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  • Singer-Machines:Describing Italian Singers, 1800-1850
  • Céline Frigau Manning (bio)
    Translated by Nicholas Manning

Puppets, automata, electric creatures: in numerous descriptions from the first half of the nineteenth century, Italian singers were presented as singing and acting machines. Whether mechanical or electrical, such models do not merely reflect the technologies of the time and their circulation across a wider discursive field; nor do they simply illustrate a special case of cultural appropriation of science and technology in the emergent discipline of music criticism, in search of specialized tools and terms with which to describe operatic performance. Although mechanical models were usually used satirically to condemn specific singing or acting practices, and electrical models to applaud others, they were not limited to mere pejorative or laudatory criticism. Italian opera singers, whether compared to mechanical machines or considered as truly electric instruments, were discursively transformed into technical objects and thus acquired stronger aesthetic, cultural and social meanings.

In her introduction to the recent issue of Opera Quarterly devoted to opera and machines,1 guest editor Bonnie Gordon proposed "decenter[ing] opera, [moving] away from thinking of it as dependent mostly on the subjective experiences of composers, performers, and audiences . . . moving from a subject- to an object-oriented approach."2 Problematizing the relationship between musical performance and machines implies, however, a full analysis and historicization of discursive fields and their various intricacies. "Machines are social before being technical," wrote Gilles Deleuze.3 The singer-machine is thus "simultaneously and inseparably a machinic assemblage and an assemblage of enunciation."4 The present article will concentrate on precisely this discursive assemblage. Rather than reconstituting "mechanical" or "electric" acting and singing practices, or linking them to real technological uses in or outside theaters, I intend to focus here on the singer-machine by analyzing specific discursive models of description and observation in use among early nineteenth-century operatic critics.5

The subject is vast, and a choice had to be made in terms of field of inquiry and sources. I will thus concentrate on Italian singer-machines. These singers, [End Page 230] undoubtedly the most exportable of the period, will be considered both within their Italian context of "production," and as imported "products" within the French context of Paris's Théâtre Italien. This will not only allow me to explore some lesser-known Italian and French source material, but also to shed light on French and Italian critics' approaches to operatic performance more generally.6 Both mechanical and electrical models contributed to the processes of operatic creation and reception, thus participating in their formation and reformation and in the forging of new interpretations of singers' public images. Rather than reconstructing an apparent continuity, discourse analysis reveals instead the distinct discontinuities of each model in relation to a specific context of enunciation,7 "heralded" by "two major phenomena," as the obscure French writer Antoine Andraud stated in a forgotten drama entitled Galvani: "the birth of Galvanism, and the conquest of Italy."8 If, in the first half of the nineteenth century, the importation of Italian singers to France was often conceived in military terms, it is through this specific context, characterized by what Jeffrey Sconce calls a "utopian technophilia,"9 that I will attempt to understand the aesthetic and cultural meanings of mechanical and electric models as they were concomitantly used in the descriptions of Italian singers of the period. Taking into account their tremendous differences, the various figures of the singer-machine will be seen as distinctive responses to the crucial notions of sensibility and "liveness. "

Clockwork Singers and Puppets' Gestures

In criticizing some artists for their puppetlike gestures, and others (as a Milanese journalist wrote) for their "vocal technology,"10 worthy of true automata, French and Italian critics thus identified the worst sin a singer may commit: not of singing out of tune but rather, according to the lexis of the period, that of appearing "cold," "inanimate," or "soulless." Having a sensitive soul was indeed deemed the first quality a singer requires. Sensibility was considered as the strongest imaginable force, and even as the life source of the soul and body, determining the effect of operatic performance. Soulless, the singer is a...


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pp. 230-258
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