The vocality of the dramatic soprano voice in Richard Strauss's Salome and Elektra

McHugh, E. R. (2018) The vocality of the dramatic soprano voice in Richard Strauss's Salome and Elektra. Doctoral thesis, Royal College of Music.


This thesis explores how voice, the body, and gender interact to characterise the eponymous leading roles in Richard Strauss’s Salome (1905) and Elektra (1909). Approaching the vocality of the two title characters from the perspective of a performer, I use vocal line as notated in the score as a basis for exploring constructions of women at the time these two operas were composed. Because these operas were created during the fin-de-siècle, they occupy a crucial transitional point between Romantic and Modern vocal writing, when, in contrast to the practices of the bel canto era, the singer was expected to demonstrate ever-greater fidelity to the notated score. Therefore, the voice is largely manipulated by another (the composer) to perform sounds that construct her identity, and hence, her gender. I expand upon this absolute to show how in these operas, gender performativity is manifested in the musical notation. The operatic soprano voice, when manipulated for certain effects, performs ‘conventional’ aspects of a female character’s gender (for example, its pitch range), but I argue it also has the ability to communicate something more visceral, something that transcends gender norms, and also language itself. Building on a wide range of analytical and critical discourses ranging from gender theory to vocal technique, my thesis explores how a soprano singer navigates the extreme vocality present in these two operas, and in the process articulates a range of constructions of identity of women in the fin-de-siècle. In analysing the vocal writing of these two works, it becomes apparent that gender dichotomies are effectively voided in passages within these seminal operas, which nevertheless comment directly on fin-de-siècle ‘femininity’ or ‘masculinity’. My research analyses vocal gestures from a technical standpoint and, in so doing, suggests that gender norms become obsolete at those crucial moments in which voice and body are pushed to physical and expressive limits.

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