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Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

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Volume 20 (2014) No. 1

Published 2017

Männer als Ammen—Frauen als Liebhaber: Cross-gender Casting in der Oper 1600–1800. By Kordula Knaus. Beihefte zum Archiv für Musikwissenschaft 69. Stuttgart: Franz-Steiner-Verlag, 2011. [261 pp. ISBN 978-3-515-09908-0. €50.]

Reviewed by Hendrik Schulze*

1. Introduction

2. Gender Stereotypes and Social Class

3. Conclusion

1. Introduction

1.1 To open this review with a cliché: the issue of “cross-gender casting” in Baroque and Classical opera is a very complex one indeed. On the material side, there are (according to Kordula Knaus’s own identification) the phenomena of the old nurse in seventeenth-century opera, the old nurse in eighteenth-century opera, female singers singing male hero roles in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, castratos in Rome and elsewhere cast in female roles, female singers as innamorati and as serious male characters in opera buffa, and (of course) breeches parts; all are very diverse, and, in many cases, unrelated manifestations of the concept of cross-gender casting. On the ideological side, the issue is even more complex, not to say murky; questions of gender, sex, and sexuality in contemporary contexts must be addressed along with concepts of embodiment, theatricality, social hierarchy, and moral, religious, and political judgments. Finally, there is the matter of practicality, which may play a greater part in this topic than we usually acknowledge. To study this conglomerate of more-or-less related phenomena and issues, one must consider a staggering number of different sources, which—again—are bound to be difficult to interpret, often seemingly unrelated, and very challenging to judge.

1.2 Given these premises, it is not surprising that hitherto no comprehensive scholarly study of cross-gender casting has been published. Kordula Knaus is to be congratulated on having undertaken the task of writing such a thorough history of the entire phenomenon during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Her contribution promises to become the standard point of departure for any future research on this topic and a valuable read for anybody interested in opera of the time.

1.3 Two factors contribute especially to this book’s usefulness: the systematic approach taken by the author, and the extensive, careful, and detailed review of all relevant secondary literature, not only German but also in English and Italian. It is precisely this last factor that makes Männer als Ammen–Frauen als Liebhaber an ideal point of departure for any research on the topic. On each and every issue, Knaus cites and comments on a wealth of secondary literature, and the breadth and precision of her footnotes make it easy for the reader to follow the discussion.

1.4 Knaus’s highly systematic approach is apparent in the table of contents. The introduction provides an extensive overview of the relevant literature and methodology, while the first and final chapters contain historical background and the author’s theories. Each of the eight relatively short middle chapters is dedicated to a single, precisely defined phenomenon: the old nurse in seventeenth-century opera, female singers singing male hero roles in the late seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries, role stereotypes in eighteenth-century opera seria, castratos in Rome in female roles, female singers as innamorati in opera buffa, the old nurse in eighteenth-century opera, female singers as serious male characters in opera buffa, and breeches parts. These chapters all adhere to a fairly standard form: a factual overview is often paired with statistical analysis, followed by one or more case studies accompanied by both textual and musical analysis. Knaus concludes each chapter by stating her results and developing her theories regarding the issue at hand.

2. Gender Stereotypes and Social Class

2.1 Given the complexity of the issues surrounding this topic, as well as the wide time frame this book covers, one might not necessarily expect to have an entire set of unified theories as the outcome of the study. Knaus, however, manages to focus her discussion on one major thesis that is corroborated by all her case studies, drawn from 200 years of opera history: she argues quite convincingly that, whether in the case of male tenors singing old nurses or female sopranos singing certain heroic figures in eighteenth-century opera seria or opera buffa, cross-gender casting relies on notions of social class at least as much, if not more, as on those of gender. In this context, she discusses concepts of verisimilitude, without ever explicitly mentioning the term, and she concludes that the actual masculinity or femininity of the performer in question is of little importance as long as he or she depicts or embodies the masculinity or femininity (or lack thereof) of the character portrayed, according to stereotypical characteristics. It is precisely at this point where the aspect of social class comes in, for these gender stereotypes are also class stereotypes; what defines masculinity or femininity for a member of the nobility is very different from what characterizes it for a member of a lower class. In this context Knaus makes the observation that the casting of male singers (among whom she counts the castratos) as female characters occurred mostly in lower-class social settings (except where Church laws dictated the use of castratos for female parts), whereas female singers being cast as male characters occurred mostly for upper-class contexts. In a Neapolitan comic opera, for example, two male singers might play a lower-class couple, whereas two females might portray an upper-class couple in the same opera.

2.2 Statistical analysis corroborates this discovery. While Knaus does not find many instances of castratos specializing in female roles in Roman opera, elsewhere there is a higher degree of specialization among male singers cast in female roles and among female singers cast in male roles. As her musical analysis does not show much difference between music written for male and female characters beyond that inspired by an individual role or a particular singer, these specializations speak to the singers’ abilities to depict perceived gender or social characteristics well. While some of these characteristics were certainly physical in nature, such as build and facial features (Knaus cites for instance several contemporaries commenting on a particular female singer being not tall enough to be convincing in male roles), the singer’s acting abilities were certainly a factor; however, the lack of suitable source material makes it difficult to reach a definitive conclusion on this issue.

2.3 In contrast, the aspect of sexuality does not seem to be of equal importance, or, one might say, it does not feature prominently in Knaus’s discussion. She does mention how female singers were able to display their legs when cast in “short skirt” male roles and very briefly mentions instances where confusion within the drama caused by cross-dressing results in de facto homoerotic attraction for one of the characters. Her examples, however, almost exclusively cite female characters dressed up as males in these situations; the most striking exception is Metastasio’s libretto Achille in Sciro, where the main male character is disguised as a woman throughout most of the action. Interestingly, according to Knaus’s own statistic, among all Metastasio librettos Achille is the only primo uomo role that was equally likely to be cast with a female singer or a castrato. While, as Knaus asserts, practical considerations may have played a role in this casting (the libretto lacks a seconda donna but has three male castrato roles), the homoerotic attraction that Teagene experiences for the disguised Achille might have also influenced the casting; placing a female singer in the latter role might have been a strategy to avoid too obvious a depiction of homosexuality in a serious, i.e., noble character.

3. Conclusion

3.1 It would be easy to criticize Männer als Ammen—Frauen als Liebhaber for its omission of numerous details, or even for its simplification of certain aspects (such as gender stereotypes or the issue of sexuality in contemporary society), something from which any comprehensive study is likely to suffer. However, as Knaus herself states, it would be impossible for such a book to be all-encompassing, and any criticism on that level would be quite unfair. As an overview of cross-gender casting and the relevant secondary literature, the study is quite effective.

3.2 I do, however, have some criticism of a more methodological nature, mainly regarding two elements of the book. Firstly, as thorough as Knaus’s use of secondary literature is, the study suffers from a lack of primary research: she addresses primary sources mainly through the lens of secondary sources. Moreover, case studies have been taken to a large extent from what is readily available either in modern edition or in facsimile. This applies to librettos, scores, and textual sources alike. As a result, certain stereotypes of cross-gender casting are presented with a somewhat skewed perspective. For example, the selected instances of the “old nurse” character in seventeenth-century Venetian opera suggest the role type to be more homomorphous than is actually the case. This, in turn, leads the reader to wonder if, for instance, those arias chosen for musical analysis are indeed typical for the kind of phenomenon they are intended to represent.

3.3 My second criticism concerns the musical analysis. The choice of musical examples appears arbitrary at times, and the scope of the analysis is also quite narrow, covering only certain facets of melodic construction and the use of embellishments. A more thorough and systematic discussion of ambitus, phrase length, and other musical characteristics that composers may have used to depict gender, such as harmonic progression, use of instrumental phrases or bass models, or even musical form, could have led to more substantial findings concerning the music.

3.4 These criticisms notwithstanding, Männer als Ammen—Frauen als Liebhaber is a useful and comprehensive study of cross-gender casting in Baroque opera. It is written in a reasonably uncomplicated German with relatively short sentences, and Knaus uses idiomatic terminology (before reading, non-native speakers of German may want to reacquaint themselves with the use of passive voice). Männer als Ammen—Frauen als Liebhaber is a book that should inspire plenty of new research on the topic, and it will prove helpful and interesting to all scholars of opera.


*Hendrik Schulze (Hendrik.Schulze@unt.edu) is Associate Professor of Music History at the University of North Texas. In the past, he has held positions at the universities of Salzburg and Heidelberg, as well as at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He is the author of two books, Odysseus in Venedig (2004) on choice of subject and character depiction in seventeenth-century Venetian opera, and Französischer Tanz und Tanzmusik in Europa zur Zeit Ludwigs XIV. (2012) on the meanings ascribed to French Baroque dance and dance music throughout Europe during the age of Louis XIV. He has published numerous articles on issues of Italian Baroque opera and instrumental music as well as on French Baroque dance. Together with students from the University of North Texas, he has edited Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 which was published by Bärenreiter in 2013; an edition of Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea, again prepared together with students from UNT, is forthcoming from the same publisher. With his wife Sara Elisa Stangalino he edited Cavalli’s opera Artemisia for Bärenreiter (published in 2013) and is currently preparing an edition of Cavalli’s Xerse, scheduled to appear in 2017. His book project on Aristotelianism in Venetian Opera is in progress.

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