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3 - Gender, Sexuality and the Consumption of Musical Culture in Eighteenth-Century London

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 May 2013

Helen Berry
Affiliation:
Newcastle University
Steve Hindle
Affiliation:
Foundation Director of Research at the Huntington Library, San Marino, California
Alexandra Shepard
Affiliation:
Reader in History, University of Glasgow
John Walter
Affiliation:
Professor of History, University of Essex
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Summary

The craze for Italian opera started in England in the early 1700s and it continued to be popular with many adaptations and local appropriations throughout the century. It presented the English with a dazzling new form of foreign entertainment. In the long term, opera in its various forms was to make a substantial contribution to the development of diverse social, cultural and economic activities within the burgeoning leisure sector in the metropolis and leading provincial towns throughout the British Isles. The stars of eighteenth-century opera were Italian castrati – male singers who had been castrated as boys to preserve their unbroken voices. Their arrival provoked the English into writing and sometimes publishing explicit commentaries on themes which were often otherwise unrecorded, particularly in relation to gender and sexuality. The English debated, for example, whether castrati were ‘real’ men. Though they had been associated with homosexuality in seventeenth-century Europe, and there were notorious examples of castrati who were the lovers of powerful men, in eighteenth-century England contemporary authors commented upon the appeal of castrati among female opera-goers. This was thought to derive as much from the promise of sexual pleasure without reproductive consequences that castrati appeared to offer as from their astonishing vocal skill. The castrato was also an extreme example of what the continental and ‘Popish’ fashion for Baroque art could produce, and shocked metropolitan consumers into reflecting upon whether the marketplace for entertainment (and, by extension, English society at large) had any moral limits in a rapidly changing world.

Type
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Remaking English Society
Social Relations and Social Change in Early Modern England
, pp. 65 - 88
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2013

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