The Lover, the Beloved and the Insatiable Sorceress: Women in Early Opera (55+)

What kinds of characters appear in baroque operas? And what do these characters tell us about gender roles and relations in early modern Europe?

We’ll learn about three main archetypes in early opera: the passionate lover, the virtuous lady and the evil sorceress. Focusing on the recurrent themes of female constancy, chastity, jealousy and ambition, we’ll explore select works produced throughout Europe during the 17th and early 18th centuries. While examining representations of amorous suffering in these operas, we will look at the ways in which female characters are rewarded—or punished—at the end of each work, and the ways in which these staged dramas reflect early modern discourses of love, power and gender.

Please note that enrollment in this course is reserved for adults 55+.

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What will I learn?

Week 1: The Virtuous Nymph and the Passionate Lover

Focusing on the imbalance of power between the male lover and the female beloved, we will discuss the topics of female chastity and erotic love in Francesco Cavalli’s Gli amori di Apollo e di Dafne (Venice, 1640), and Sebastián Durón and Juan de Navas’s Apolo y Dafne (Madrid, 1700).

Week 2: The Naughty Ladies

In this class, we will explore the themes of female jealousy, male deceit, and same-sex desire in Francesco Cavalli’s La Calisto (Venice, 1650).

Week 3: Female Desire and Death

By examining two settings of the myth of Jupiter and Semele—one by Antonio de Literes (Madrid, 1718) and one by George F. Handel (London, 1744)—we will learn about the tragic fate of the nymph Semele, as well as the differences between Spanish and English/Italian theatrical conventions.

Week 4: The Lamenting Queen

One of the most frequently performed and recorded baroque operas, Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas (London, ca. 1688) will introduce us to the theme of love and duty, and to the world of witchcraft.

Week 5: Spells, Vengeance and Love

Jean-Baptiste Lully’s Armide (Paris, 1686) and George F. Handel’s Rinaldo (London, 1711) will open the doors to the realm of magic, sensual love, and female hatred and destruction.

Week 6: The Insatiable Sorceresses

In this class, we will learn about female rivalry as we encounter two powerful and somewhat capricious sorceresses: Circe in Sebastián Durón’s Veneno es de amor la envidia (Madrid, 1711) and Alcina in George F. Handel’s Alcina (London, 1738).

How will I learn?

  • Lectures
  • Discussion (may vary from class to class)
  • Papers (applicable only to certificate students)

How will I be evaluated?

For certificate students only:

Your instructor will evaluate you based on an essay, which you will complete at the end of the course. You will receive a grade of “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory.”

Textbooks and learning materials

Reading material (if applicable) will be available in class. Some course materials may be available online.

If you're 55+, you may take this course as part of

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