Academic journal article Women & Music

Voicing Gender: Castrati, Travesti, and the Second Woman in Early-Nineteenth-Century Italian Opera

Academic journal article Women & Music

Voicing Gender: Castrati, Travesti, and the Second Woman in Early-Nineteenth-Century Italian Opera

Article excerpt

Voicing Gender: Castrati, Travesti, and the Second Woman in Early-Nineteenth-Century Italian Opera. By Naomi Andre. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2006. 230 pp.

It's 7:36 p.m. As I tighten the Ace bandage that flattens my breasts to my torso, I sympathize with a woman reflected in the mirror who complains that her facial stubble has rubbed off. Slipping into high-heeled loafers and a satin vest, I steal a glance at yet another costumed figure; she laughs and nibbles on green olives, careful not to spoil her full-skirted dress. In about twenty minutes she and I will sing a love duet, but she will fall for the tenor and perish before the night is through.

In her book Voicing Gender: Castrati, Travesti, and the Second Woman in Early-Nineteenth-Century Italian Opera Naomi Andre confronts the complex issue of gender dynamics in primo ottocento opera. Although Andre asks a familiar, fundamental feminist question ("why do the heroines of Romantic opera die at the end?"), her study cleverly unpacks this query through a multivalent approach that incorporates not only documentary evidence about performers and performance practice but also a blend of postmodern criticism and personal experience. Rather than placing emphasis on female opera heroines' collective and untimely demise, Andre theorizes the phenomenon of the treble voice in opera, whether that voice emanates from the physical form of a heroic castrato, a cross-dressed mezzo such as the one I played above, or a swooning soprano diva. The voice, a fact of opera, passes through the singer's body and demands to be heard; yet listening to women in primo ottocento opera reveals a startling hybridity that is ripe for analysis. In Andre's words, her project "is a critical intervention in theorizing voice more historically and historicizing voice more theoretically" (12). She skillfully connects the history of castrati to sopranos en travesti, linking them to distinct types of women characters in Italian opera and, finally, to the heroines of post-1830 operas by Bellini, Donizetti, and Verdi.

To the burgeoning body of feminist opera scholarship of the past two decades Andre contributes a meticulously researched guide to an undersung period in Italian opera. The strength of the study lies in the author's willingness to theorize primo ottocento operatic voices as sites of power and meaning that deliver certain cultural codes, including gender ideologies, to audiences. Taking her cue from the discipline of art history, Andre adapts Baxandall's concept of "period eye"--"the skills based in cultural experience that a person brings to interpreting visual art of a certain period" (181)--to a similar, culturally informed way of listening. Andre's term "period ear" denotes the aural experience of the listener, who "takes into account other roles the performer has sung and infuses the action onstage with the added drama of this broader information." Accordingly, when a female opera singer en travesti stepped onto the stage to sing in the early nineteenth century, listeners experienced the haunting aural memory of the castrato, initiating a circular renegotiation of both the visual image of the performer and the sound of the voice. Indeed, Andre's study highlights the liminal spaces between binary pairs; aural-visual, male-female, onstage-offstage, and art-technique each breaks down when "period ear" enters into the analysis of primo ottocento operas and performances, rupturing established social and sexual codes (49).

Andre has written her book using a thoroughly nonpositivist methodology, from the quasi-musical form of the book (prelude, chapters, interlude, chapters, coda) to its central idea, hearing women in opera. Instead of first selecting an opera and then deciding what to write about it, Andre brings multiple theories, scores, images, and pedagogical treatises to the writing table in her quest to understand how listening to women in the context of opera clarifies their roles as dramatic characters and as members of nineteenth-century society. …

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