In some descriptions from the first half of the nineteenth century, scientific categories are used syncretically to explain opera singers' talents, including their innate and acquired dispositions, and their effects on audiences. Phrenology sought to read on the surface of skulls the developments of cerebral zones that corresponded to various instincts, or to affective and intellectual faculties. According to the partisans of this “only true Science of the Human Mind,” one could thus explain any aspect of human activity and life. Franz Joseph Gall's followers applied these theories to music and musicians, which constituted one of their privileged fields of observation, still largely unexplored by historians and philosophers of science. The singer united the qualities of the musician and actor, and stimulated abundant illustrative material—biographical and anecdotal, portraits, busts, and prints. Phrenologists thus fueled specific discursive models of observation and enunciation among early-nineteenth-century operatic audiences, which reflected and nourished the media doxa. A series of French and English texts highlight the phrenological and physiological “conditions” necessary to become an opera singer, and the combinations suited to a particular type of music. These sources contributed to the processes of operatic creation and reception, and to the forging of new interpretations of singers' public images, as both exceptional artists and socially normalized individuals.
Phrenologizing Opera Singers: The Scientific “Proofs of Musical Genius”
Céline Frigau Manning is associate professor in Italian and Theatre Studies at Université Paris 8. A graduate of the École Normale Supérieure, she was a researcher at the Bibliothèque-musée de l'Opéra and resident scholar at the Villa Medici. She has published on opera singers' acting practices, including the monograph Chanteurs en scène. L'œil du spectateur au Théâtre-Italien, 1815–1848 (Paris: Champion, 2014) and is currently conducting research on the relationships between medicine and opera in the nineteenth century.
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Céline Frigau Manning; Phrenologizing Opera Singers: The Scientific “Proofs of Musical Genius”. 19th-Century Music 1 November 2015; 39 (2): 125–141. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/ncm.2015.39.2.125
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