Manchester, 14th-18th July 2004


Eleanor Selfridge-Field (Stanford University, USA)

Dramaturgical hours: how lunar and solar cycles influenced the length and character of Venetian operas

The establishment of an exact chronology of Venetian opera (1660-1760) has revealed that the year was segmented to coordinate theatrical openings and closings with important civic and liturgical rituals. While there is little evidence for spring opera from the seventeenth century, a short spring season tied to the (moveable) feast of Ascension was established in 1722. Like Easter, its initiation date, being determined by lunar and solar cycles, wandered over a 35-day span (April 30-June 3).

It can now be shown that the length of operas varied to some degree with the number of hours of darkness per day: theaters were open for longer periods during the late autumn and early winter, when most operas were performed, than they were in spring. Eighteenth-century efforts to coordinate time-keeping more precisely with celestial orbits caused acceleration in the rate of adjustment of the starting time of the new day (marked from one half-hour after sunset) in the mid-spring, with corresponding adjustments in the mid-autumn. (Except during the formally designated period of Carnival, theaters were open only after dark.)

These cyclical changes are reflected not only in the duration of performed works but also in their characters. The most serious and extravagantly staged works were given when nights were longest, while those of a more trivial nature when nights were shortest.

Last updated on 29 May 2004