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

Domesticating the Tenth Muse

Myths of Female Voice and Enlightened Progress in 1790s Italy

April 8, 2021
3:30 pm

Viva Voce
Lecture on Zoom
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by 2pm on April 8

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Domesticating the Tenth Muse
Myths of Female Voice and Enlightened Progress in 1790s Italy

Jessica Gabriel Peritz (Yale University)

Respondent: Shane Butler (Johns Hopkins University)

Co-sponsored by Medieval and Renaissance Center at NYU

During Venice’s self-proclaimed “Year of Todi” (1790–91), operagoers claimed they could sense singer Luigia Todi’s moral virtues in the sounds of her “defective” voice. Casting vocal difficulties as indicative of inner feeling rather than poor training departed significantly from then-predominant aesthetics of operatic singing–yet Venetians declared that Todi’s suffocated, fragmented vocal timbre had taught them to be better citizens. This talk situates the puzzling Venetian reception of Todi’s singing at the intersection of two seemingly irreconciliable paradigms of female voice: as inflected by, at once, mythological narratives of sublime song and the Illuminismo ideology of domesticity. Following these intertwined threads through periodicals, treatises, novels, and opera, the talk argues for a new ontology of the prima donna voice, and considers how scripted remediations of voices entomb long-forgotten histories.

Jessica Gabriel Peritz is Assistant Professor in the Department of Music at Yale University. She is a cultural historian of music, literature, and philosophy in the long eighteenth century, with a particular focus on representations of bodies and politics in Italian opera. She has just finished writing her first book, entitled On the Subject of Voice, which traces the emergence in late eighteenth-century Italy of an ideological connection between voice and subjectivity. Drawing on a range of approaches and frameworks—including feminist theory, disability studies, anthropology, literary criticism, and historical musicology—the monograph argues that Italian attempts to rebrand the singing voice ultimately turned it into a discursive and practical tool for creating political subjects. Her work has been published in Cambridge Opera Journal, and is forthcoming in the Journal of the American Musicological Society. She is currently working on two new projects, one on the castrato as material culture, and another on Metastasio and colonialism. Her research has received numerous fellowships and awards from the American Musicological Society, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, and the Franke Institute for the Humanities at the University of Chicago, as well as the Rome Prize in Modern Italian Studies from the American Academy in Rome. She is currently a Junior Fellow at Yale’s Whitney Humanities Center.

Shane Butler (PhD Columbia University) is the Nancy H. and Robert E. Hall Professor in the Humanities and Professor of Classics at Johns Hopkins University; he is also the founder and director of JHU’s Classics Research Lab. A leading scholar in the field of reception studies, Professor Butler’s work focuses on the relationship between embodied experience and art, particularly literature. His most recent work regards the intersection of sexuality and aesthetics and includes a monograph in progress, The Passions of John Addington Symonds. His previous publications include the monographs The Hand of Cicero (2002), The Matter of the Page (2011), The Ancient Phonograph (2015) and edited volumes such as Synaesthesia and the Ancient Senses (2013, co-edited with Alex Purves), Deep Classics: Rethinking Classical Reception (2016), Sound and the Ancient Senses (2019, co-edited with Sarah Nooter).


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.