Opera girls in English discourse, 1750-1789

The term ‘opera girl’ is widely used by 18th-century sources to refer to figurantes or members of the ballet employed in the opera houses of Europe. A ubiquitous figure of 18th-century scandal, but also featuring in other literary genres, the opera girl is a curious individual who at once epitomizes opera’s perceived culture of sexual license, whilst remaining oddly aloof from the day-to-day realities of rehearsals and performances. This paper begins by considering how dance historians have traditionally regarded opera girls in their surveys of the period, and proposes a new approach to representation of opera girls in 18th-century English discourse. Specifically, this paper looks at the opera girl as a rhetorical device and explores the aspects of her characterisation which underpinned her association with sexual hedonism. Particular attention will be paid to the ways in which English authors deployed references to opera girls in order to inspire anti-French sentiment and sensationalize the conduct of the fashionable aristocracy. In the process, this paper also considers the consequences of the opera girl’s rhetorical functions for our understandings of English attitudes towards dancers, arguing that her typology actually discouraged perceptions of her relevance to Britain’s own operatic establishment.

Caitlyn Lehmann
Author affiliation
University of Melbourne