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  • Composing Citoyennes through Sapho
  • Sin Yan Hedy Law

If a citizen can be created via music, as Jann Pasler has argued, then how might one “compose” a female citizen—a citoyenne—when the very concept of female citizenship was politically illegitimate?1 This article attempts to answer this question by examining the opera Sapho, the first full-length French opera on the celebrated ancient Greek poetess. It was written by the female author Constance-Marie de Salm (1767–1845), and set to music by the male composer Jean-Paul-Gilles Martini.2 Their collaboration was unusual. In general, composers and librettists in late eighteenth-century France were paid the same amount and had the same rights over their operas. Co-creators of different sexes, indicated by the titles Citoyenne Pipelet and Citoyen Martini on the libretto and the printed score, complicated this supposedly “equal” partnership.3 Unlike the gender-neutral English word “citizen,” the French, citoyenne is gendered female and may strike musicologists nowadays as particular. This gender asymmetry operating on the grammatical level skewed the reception of the opera. In a review published in 1795, the author, following the title page of the libretto, calls the librettist de Salm “Citoyenne Pipelet,” but names the composer simply as Martini. The specification of Pipelet’s gender with “citoyenne,” coupled with the omission of “citoyen,” emphasizes Pipelet’s gender, implying that it was natural for a male to compose an opera but unusual for a woman to write its libretto. This article aims to investigate this gender asymmetry. The opera Sapho, I propose, discloses a tension between gender and creative partnership in the history of opera and citizenship.4

The concept of citoyenne elicits the political implication of a woman’s voice. Sapho belongs to the genre of tragédie mêlées de chants, a genre similar to the opéra-comique that alternates passages of singing and speaking. Like Orpheus, Sappho exerts her musical self through song. Yet at the beginning and the end of the opera, Sappho ceases singing and resorts to speaking. These two episodes differ from spoken dialogues elsewhere in the opera and represent what I call “lyrical residue.” Sappho’s speaking voice exposes in performance an alternative mode of vocal expression: a bleak remnant of her lyrical singing voice. This lyrical residue is situated at two emotional crises in the opera: the moment she admits that her lover Phaon [End Page 5] has betrayed her and the moment before she commits suicide. It represents her desire to speak her mind, and thus to express her agency. At this moment, her speaking voice becomes unsung singing. Its efficacy comes from not only the spoken word but also ruptured song. In the political context of the French Revolution, Sappho’s acts of speaking out exemplify the freedom of expression described in Article 11 of the 1789 Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen: “The free communication of thoughts and opinions is one of the most precious rights of man: thus every citizen may freely speak, write, and print, subject to accountability for abuse of this freedom in the cases determined by law.”5 The prominence of Sappho’s speaking voice, then, not only rearticulates the spoken play as the origin of French opera or reinscribes the conventions of opéra-comique, but also stakes out a woman’s fundamental rights to be heard in public.

The success of Sapho accentuated de Salm’s broader pursuit of women’s political rights in a political context inhospitable to women. Premiered at the Théâtre des amis de la patrie six months after the end of the Terror, Sapho was performed there a total of sixty-nine times, making it the ninth most performed work in Paris in 1795.6 Sapho was, according to L’Esprit des journaux, a “brilliant success.”7 The reception of Sapho reveals its cultural centrality. During the Revolution, public support was crucial to the survival of operas that lacked royal subsidies. Since theaters provided public venues for the staging of political repertories, which stimulated ideological debates in the parterre, the popularity of Sapho indicates its resonance with, and its contribution to, Revolutionary culture...


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