Speaker: Uri Erman (Open University, Israel)

Now for the moral! – Ye, that love to roam
For taste abroad, learn common sense at home!
For arts and arms, a Briton is the thing!
John Bull was made to roar – but not to sing

[From George Colman’s epilogue to The Musical Lady, April 1762]

Since its importation into Britain in the early 18th century, Italian opera was portrayed as a suspected medium – the product of absolutist and catholic Europe. Opera singers, in particular, were virulently attacked – for distorting language, making a scandalous use of their bodies, and corrupting society from their privileged position within it. These attributes supposedly revealed the singers' false essence, thus frustrating opera’s claim to higher truths. The above quote, from the epilogue to George Colman’s satirical afterpiece, The Musical Lady, clearly articulated this stance: John Bull is a figure of certain endowments – common sense, energy and inherent masculinity; his mode of vocalization is a lion’s roar – a natural manifestation of a healthy, heroic being. Italian-style singing, on the other hand, is pathologized and marked as effeminate, and thus as completely antithetical to British national identity.

However, there was another context to The Musical Lady. The previous month saw the debut of Thomas Arne’s Artaxerxes, the first English-language opera to be fully modelled on the Italian operatic formula – including the use of castrati. Artaxerxes was a watershed event in the history of English opera, an attempt to offer British audiences a vision of themselves as a singing nation. Indeed, changes in cultural sensibilities during this period opened new possibilities for the operatic medium to shed its aristocratic and cosmopolitan associations and emerge as a vehicle for national sentiment. These changes were manifested in the development of English-language opera and in the rise of a new generation of British singers who were to perform it. In this respect, Colman’s lines were not a declaration of a simple truism, but a response to a shifting cultural terrain and its perceived threats.

My paper will focus on this relation between the act of singing and the issue of national identity, as it was negotiated in the public discourse. I will analyze the interplay between a mutating cultural form, seeking approval, and an insistent attitude that attempted to redraw cultural borders and combat what it perceived as cultural contagion. This dynamic revolved primarily around the singers themselves, who seemed to embody the medium, and placed at its center the issue of gender as a primary category of identity. First, I will discuss the attempts to adopt the high-pitched singing of men – castrati and falsettists – along the lines of the Italian operatic mould. These attempts aimed to transform men’s singing into a sign of refinement and cultivation, and thus break new expressive ground for male singing on the public stage. A concomitant attempt was made to adopt the virtuosity of the Italian vocal technique – particularly by female singers. The spectacle of an operatic virtuosa went against an entrenched tradition that relegated female singing to the domestic sphere as a display of virtue and “accomplishment.” From this tension, two competing formulas were eventually galvanized: the outright virtuosa, who strives for complete acceptance of her (foreign-based) vocal merit, and the concert, “sacred” singer, who based her public image on an unblemished reputation and professed seclusion from the world.

IHR Seminar SeriesBritish History in the Long 18th Century

Opera, Gender and National Identity in Britain, 1760-1830