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Opera, caricature and the unconscious: Massenet’s 'Thaïs', a case study

Rowden, Clair Sophie ORCID: 2009. Opera, caricature and the unconscious: Massenet’s 'Thaïs', a case study. Music in Art: International Journal for Music Iconography XXXIV (1-2) , pp. 274-289.

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When press censorship was abolished in France in 1881, Parisian newspapers saw an explosion of creative energy in the medium of caricature. Like politics and society scandals, theatrical premières became favourite fodder for caricaturists whose works can be read as a prism of contemporary reception and interpretation of Third-Republican art. The high-profile première of Jules Massenet’s opera Thaïs in 1894 presented an irresistibly rich event for the sharp pencils of French caricaturists. This article examines how, in the case of Thaïs, caricature carried out its various “tasks”, beit reflection of social and political practice, cultural mediation, or promotion of moral and aesthetic integrity. Drawing upon theories developed by the late-ninteenth-century school of neuro-psychology, it is demonstrated how caricature was used to highlight the so-called “degenerate” nature of the story of Thaïs, the principal characters, the moral standards of the singers and composer, and the composer’s music itself. Sibyl Sanderson, who sang the role of Thaïs was lampooned in particular, and the effects of Thaïs on her career are briefly examined. Caricatures which appeared in the wake of the première ranged from the traditionally drawn “portrait-charge” to the clean line-drawing cartoons of the avant-garde Caran d’Ache. They exploited a range of imagery and contemporary ideas and issues, from the perceived links between overt female sexuality, religious hysteria and hypnosis, to the recently invented Théâtrophone and contemporary Anarchist bombings. By incorporating methodologies from art and cultural historians, the contextual analysis of these caricatures elucidates not only the central role of opera in the cultural and political life of fin-de-siècle Paris, but also how ever-increasingly sophisticated means of constructing and deconstructing images in the late nineteenth-century proved to be vital not only to entertainment and amusement, but also to self-analysis and auto-censorship.

Item Type: Article
Date Type: Publication
Status: Published
Schools: Music
Subjects: M Music and Books on Music > M Music
Additional Information: Music, Body, and Stage: The Iconography of Music Music Theater and Opera - Selected papers presented at the tenth conference of the Research Center for Music Iconography and the twelfth conference of the Répertoire International d'Iconographie Musicale New York, 11–14 March 2008
Publisher: Research Center for Music Iconography (RCMI), City University of New York
ISSN: 1522-7464
Last Modified: 18 Oct 2022 14:18

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