Emily Wilbourne: May 1, 2014

The Recorded Voice In Seventeenth-Century Italy

Emily Wilbourne, Queens College, CUNY

Mid-century Venetian opera, typified by the works of Francesco Cavalli, demonstrated many of the structural conventions deemed representative of the commedia dell’arte tradition, including professional performers, a stable of recognizable character types, and a set of recurring dramatic tropes that were shuffled anew for each production. These lines of continuity, which tie together the staged worlds of the commedia dell’arte and opera, mark out a shared vocabulary of vocal expressivity within which sense accrued to non-semantic elements of delivery and enunciation—dialect words, accent, articulation, phrasing, tempo, intonation, etc. If the musical symptoms of such practice, such as melodic gestures and generic similarities, have been claimed as evidence for chronological influence, then within a broader theatrical context, the repetitions and iterations of seventeenth-century Italian opera describe an aural epistemology rooted in socio-cultural norms. Put bluntly: the formulaic musical gestures of the mid-century Venetian opera map affects into sound, using, as a model, the pre-existing sonic paradigms of the commedia dell’arte.

In this paper, Wilbourne considers several characters from Cavalli operas, beginning with the stutterer, Demo, from Il Giasone(1649), recently theorized in terms of disability studies by Andrew Oster. In this reading, I treat the repetitions and citations of these voices as a form of early modern recording technology, encoding and disseminating particular affective responses through the medium of sound. In their legibility as theatrically coherent discursive practice, the stereotyped connections of characters and sounds provides a means for modern listeners to recuperate the sonic materiality of early modern performance and the epistemological context in which sound made sense.


Emily Wilbourne is a musicologist specializing in theatrical music and sound in seventeenth-century Italy. Her work engages with questions of gender, performance and sexuality and with repertories of the commedia dell’arte and Italian opera; she is currently at work on a monograph entitled Seventeenth-Century Opera and the Legacy of the Commedia dell’arte. In 2008-9,Emily was an Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Music at Columbia University, and, more recently, her article, “Amor nello specchio (1622): Mirroring, Masturbation, and Same-Sex Love,” was awarded the 2011 Philip Brett Award of the LGBTQ Study Group of the American Musicological Society.


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