Les filles de l'Opéra in the Early Eighteenth Century
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CitationRivera, Gina. 2013. Les filles de l'Opéra in the Early Eighteenth Century. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University.
AbstractCelebrated or berated as scandalous presences on and off the operatic stage, the Parisian singers and dancers known as les filles de l’Opéra endured some of the most heated cultural critiques of the early eighteenth century. Jérôme de La Gorce and Georgia Cowart have assessed the controversial morality of the filles de l’Opéra, yet musicologists have not explored critiques of these women for what they reveal about historical mentalities, from ideas about performance as possession or effacement, absorption or theatricality, to the doubt into which the operatic genre itself was cast. The critical reception of the filles de l’Opéra amounts to a meaningful early modern discourse about the performer as a powerful, autonomous, even dangerous creative individual and is a significant reflection of theatrical taste in flux in these years. Letters of Charlotte-Élisabeth Aïssé (1694–1733) as well as vignettes in manuscripts compiled by the abbé Jean Nicolas de Tralage, dit Tillemon (1620–1698) and Jean-Frédéric Phélypeaux, comte de Maurepas (1701–1781) describe noted performers including Catherine Nicole Le Maure (1704–1786), Marie Pélissier (1707–1749), Marie Sallé (1707–1756), and Marie Anne de Cupis de Camargo (1710–1770). Reactions to their gestures, voices, and choreography were replete with anxiety that these women might provoke a revolution at the Opéra during an era when debates raged about lyric tragedy as entertainment. Whereas Le Maure won praise from Aïssé for her guts and fortitude, Pélissier presented a newer, more threatening theatricality that fueled popular fascination with artifice and deception. When writers used such language to frame operatic practice, they explored sophisticated notions not just about mores but about performance, poetics, and genre. Well before Romantic commentaries on the virtuoso, the discourse on the filles de l’Opéra amounted to an integrated critical language that placed musicality, technique, gesture, sexuality, and morality on equal footing as evaluative categories. The lengths to which writers went to discern what made these women culturally significant shed light on a complicated social, moral, and corporeal understanding of opera and its performance that was peculiarly Parisian.
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