Operatic Transvestism, Disguise Roles, and Women's Sexual Agency in Handel's Operas (1727-1741)

Kleftis, Courtney, Music - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Gordon, Bonnie, Department of Music, University of Virginia

My dissertation offers insights into gender-bending, travesti, and “disguise” roles in eighteenth-century Italian opera seria in London, specifically in Handel’s operas. These matters have been discussed at length in regards to the controversial figure of the castrato; however my writing offers particular attention to women’s bodies and voices both on stage and in the public imagination. The real or perceived gendered transgressions and excesses of eighteenth-century Italian opera, rooted in the figure of the castrato and his female counterpart, the dangerously masculinized diva, were known to have provoked paranoid conspiracy theories and anxieties circulating in a wide array of English satirical pamphlets that bear a striking resemblance to modern tabloids. This dissertation offers a survey of these gendered anxieties through a series of case studies about four different Handel operas spanning his London career. I address these issues from a variety of different angles including the aforementioned satirical pamphlets and related archival materials, a feminist critique of the Enlightenment ideology of Reason, a discussion of waning mechanistic philosophies and theories of the body and subjectivity in relation to the female singer’s voice and vocal agency, as well as issues pertaining to contemporary opera production and reception.

The first two chapters of this dissertation are historicist in nature, offering discussions of Handel’s Admeto (1727) and Partenope (1730) respectively through the lens of English operatic satire. Chapter Two specifically engages with Henry Fielding’s paranoid notion of “petticoat government” in relation to Handel’s powerful self-proclaimed “Amazon” queen and her ridiculous entourage of comically impotent suitors. These operatic satires offer a window into the gendered anxieties of the time which I trace back to the threat of the emasculating heroine, in “male disguise” or otherwise. Chapter Three presents an incisive critique of the emergent Enlightenment ideology of Reason through the lens of Handel’s Alcina (1735), in which I argue that the conquered sorceress, Alcina, stages the narrative defeat of her “magic”, at the hands of a “magical ring of reason”, as an ironically triumphant spectacle of vocal virtuosity. Her cross-dressing rival, Bradamante, on the other hand, remains trapped within a mindless, mechanical musical framework, reduced to a quasi-mute mouthpiece for the patriarchal Enlightenment ideology that ultimately prevails at the end of the opera. The fourth and final chapter of this dissertation situates the post-modern discourse of camp, a discourse rooted in self-parody, deliberate excess and exaggeration, and the playful distortion and deconstruction of gender stereotypes, in the eighteenth-century notion of the effeminate fop. I explore these connections in relation to the ridiculous, frivolous, and foppish mythical “hero” Achille, of Handel’s last opera Deidamia (1741) - a male role (in female “disguise”) originally composed for a female soprano - through the lens of David Alden’s self-consciously campy 2012 Netherlands production. This final chapter suggests that due to the fundamental link between eighteenth-century foppery and post-modern camp, in spite of its appearances otherwise, this ultra-controversial and radical production is actually historically informed and therefore not so radical after all.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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