‘A monster, nay the monster of monsters’: Italian Singing and Italian Singers on the 18th-Century London Stage

This paper focuses on the antagonistic ways in which 18th-century Britons perceived the importation of Italian opera on English soil as well as the musical and aesthetic principles governing that art form. Whereas the public was largely enthusiastic about that type of entertainment and its singers, the critics were adamant that they were completely at odds with the moral and artistic standards of the nation. The beautiful embodied by the Italian singers and their art was often subverted by their enemies and changed into the monstrous in their satirical writings. The critics inverted the commonplace images of the siren or Orpheus, which were used again and again in the panegyric verses dedicated to the divas and the castratos. Another device consisted in dehumanising the singers and reducing their voices to animal sounds. More generally, Italian songs were charged with enthralling, corrupting and ruining those who were too fond of hearing them. The Italian bel canto was even assimilated to diabolical witchcraft, as is the case in a little known pamphlet of 1777, from which the title of the paper is borrowed.

Xavier Cervantes
Symposium Title: 
Gods, Men and Monsters – 2001
Author affiliation: 
Department of English, University of Toulouse, France