Opera developed during a time when the position of women—their rights and freedoms, their virtues and vices, and even the most basic substance of their sexuality—was constantly debated. Many of these controversies manifested themselves in the representation of the historical and mythological women whose voices were heard on the Venetian operatic stage. Drawing upon a complex web of early modern sources and ancient texts, this engaging study is the first comprehensive treatment of women, gender, and sexuality in seventeenth-century opera. Wendy Heller explores the operatic manifestations of female chastity, power, transvestism, androgyny, and desire, showing how the emerging genre was shaped by and infused with the Republic's taste for the erotic and its ambivalent attitudes toward women and sexuality.
Heller begins by examining contemporary Venetian writings about gender and sexuality that influenced the development of female vocality in opera. The Venetian reception and transformation of ancient texts—by Ovid, Virgil, Tacitus, and Diodorus Siculus—form the background for her penetrating analyses of the musical and dramatic representation of five extraordinary women as presented in operas by Claudio Monteverdi, Francesco Cavalli, and their successors in Venice: Dido, queen of Carthage (Cavalli); Octavia, wife of Nero (Monteverdi); the nymph Callisto (Cavalli); Queen Semiramis of Assyria (Pietro Andrea Ziani); and Messalina, wife of Claudius (Carlo Pallavicino).
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"This remarkably original book makes a substantial contribution to the history of Venetian opera. Working from the now well-established point of view that opera was a preeminent social and political phenomenon in seventeenth-century Venice, Heller has expanded the sociopolitical arena to include issues of gender. She convincingly demonstrates the relevance of contemporary views of women and women’s voices, not only to the plots and characters of individual operas, but also to the Venetian self-image as projected on the operatic stage." Ellen Rosand, author of Opera in Seventeenth-Century Venice
"In this brilliant new book, Wendy Heller ushers in a refreshing new phase of musicology as she weds the interpretative methods of the last ten years with the painstaking research of good, old-fashioned scholarship. Emblems of Eloquence bristles with critical insights, all backed up with impressively erudite references to classic literature, Renaissance theories of the sexual body, and debates concerning the status of women among the Venetian patricians responsible for the rise of public opera. For all its erudition, the book is also a great read, describing tragic queens and femmes fatales of antiquity, divas, castrati, cross-dressing, and incomparably great music." Susan McClary, author of Conventional Wisdom
Wendy Heller is Assistant Professor of Music at Princeton University.
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