Skip to main content

Sopranos, Italian Opera and the New Woman

In the early decades of the twentieth century, Italian sopranos played a vital role in the history of women’s emancipation.

Together with women writers, intellectuals, artists and actresses they defined the essential characteristics of the New Woman. While recent work on nineteenth-century female opera singers has focused on French, German and Anglo-American singers, Italian sopranos and Italian opera have received much less attention, especially from the perspective of feminist studies. This is a strange omission, given the centrality of Italian works in the operatic canon.

A picture of an Opera singer holding a gun leaning on a table.
Credit: Giuseppe Zanotti Fregonara.

Female agency

With the support of an Early Career Fellowship from the Leverhulme Trust, Dr Barbara Gentili is exploring how sopranos constructed new models of female agency in the decades around 1900. The singers she considers were also active entrepreneurs in the cultural life of liberal Italy before the advent of Fascism, which makes them particularly illuminating.

Emma Carelli was for over fourteen years the impresario of Rome’s Opera House (1912-1926), while Eugenia Burzio became the editor of the theatre periodical Comoedia after retiring from the stage. Through Carelli’s and Burzio’s international singing careers and encounters, the feminist traditions of different countries are interwoven into a cohesive narrative.

Moreover, the links of these two celebrated sopranos with other eminent female protagonists of the period from other fields (and their perspectives on a new idea of female identity) enlarge the scope of the project.

An interdisciplinary approach

The approach to these topics is inevitably transnational and inter-disciplinary, encompassing music historiography, cultural and political history, gender studies, and Italian studies.

Dr Gentili also traces the interaction between Italian, European, South-American and Anglo-American feminisms via the migration of the new performance style beyond Italy, through Burzio’s and Carelli’s seasons in the well-established international circuit of Italian opera. This will show how sopranos of different nationalities learnt from Burzio and Carelli to create their own hybridised styles in the same roles.


The project will result in a monograph with the working title The ‘Modern’ Soprano: Performing the Donna Nova in Early Twentieth-Century Italy.

  • On the topic of the ‘modern’ soprano, Dr Barbara Gentili has contributed a chapter to The Routledge Companion to Autoethnography and Self-Reflexivity in Music Studies, edited by Christopher Wiley and Peter Gouzouasis (Routledge, forthcoming 2021).
  • On the soprano as a model of ‘modern’ vocality, Dr Gentili has published the article ‘Changing Aesthetics of Vocal Registration in the Age of Verismo’, Music & Letters (published online 13 December 2020).