The Singing Body in the Tragédie Lyrique of Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century France: Voice, Theatre, Speech, Pleasure

By Nancy, Sarah | Themes in Theatre, January 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

The Singing Body in the Tragédie Lyrique of Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century France: Voice, Theatre, Speech, Pleasure


Nancy, Sarah, Themes in Theatre


In her paper on the "operatic scandal of the singing body" for The Cambridge Opera Journal, Michelle Duncan points out how difficult it is to give an account of the experience of listening to opera, especially while considering the performer's body:

[...] opera studies persist in thinking of the voice as extra-corporeal. Carnal voices are either lacking or absent, marked by what they do not do, operative through failure and negativity, or envisioned as supra-objects that are off the scale, excessively loud (and thus impossible to register or to be perceived as material) and potentially "violent". As for the body of the singer, opera studies has tended to ignore it altogether unless it possesses currency as the object of desire or of a fetish. And when this happens, both the body and voice become secondary to the affect or erotic desire of the spectator. (Duncan 2004: 285)

Duncan underlines that the singing voice, in opera studies, is not considered in and of itself. Even when it is imbued with some positive qualities, it is still considered as an element that is "off the scale", that always goes further, or even too far from our musical experience of listening. As such, it could only be grasped indirectly by the effects it projects upon the listener. This is the reason why the singing body disappears in opera studies: the real way the sound has been produced, by a real body, is not as important as the way it meets the listener's desire, which refers to a mysterious locus of risk and freedom within the listening subject.

To apprehend the voice as an excess is to experience the voice as almost magically transcending the body of the performer, as formidable and disciplined as that body may be. We know how psychoanalytic theory illuminates this scenario: by considering the voice as an objet (petit) a, replacing the maternal body as the unique and originating object of true affection, Jacques Lacan opened the way to understanding the experience of opera as jouissance (Lacan 1981). The voice would be the pure signal of what is before and also beyond the listening subject, before and beyond the self. Thus opera, especially with the role it gives to the female voice, as the summit of what is impossibly symbolised, would be dedicated entirely to this excessive, transgressive and affectively ambivalent quest. There is no doubt that today, this model of interpretation is the most acknowledged in studies concerning the lyrical voice (see, for instance, Poizat 1986; Quignard 1996; Vivès 2002). However, we also know that this model is attached to a specific moment, to a specific musical style: being "grand opera" of the nineteenth century, or in Nicholas Till's terms, opera as "metaphysical", an extraordinary system intended to glorify the voice, and thus lose the singing body through the alternatives of presence and absence, pleasure and understanding. But, in other places, at other moments, it is obviously distinct: for instance, we know that at the birth of the opera, the Florentine Camerata preoccupied itself with its words, with the clarity of their pronunciation; or in more recent twentieth century history, how Broadway musicals require bodies that sing and dance simultaneously, and even more recently we can hear how some contemporary performers try to "de-aestheticise" the female voice (Dunn and Jones 1997: 4): Laurie Anderson with the use of the vocoder, or Diamanda Galas with the scream. By considering the voice as the poetic1 centre of the work, and naturalising the conditions of its presentation and production, and thus almost erasing them in order to overcome the listener, the nineteenth-century grand operatic tradition, whose legacy is still very evident in repertoires and expectations today, is without doubt a particularly striking moment in the history of music theatre, but nevertheless, a limited one.

Does that mean that we could rediscover the singing body by looking to operatic forms other than the nineteenth-century model of "grand opera"? …

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