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Patricia Alessi
PhD Student at The University of Western Australia
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Expressing the Emotions of Opera's First Bitches, Witches and Women in Britches'

This project aims to unpack early English opera character-type for the female singer by investigating the history of emotional expression in operatic performance from 1660 to 1737. This investigation will provide the first steps in helping today’s female singers re-connect to the emotive performance practices of their preceding early English female (operatic) performers.

Expressing the Emotions of Opera's First Bitches, Witches and Women in Britches'

Image: Portrait of Lady Derwentwater, by Michael Dahl. 1874. Private Collection.

This project investigates early English opera, focusing on its pioneering female performers who were introduced onto the public stage from 1660. While these female English opera singers may not always have been considered the ‘best’ voices of their day, they were, for the first time, portraying female roles with a voice uniquely feminine. Indeed, their voices were very different in vocal tone, breadth, range and sonority from their male vocal counterparts (and former interpreters of female roles). What is more, these women did more than sing; in fact, they learned a variety of skills to utilise on stage. In addition to singing, their expansive performance skills included acting, dancing, orating and reading – skill sets much broader than those required of today’s opera singers.

Focusing on the two celebrated artists Mary “Moll” Davis and Letitia Cross as case studies, this research delves into their ‘full’ artistic canons in order to piece together their performance careers. This investigation reveals the works they performed and the skills required to  perform them. Such a line of inquiry provides the background necessary to explore the crux of this research: the historical emotive performance practices these women knew and pioneered in their day.

As a modern-day opera singer who wishes to re-create their historical performances, the current author examines the emotions required to perform the roles of Davis and Cross on stage as well as the accompanying skills used to do so. The aim is to understand which emotions were portrayed in these early female roles and how they performed the emotions depicted by their characters. This work will deepen insight into the careers of Davis and Cross and, in particular, their artistic canon and performance style.

Publications

Alessi, P. (2015) ‘She Sings Shakespeare?: Interpreting the First Unknown Woman’s Public Performance as Othello’s Desdemona’ (Book Chapter) in Houlahan, Mark, O’Loughlin, Katrina and White, R.S., Eds., Shakespeare and Emotions: Inheritances, Enactments, Legacies (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015) for the Australian and New Zealand Shakespeare Association. To be published early 2015.

Alessi, P. (2014) ‘Dost thou know thy tongue’s true tune? Discovering early operatic repertoire for the modern mezzo-soprano’ in Smith, James and Seiler, Deborah, Guest Eds., Limina: A Journal of Historical and Cultural Studies 19(3): Receptions: Medieval and Early Modern Cultural Appropriations (Special Issue). Published March 2014.

Alessi, P. (2012) ‘Grief and Joy?  Yes, please!’: Critic’s Review of ‘Grief and Joy’: Emotions in the Music  of the 18th Century, performed by Perth Baroque and directed by Georg Corall, on Thursday 27 September 2012 at 7.30pm in The UWA School of Music’s Callaway Auditorium, published on The ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, Europe 1100-1800 website.

Alessi, P. (2013) 2012 Conference Report (II) in Phillips, John A., Newsletter of the Musicological Society of Australia – No. 74 (December 2012 – June 2013), The Musicological Society of Australia. Published June 2013.