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Europe for its sublime inattention. They “sat (or roamed) in a continuously well-lit auditorium,” as one

commentator remarked, having come to the theater “to see itself as much as to see the show.” As Feldman reports (citing research by Kathleen Hansell), at San Bartolomeo in Naples, a particularly aristocratic house, “noise levels astonished diarists from abroad, nobility arrived with servants who cooked whole meals, talked, played [at cards], and relieved themselves in the antechambers that stood in back of each lavish box.”17 Even if we avoid judging such manners by contemporary standards of decorum, we are easily left bewildered. Never mind questions of mere etiquette. How is all of this evident anarchy on stage and in the hall to be reconciled with the nature of the dramas themselves, which (as we have observed in some detail) exalt a perfectly ordained, God-given, and rigidly

hierarchical social order?

The explanation for all these apparent contradictions lies partly in the social mixture alluded to above. The opera seria had a dual inheritance. Its subject matter descended from the courtly opera of old and shared its politics of submission and affirmation. The theaters were maintained in most cases by royalty, and the performances as occasions were embedded, as historians are at pains to point out, in the forms and hierarchies of absolutism. The theatrical schedule itself reflected this: performances, particularly galas, were held on royal birthdays and name days, as well as church holidays. The librettos were metaphorical embodiments of these occasions. This, so to speak, was Metastasio’s heritage.

Farinelli’s heritage, on the other hand, was that of the commercial opera theater, even if, at its height, the art of the castrato was by virtue of its sheer price primarily an aristocratic property and even, in its floridity and flamboyance, a virtual symbol of noble aggrandizement. (The word virtuoso, which became an international word exactly at this time as applied to singers, comes from the Italian word virtù, “virtue”; in modern Italian virtuosità still means

“virtuousness.”) The art of such a singer only began with the written notes. Many theatrical virtuosi did not read music well, if at all, and learned their arias by rote as a basis for personalized embellishment. Recitatives were often improvised outright, based on the harmonies the singers could overhear from the pit, and the words that they

overheard from the prompter’s box. In a more literal sense than we would ever guess today, only the libretti (or more narrowly yet, only the words of the recitatives) were fully fixed and “literate” in opera seria.

There is no comparable genre in classical music today. The modern counterpart of the opera seria castrato is the improvising jazz (“scat”) or pop singer. And the relationship such singers have with their audience is again sooner comparable to that between the opera seria audience and the castrato than that between any sort of contemporary

“classical” musician and the modern concert or opera audience. However inattentive during recitatives or “sherbet arias,” the audience sprang to attention when the primo uomo held forth, egging him on with applause and

spontaneous shouts of encouragement at each vocal feat. The singers, striking their attitudes front and center, had to work to capture their hearers’ attention. They had, quite literally, to seduce the noble boxholders, drawing them out from the backs of their boxes, because listening to the music was only one of the things the audience was there to do.

For nobles and urban professionals tended in those days to live their social lives outside of their houses, especially in the evenings. A box at the opera, rented for the season, was a virtual living space, and occupying it was a social ritual in which the musical performance was not the only component, or even necessarily the most important one,

especially as the season consisted of only a few works, each of which had a run of twenty or thirty performances. The audience, in perpetual attendance, “could hardly have been expected to take a close interest in the action after the first few performances,” as McClymonds notes.18 “And since the literate part of it knew Metastasio’s dramas virtually by heart,” she continues, “they could dip in and out at will, interrupting the flow of social intercourse to attend to the most affecting scenes or the favorite arias of the leading singers.”

In any case, as Feldman shrewdly observes, listening and reacting to the performance “was rarely prescribed.”19 The only occasions when you did have to behave and pay attention were those evenings when the king himself, the latent subject of the opera, was present, enacting his role of surrogate father (or “sire”). What could better attest to the nature of “patriarchy,” the social system that the opera seria preeminently reflected? At other times, listening to the opera was only one option that could be “selected from a heavy menu of social choices.”

The modern counterpart, again, is not any sort of classical musical performance, or indeed any musical performance.

Rather, it is the living room TV, which in many homes today hums in the background all evening and is only occasionally watched. It works as the symbol and embodiment of at-homeness, and so did the opera seria. For all their obstreperous behavior, indeed through their obstreperous behavior, the opera seria audience demonstrated their at-homeness with the genre and with the patriarchal social structure that it validated. It is about the crispest example the history of European music can furnish of an art invested with, and affirming, a social and political

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system—a system with which no one educated according to the principles of the Enlightenment (which is to say, just about anyone reading this book) could possibly sympathize today.

So once again the questions nag: How do we relate to the artistic products that bolstered an ugly patriarchal, absolutist politics in their time? Can they be detached from it? Can we vote for the art and reject the politics? It is the job of a book like this one to raise these questions, not answer them. In any case, though, it would be a feat of understatement to note that the social use to which opera is put has changed, and changed radically, since the days of Scarlatti or Metastasio. It would make little sense to expect its content or its manner of execution to have remained the same—or to think that the opera seria could be revived today, in today’s opera houses, for today’s audiences. (To begin with what you’d have to begin with, the return of the castrato voice would be about as likely or as feasible as the return of public hangings.) Sometimes, though, it is just those aspects of bygone art that are most bygone from which we can learn the most about ourselves and our present world, and the place of art within it. That is enough to justify the long and lingering, if not exactly loving, look we have just taken at what is perhaps the most irrevocably bygone genre in the history of European art music.


(15) Donald Jay Grout, “On Historical Authenticity in the Performance of Old Music,” in Essays on Music in Honor of Archibald Thompson Davison (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1957), p. 343.

(16) Angus Heriot, The Castrati in Opera (London: Secker and Warburg, 1956), pp. 144–45.

(17) Feldman, “Magic Mirrors and the Seria Stage,” p. 480.

(18) New Grove Dictionary of Opera, Vol. III, p. 700.

(19) Feldman, “Magic Mirrors and the Seria Stage,” p. 444.

Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 4 Class and Classicism." The Oxford History of Western Music.

Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 27 Jan. 2011. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com /view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-04008.xml>.

Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 4 Class and Classicism. In Oxford University Press, Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries. New York, USA. Retrieved 27 Jan. 2011, from


Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 4 Class and Classicism." In Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 27 Jan. 2011, from


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