STM-Online
STM-Online vol. 8 (2005)
Johanna Ethnersson

Opera Seria and Musical Representation of Gender

Abstract

Johanna Ethnersson

How can music be said to represent contemporary ideas about gender during the first half of the eighteenth century? This article is an investigation of musical representation of the main characters in George Frideric Handel’s opera seria Giulio Cesare (1724) from the viewpoint of a historical interpretation of gender. Indeed, music was an important means to reflect contemporary ideas of male and female.

Cesare and Cleopatra are two noble characters in the opera. Handel uses different affects for each of them due to their different status and, indirectly, to their different genders. Handel also differentiates between the two characters when using the same musical affect. Cesare is a hero and is portrayed as a heroic character using the customary constellation of affects and a musical representation. Cleopatra, on the contrary, is more complex. Her femininity is expressed in three character types: the thoughtless woman, the loving seductress, and the lamenting victim. Handel goes further, allowing Cleopatra to dress up as a heroic, triumphant character, mirroring the character of Cesare himself. This is reflected in the music too, but Handel combines the heroic style with motifs and affects associated with Cleopatra as a feminine character. Traditionally the leading male characters have a conventional pattern and framework of ceremonial rhetoric through which to express their heroism. As a woman Cleopatra is free from these conventions and although she is a main character she could never become a heroic hero. Handel exploits this contradiction musically, giving her a broader palette of affects and wider musical representation than to a conventional male hero.

©Johanna Ethnersson, 2005

STM-Online vol. 8 (2005)
http://musikforskning.se/stmonline/vol_8

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ISSN: 1403-5715