Manchester, 14th-18th July 2004


Reinhard Strohm (University of Oxford, UK)

The agency of singers in opera seria: a study of social action

We have extremely little evidence about the processes by which Italian serious operas were created in the early 18th century.  This epistemological situation is in conflict with the secondary literature which, at one time, had excessive confidence in the creative responsibility of composers, and now overrates the agency of singers.  A careful re-assessment of the available evidence will lead to a more differentiated picture.

We should distinguish between the contributions of performers, authors and others to the theatrical event of opera and to its creation, allowing for a number of disjunctions between the two.  While a strongly classicist ideology in the dramma per musica favoured the agency of writers over that of performers, and the economic circumstances of the period would privilege institutional influence and patronage, opera as divertissement could function depending on genre and circumstance in relative separation of these structures.

Authorial decisions about roles, vocal ranges, stage-sets, recitatives, arias and appearances were both routine practices and contested social actions.  As such, they could not only serve interested purposes but also, for example, express shared values or simply uphold tradition (e.g. by modelling and borrowing): factors which helped suspend authorial initiatives.

Evidence from scores, libretti and secondary sources will be used to illustrate relevant practical processes such as the owning, distributing, assigning and rehearsing of roles, arias and recitatives.  An overview of the sources suggests that agency could greatly vary in the creation of different operas, and was itself subject to interested social action.

Last updated on 09 May 2004