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Women in Opera in the 18th & 19th Centuries

The role of women in opera in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries reflected their roles in the society that produced this opera, as would be expected. The roles of both men an women in opera are, of course, heightened from what one would expect in real life and often even beyond what is found in drama, with the grand gesture and the even grander emotion expressed not just musically but in attitudes and behaviors. Catherine ClTment finds indeed that the attitudes expressed in the opera toward female characters extended to the female members of the audience:

Where were women in the structure of this edifice? In their place, of course. . . . Nothing comes along to disturb the social pyramid that makes the audience itself an ornament of the opera. Nothing will come later, in the nineteenth century when romantic opera flourished, to disturb the order reflected from audience to stage. In this order of human affections, women struggle, and from the moment these women leave their familiar and ornamental function, they are to end up punished--fallen, abandoned, or dead. (ClTment, 1988, pp. 6-7)

The role of women in society in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries presented women in a secondary position in society at a time when they were becoming more aware of that fact. The eighteenth century was a period in which a new kind of political radicalism emerged with the American Revolution and the French Revolution. In America, which served as a model for the French Revolution to a degree, certain principles developed in the seventeenth century were put in place. It had been assumed in the seventeenth century that societies could be made by human beings and that human beings could exert control over the natural world in their own interests, and many thinkers decided that progress was natural and inherent in human society once the restrictive elements of aristocratic rule and culture were swept away:


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