Sexually Subversive Singers: Policing Sex at the London Opera, 1724-36

The London Haymarket Theatre in the 1720s and 1730s was the physical site of performance of Italian opera, but it was also a cultural site where issues of British nationalism, class, and politics were articulated. The role of the castrato singer in eliciting and arousing British anxieties about male gender, masculinity, and sexuality has recently been well examined. Overlooked has been how discourse about the sexuality of female opera singers also exposed long-standing male anxieties about female sexuality, and the role of women in patriarchy. This paper examines a group of misogynistic verse epistles written to or about opera singers (Mrs. Robinson, Faustina, Cuzzoni, Mrs. Barbier, Farinelli). In these epistles, the singers are accused of a variety of deviant, sexually suspect practices (ranging from same-sex activities to sexual liaisons with castratos). The epistles draw on the literary background of Restoration satires on actresses, and Restoration misogynistic satires on women. The epistles are essentially expressions of male fear about the stability and maintenance of traditional patriarchy and women's traditional role in the sexual economy. The epistles do "cultural work" in attempting (by satire) to suppress deviant sexuality and simultaneously to re-assert male sexual prerogatives in a traditional patriarchy.

Thomas McGeary
Symposium Title: 
Gods, Men and Monsters – 2001
Author affiliation: 
Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, USA