On the Heroic Tenor and National Identity


I don’t want to seem like I’m missing the point, but I’m deeply fascinated in how Abbate and Parker configure masculinity between German and Italian culture, both of which seem eager to distinguish themselves from one-another. I’d like to outline the attributes of gothic as an adjective, how those attributes bear contradictions with gothic architecture, and finally, how such contradictions could be mapped back onto changing conceptions of gender in Donizetti’s operas.

Goth manages to connect nomads from the middle ages, to counterculture teens with excessive eyeliner. But how did that come about? To be reductive, the Goths lost a culture war. Goths were nomadic germanic peoples whose family tree included the Visigoths. These Visigoths conquered Rome and Spain in the fourth century, and their victory is seen as marking the start of the Middle Ages.

Opera came up in Italy with the renaissance, which was a boon culturally, philosophically, and economically. The renaissance also marked major cultural shifts away from the preceding Middle Ages. The old way of doing things was condemned as dark, crude, outdated, unfashionable, which soon became synonymous with Germanic peoples by way of these Visigoths. As early operas were emerging in the 15th century, Martin Luther, and Johannes Gütenberg were committing another cultural revolution: Protestantism and the printed word. Protestantism attempted de-centered religious, cultural, and political power from the Vatican in Italy. In fact, Güttenberg’s first printings were bibles set in “Fraktur” blackletter, a distinctly German letterform which was largely condemned in Italy for being too ‘dark,’ not humanist, and not rational enough. Blackletter is a masculine form; its primary characteristic is how it overpowers the white spaces with its presence on the page. These letterforms also dominated medieval manuscripts as a consequence of germanic influence, and its reaffirmation was seen as regressive. The newly popularized “latin” letters Italians used were soon after called italics

Another key shift is a philosophical one, which attempts to find harmony with rational geometry, nature, G-d, and humankind; all of these were foundational to the developing humanist cause. As theorists started to speculate on the ‘essential’ nature of everything, gender and cultural identity were solidified. Androgenous beauty which was lionized in the Renaissance inversely declined as the public embraced essentialized identities.

These formulations continued, and metamorphosed under so-called secularizing sciences in the 18th and 19th centuries. It’s between these soft power conflicts we find Donizetti. Both Italians and Germans carried essentialized caricatures of each other wherever they went. In describing Heinrich Heine, Abbate and Parker wrote the following in their History of Opera:

“The self-proclaimed ‘young German,’ makes it clear that Italians are not, in the end, to be treated entirely seriously; and the love of opera is a symptom of their condition.  … natural, sunny, laughing Italians are different from dark, serious masculine practitioners of German art… (239)”

Even the “young German” embraces this dark and serious identity, but with one difference: “masculine.” By contrast the “sunny” Italian must be effeminate. Heine also links disposition to climate, potentially racializing to the tanned skin of the “sunny” Italians from the Germans, whose place of origin is North, colder, and darker. It’s not just the Germans who held this impression; the English art critic John Ruskin wrote the following in 1849:*

“And when that fallen Roman, in the utmost impotence of his luxury, and insolence of his guilt, became the model for the imitation of civilized Europe, at the close of the so-called Dark ages, the word Gothic became a term of unmitigated contempt, not unmixed with aversion.”

His “impotence of luxury” assessment of the Roman suggests a line of continuity between the defeated Roman, and the finer things developed during the Italian Renaissance. Making the gothic synonymous with the masculine, would therefore place the conquered Roman as its feminized counterpart. Ruskin and Heine both connect masculinity to plainness, and by default relegate the feminine to the ornamental. Such back and forth – from androgeny to the neoclassical ideal nudes, from the ornamental to the plain – also find resonances with movements in opera and architecture.  This othering is the same way by which the Italians condemned the Goths as crude, uncivilized, dark, and brooding. On this topic Ruskin also wrote:

“I believe, then, that the characteristic or moral elements of Gothic [architecture] are the following, placed in the order of their importance: 1. Savageness 2. Changefulness 3· Naturalism 4· Grotesqueness 5· Rigidity 6. Redundance.”

Yet the discussions on the structures built by these “grotesques” are subject to the same level of contradictory reading. Discussions of gothic architecture inevitably center on churches, which are summarised by the ‘height and light’ shorthand; these spaces emphasize the vertical, are often provided shape through rib vaults, and structurally supported by flying buttresses. Their façades are impressively intricate, and imposing, while the structures themselves are built of heavy stone.

I can’t escape that these formulations are semantic, and that these semantics are tethered to physical objects and bodies. From a material standpoint, objects which are light in weight make different acoustic sounds: the clear ‘ding,’ versus the ‘thud’ of a heavy object. An object’s physicality configures it both in acoustic terms, and in weight, which is then transferred to the emotional or physiological reactions to “heavy” or “dark” mental material. The translation between the physical and the psychic is semantic, object-hood to subject-hood, where the antonym of “light” is “dark,” and synonyms for each word are used interchangeably to oppose each other. Similarly, the relationship between the “gothic” architectural style and the visigoths themselves stands on shaky ground:

From this standpoint, the central internal/external framework of gothic architecture is flattened in how Italians and others describe the “gothic.” They who were so concerned with rationalism and humanism needed to see these structures as deformed, crude, and stern in order to dismiss the height and light in them.

How does this relate to the Donizetti’s new heroic tenor? Let’s start by saying that any internally coherent formulation of masculinity falls apart almost instantly. While the shifts were two-fold, the first focused on power in pitch:

“But the musical context and markings in the score make clear that Donizetti intended many of these high notes to be declaimed forcefully rather than floated in a falsetto-tinged voice... Both these new male voices [baritone and tenor] had one aspect in common:

they sacrificed flexibility for sheer power.”

Flexibility is what allows for these singers to add their stylistic ornamentations; without it, these new roles became chained to plainness and forcefulness in delivery. Prior to Donizetti, the Baritone had served as the antagonist, the patriarch, and he sang … with a florid vocal style? It was only after Donizetti that intricacy was relegated to a “feminine” status. It’s reminiscent of the paradox of the castrato, whose libidinal rock-star status was at odds with his removed genitals. The coveted man had a high voice. Abbate and Parker continued:

“… Duprez's 'manly accents' were de rigueur; real men no longer trilled or sketched roulades, they sang the words plainly, so the words could be understood; and as a default they sang them loud. Gender difference, long ignored or deliberately confused on the operatic stage, had arrived with a vengeance.”

The naturalization of gender, and of essentialization of identity weave through political and national projects. Donizetti’s realignment challenged many of the qualities associated with Italian operatic culture; this vocal change garnered descriptions which placed it more in the “dark” germanic tradition than the Italian one.

“… vocally florid music became feminized, akin to the corsetry and crinoline that now surrounded, constricted and adorned the female body… This is not to say that their actual costumes changed much- in sartorial terms males on stage still remained largely wedded to tights and jerkins, often accessorized with - for us - an alarming quantity of paste jewellery.”

The new Italian heroic tenor mimicked the gothic architectural model: in his cavernous interiority, to his forceful highness in pitch, and a heavy, ornamental exterior. Donizetti’s bel canto style necessitated seemingly endless supplies of air, emanating from the inflating, masculine chest. While such support is similarly needed in the women singers, opera’s ubiquitous corsetry reflects the cultural desire for small, feminized torsos. The masculinized power in chest size mirrored the brute force of the heroic tenor’s vocal performance. Yet both the cavernous, and the corsetry mesh in gothic architecture, whose dramatic vertical spaces are only possible through the intricate rib vaults which act as corsetry.

It’s quite slippery. The same word stands in for contradictory attributes. If germanic bodies were dark and masculine, then the structures they built in praise of ornamentation and light must be disqualified (for those qualities are feminized). The new heroic tenor sings full voiced a higher range of notes. To compensate, the audience must masculinize the plainness and force behind his breath. All of these rigid delineations must be undermined as trends oscillate between the ornamental and the simplified. For that, we are privileged to engage such a rich history of contradiction and finger-pointing. Donizetti’s style may have been too “germanic” in the minds of his audiences, but the moment we press down on these shorthands, they become mirrors facing each other.








* Ruskin, John. “The Nature of Gothic.” The Stones of Venice. United States, John B. Alden, 1885.