She sings with extraordinary power and virtuosity, blasting the Pasha into dumbfounded silence, or at least into wondering whether he just dreamt this. But she can only exercise this extraordinary power from a position of being attached, even possessed. Zerlina, on the contrary, seems to be asking her lover to beat...

  8. The Career of Cherubino, or the Trouser Role Grows Up
    (pp. 67-92)

    The convention of female performers masquerading as slim-legged pageboys or unusually handsome knights, well-established since Shakespeare’s time, remained surprisingly popular on the operatic stage into the nineteenth century. The closest parallels to earlier theatrical practice may be found in those operas whose heroines—prevented by circumstances from appearing in their true guises—dress themselves as men and sally forth to rescue a husband or lover from danger, or from temptation. Yet such rescue plots are relatively uncommon, for female travesty in nineteenth-century opera was far from a unified phenomenon, and at least two other categories are needed to account for...

  9. Elisabeth’s Last Act
    (pp. 93-117)

    As is very well known, Verdi’sDon Carlos, first performed at the Paris Opéra in 1867, underwent several authorial revisions, the most radical of which occurred in the early 1880s, and in which, as well undergoing many more minor alterations, the opera lost almost its entire first act.³ This act is a prologue: Carlos the infante of Spain and Elisabeth, daughter of Henry II of France, unknown to each other but betrothed through an arranged marriage, meet by chance in the forest of Fontainebleau; they fall in love and are of course ecstatic with joy to find out in a...

  10. Body and Voice in Melodrama and Opera
    (pp. 118-134)

    I want to reflect here on some key elements in the expressionist aesthetics of melodrama and opera—genres that are deeply intricated one with the other, historically and aesthetically, yet also seem to pull in different directions, to aspire to very different privileges accorded to body and to voice. It is on the relation of body and voice in the two genres that I want to meditate for a moment.

    In the work I have done on melodrama, I have repeatedly been struck by the bodiliness of that genre. As an expressionistic mode, melodrama achieves its effects through making overt,...

    (pp. 135-159)

    Verdi’s 1871 operaAidahas always been known for its pomp. The elephants traditionally called for in the Act II triumphal procession have become a symbol for all of opera’s most gaudy and expensive excesses, and inAidathe elephants are just the beginning, a convenient metonymy for the harem dancers, pagan priestesses, and the other spectacular scenic effects that markAidaas a product of Verdi’s midcareer infatuation with the overblown visual scope of Parisian grand opera. In recent years, however,Aidahas achieved a different kind of notoriety, thanks to Edward Said’s critique of the opera’s orientalist agenda....

  12. Mélisande’s Hair, or the Trouble in Allemonde: A POSTMODERN ALLEGORY AT THE OPÉRA-COMIQUE
    (pp. 160-185)

    “It’s all Mélisande’s fault,” Debussy wrote to his friend Ernest Chausson early in 1894 in the midst of composing the first act of his operaPelléas et Mélisande. Having neglected to answer a letter, he coyly offered Maeterlinck’s heroine as the excuse. The taciturn Debussy, famous for having little to say, evidently found himself at a greater loss when trying to cope with the silences of his fictionalcompagne. He summarized the plight to Chausson in words that could easily have been spoken by the opera’s ill-fated Prince Golaud: “I have spent days,” he complained, “in pursuit of the ‘nothing’...

    (pp. 186-203)

    Two or Three Things I Know about Heris a movie released in 1966 by Jean-Luc Godard. It consists of a series of images, interviews, and vignettes that sketch the life of a bourgeois housewife who is also a part-time prostitute. The woman does not, of course, “just happen” to be a prostitute. Like many others, she is working to support a habit—in this case precisely the habit of being a bourgeois housewife. The desire she withdraws from her sexual performances is reinvested in the material pleasures of ownership and consumption.

    In form, Godard’s movie is innovative. Its discontinuous,...

  14. Staging the Female Body: RICHARD STRAUSS’S SALOME
    (pp. 204-221)

    As an art form, opera has always been self-conscious about singing, despite the fact that, as Carolyn Abbate and others have emphasized, the convention of opera is that the singers are actually deaf to the “music-drowned world” in which they live.¹ The earliest operas—by Peri, Caccini, and Monteverdi—focused on Orpheus, the singing poet, and Wagner’sTannhäuserandDie Meistersinger von Nürnbergstand as nineteenth-century epitomes of opera about singing. But dance—the body in motion—has also been an important part of opera historically, and was a convention of French opera from the seventeenth century on. In the...

    (pp. 222-236)

    As Hermann Hesse’s novelSteppbnwolfbegins, the protagonist Harry Haller is alone and adrift, having rejected his “besotted humdrum age of spiritual blindness.”¹ He finds refuge in the books that litter his attic room and in the “lovely old music” of his pantheon of immortals—Bach, Handel, Haydn, and above all Mozart—that seems to open a door to a world in which he can see God at work. Yet as the story unfolds Haller comes to distrust this musical tradition; he blames the power of the “matriarchal link with nature” in the German spirit for enticing intellectuals to rebel...

    (pp. 237-250)

    The modernist critical axiom that, in Joseph Kerman’s classic formulation, “opera is a type of drama whose integral existence is determined from point to point and in the whole by musical articulation,”² was often used, as we now realize, as a way of vesting sole authority in the composer, a male. Much work has now been done on recuperating the singer (usually female). It is a particular irony of Benjamin Britten’s fifty-year-old repertory opera,Peter Grimes, that the singer who premierèd the role of the protagonist—and still the only one apparently capable of singing the notes as written—was...

  17. Notes
    (pp. 251-294)
  18. Index
    (pp. 295-301)