Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


This dissertation explores the non-disjunction between eighteenth-century discourses on the early opera and the castrato and nineteenth-century discourses on the prima donna. Early opera was predicated on a series of fissures, particularly those between ideal and popular art, between a transcendent voice and a mutilated body, and between the supernatural and the unnatural. Officially, these fissures served to demarcate oppositions, but opera, from its inception, was drawn to transgression, and the fissures were crossed and recrossed, alternately endowing the castrato with transcendence and abjection. Paradoxically, then, one of the pivotal concepts in the construction of the castrato is the immanence of excess in a reputed figure of lack: boundaries are made to be transgressed; and pleasure doubles as danger.;The first section of the dissertation examines a selection of conflicted discourses on the castrato's voice, body, and sexuality--as well as the traces these discourses leave in literary constructions of the prima donna. Historically, the eclipse of the castrato by the prima donna at the start of the nineteenth century appeared decisive, but--as several Victorian texts published between 1842 and 1894 evince--both desires for and fears about him continued to haunt constructions of the opera. Residual traces of him remained in the operatic roles he created; in the tensive model of the opera, which is poised on fissures it repeatedly crosses; in the discourses on the (anarchistic) voice; in the public's fear of the monstrous; and in nineteenth-century anxiety about or relish of the prima donna's potential for excess.;Chapters two and three, which respectively study George Eliot's Daniel Deronda and Armgart, consider the relationship between the prima donna and realistic fiction. Here her "monstrosity" and excess (Daniel Deronda) or her repetition of the castrato's power struggles and operatic roles (Armgart) are kept in check by cautious (socio-historical) discourses. But in Edward Bulwer Lytton's Zanoni and in George du Maurier's Trilby, respectively examined in chapters four and five, the prima donna is aligned at least partially with the supernatural, and her siren powers destabilize the social realm and rational semantics.



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