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A musical challenge to our view of the past

Music and the Exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart

In Musical Exoticism (Cambridge 2011) Ralph P. Locke undertook an extensive appraisal of the portrayal of the ‘Other’ in works dating from 1700 to the present day, an enquiry that embraced a wide range of genres from Baroque opera to Algerian rap, and which was at once musical, cultural, historical, political and ethical.

Coughing and Clapping: Investigating Audience Experience

Is it okay to tweet during a concert, if it allows those who couldn’t attend to engage with the performance and the music? Or is it really just distracting, on top of all the coughing?

How to Write About Music: The RILM Manual of Style

RILM Abstracts of Music Literature is an international database for musicological and ethnomusicological research, providing abstracts and indexing for users all over the world. As such, RILM’s style guide (How to Write About Music: The RILM Manual of Style) differs fairly significantly from those of more generalized style guides such as MLA or APA.

Book Review: Opera in the British Isles, 1875 – 1918

Opera in the British Isles might seem a rather sparse subject in the period 1875 to 1918. Notoriously described as the land without music, even the revival of the native tradition of composers did not include a strong vein of opera.

Diary of a Redneck Opera Zinger

Heldentenor Jay Hunter Morris tells us about the lean times when the phone did not ring, as well as those thrilling moments when companies entrusted him with the most important roles in opera.

Weill's Musical Theater: Stages of Reform

Commonly viewed as a ‘second-rate’ composer — a European radical persecuted by the Nazis whose trans-Atlantic emigration represented a sell-out to an inferior American popular culture —

Opera from Cambridge University Press

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James Melton: The Tenor of His Times

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Essays on Italo Montemezzi - D'Annunzio: Nave

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Alfredo Catalani — A new perspective on later Italian opera

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The Sopranos — Dissecting opera’s fervent fans

I was feeling cowed by Herr Engels. The four of us had retired from the Stravinsky performance to a Billy Wilder-themed bar in Berlin, the least horrible late-night option in the high end mediocrity of Potsdamer Platz.

Opera Remade, 1700-1750

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Operatic Advice and Counsel…A Welcome New Reference Book

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Lotfi Mansouri: An Operatic Journey

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Cosima Wagner — The Lady of Bayreuth

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Operatic Italian

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Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections

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Magic Flutes & Enchanted Forests: The Supernatural in Eighteenth-Century Musical Theater

Readers may recognize the author of this book, David J. Buch, a specialist on the origins of the libretto to Mozart’s Magic Flute.

Opera from the Greek

Perhaps it will be enough to tell you that I wasn’t halfway through this book before I searched the web for a copy of Professor Ewans’s study of Wagner and Aeschylus’s Oresteia, and ordered it forthwith: It has to be good.



Emblems of Eloquence
15 Jul 2005

HELLER: Emblems of Eloquence — Opera and Women’s Voices in Seventeenth-Century Venice

In her awesome Emblems of Eloquence, Wendy Heller tirelessly investigates treatises, myths, libretti and letters to illuminate the natures of “real” and “imagined” women who reigned over seventeenth-century opera as subjects of musical portraiture. From Dido to Semiramide, Poppea to Calisto, Heller argues that women and women’s issues dominated the Venetian stage. Librettists struggled with issues of women’s sexuality, dominance, suppression of desire, overt desire, covert desire, homoeroticism and misogyny. And all at the time when, “Venice’s absolute exclusion of women in public life was written into the organization of the Republic.” This apparent contradiction is at the heart of her eminently readable text that displays Heller as a musicological Simon Schama.

Emblems of Eloquence — Opera and Women's Voices in Seventeenth-Century Venice

Wendy Heller. Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 2003. xix, 386.

ISBN 0-520-20933-8


The book is divided into seven chapters. The first two explore seventeenth-century treatises written about women by male misogynists and uppity female contrarians. Although these treatises, such as Venetian nun Arcangela Tarabotti's Tirannia paterna, ostensibly say little about women and music, they do give us a clear picture of misogyny practiced eloquently by members of the Accademia degli Incogniti, a center of erudition, who found women to be the cause of evil in the world. Heller provides excellent translations and each painful prejudice is clearly rendered. We read for instance from Francesco Loredano, the Incogniti founder, "Woman, most virtuous gentlemen, is an imperfect animal, an error of nature, and a monster of our species." At least, Loredano includes women in the same species as men; Aristotle argued otherwise.

In this incandescent debate, we find opera flourishing. Heller in the next chapters of her book examines archetypical female opera roles, warriors, courtesans, and lovers. All are essentially victims of their own desires, even if most of the operas end in the lieto fine. Women in Heller's book are a complicated collection of dualities, and we have subheadings such as, "Semiramide and Musical Transvestism" and "Didone and Female Eloquence."

Heller's micro-level descriptions of the music by Monteverdi (L'incoronazione di Poppea), Cavalli (La Didone, La Calisto), Ziani (La Semiramide), and Pallavicino (La Messalina) that accompany these women are also a pleasure to read. For instance, Heller paints the cross-dressing Semiramide: "The light syncopated character and clipped phrases as well as the key of G major are associated with the militaristic Semiramide, contrasting with the metrically regular cadences and E minor with which she expresses her amorous urges." Heller's prose is silky and thoughtful as she weaves a tableau of women's foibles.

Interestingly, while women dominated libretti, it seems that there were few well-known female performers during this time. Anna Rienzi, the first discussed, was a Roman singer for whom a collection of poems and prose was written lauding her. Furthermore, there is little evidence about the way audiences received these female protagonists. In fact, we have to go Padua, Venice's lowly sister, to find the name of the first woman to attend university, one Elena Piscopia (1646-1684), who played the keyboard and was the confidant of an organist and orphaned Venetian Maddalena Cappelli for most of her adult life. While Padua did not have a burgeoning opera, it did have women writers and artists in the early Baroque period. We need to wait for Verdi for women to be given great music and virtue. Perhaps this is one of Heller's important contributions to the history of ideas: more opera libretti and theoretical treatises about women flourish in ages when women are treated particularly poorly. What does that say of our time?

Eleonora Beck
Lewis & Clark College

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