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Art, Cinema, History & Politics, Literature, Music, Theater & Dance

Dancing Divas

Bellini's "La Sonnambula" on Video in 1950s Italy

Friday, April 30, 2021
12:30 pm


Viva Voce
Lecture on Zoom
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by 11am on April 30

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Dancing Divas
La Sonnambula on Video in 1950s Italy

Emanuele Senici, University of Rome La Sapienza

Respondent: David Forgacs, NYU

1950s Italy was an extraordinarily fertile ground for opera on video. The first half of the decade saw the release of several films of repertory works, while in 1954 Italian state television began studio broadcasts of up to a dozen operas a year. Television also ventured into theaters for live relays: the first time it “conquered the bastion” of La Scala – to echo the media discourse on the event – was in May 1955 for a new production of La sonnambula staged by Luchino Visconti, conducted by Leonard Bernstein and starring Maria Callas. Significantly, La sonnambula was also one of the very few operas to have been both filmed (in 1952, featuring Paola Bertini in the title role) and broadcast from TV studios (in 1956, with Anna Moffo). These three Sonnambulas, differently re-mediated, together afford a prime opportunity to observe opera on video from a perspective both historical and comparative – still an unusual conjunction for this kind of study.

Moving from recent work concerning opera on film and television, this talk focuses on a particular issue of re-mediation: the widely different ways in which these videos acknowledge or disavow the theatrical origins of the opera. Most curious in this sense yet common to these three Sonnambulas is their significant interpolation of dances, often involving the primadonna. The talk will consider the function of new “dance numbers” within the dramaturgy of the videos to reveal them as both marks and means of the processes of re-mediation. Placing these numbers in the context of dance in Italian film and television of the 1950s will then facilitate exploration of their cultural resonances with other screen genres, particularly the television variety show. This recontextualization will prompt wider reflections on the new kind of physical demands placed on singers, especially female singers, by the incorporation of dance, and, more broadly, on the social and cultural reconfiguration of their bodies promoted by the ever more widespread videoing of opera in the postwar period, both in Italy and beyond.

Emanuele Senici (PhD Cornell) is Professor of Musicology and Music History at the University of Rome La Sapienza. His research centres on Italian opera of the long 19th century, on the theory and historiography of opera, especially issues of genre and gender, and on opera on video. Among his publications are ‘La clemenza di Tito’ di Mozart: i primi trent’anni (1791-1821) (Brepols, 1997), The Cambridge Companion to Rossini (Cambridge University Press, 2004, as editor), Landscape and Gender in Italian Opera: The Alpine Virgin from Bellini to Puccini (Cambridge University Press, 2005), Giacomo Puccini and His World (Princeton University Press, 2016, co-edited with Arman Schwartz) and Music in the Present Tense: Rossini’s Italian Operas in Their Time (University of Chicago Press, 2019). Prior to joining La Sapienza, Professor Senici was University Lecturer in Music and then Reader in Musicology in the Oxford Faculty of Music as well as Fellow of St. Hugh’s College. Since 2009, he has been Visiting Professor in the Music Department of King’s College London; in 2006 he was Edward T. Cone Member in Music Studies at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study.

David Forgacs (MPhil Oxford, PhD Scuola Normale Superiore) is the Guido and Mariuccia Zerilli-Marimò Chair in Contemporary Italian Studies and Professor of Italian at NYU. A specialist of cultural history, media and politics in contemporary Italy, cinema and photography, he is the author of numerous books, including Italian Culture in the Industrial Era, 1880-1980: Cultural Industries, Politics and the Public (Manchester University Press, 1990), Mass Culture and Italian Society from Fascism to the Cold War (with Stephen Gundle, Indiana University Press, 2007), Italy’s Margins: Social Exclusion and Nation Formation since 1861 (Cambridge University Press, 2014), and, most recently, Messaggi di sangue. La violenza nella storia d’Italia (Laterza, 2021).


Organized by Prof. Eugenio Refini, Viva Voce is a series of events – conversations, talks, book discussions – that address the intersections of voice, performance and the mechanisms of reception. Featuring specialists from different fields, these interdisciplinary events aim to bridge across research, teaching, and public outreach. 

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