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Dr Barbara Gentili

Surrey Future Senior Fellow

Academic and research departments

Department of Music and Media.



Research interests




Barbara Gentili (2024) 'A Project of Her Own: Emma Carelli's Enactment of Femininity in Early Twentieth-Century Italy' Cambridge Opera Journal, Open Access, DOI: 

Barbara Gentili (2022) Vocal Virtuosity: The Origins of the Coloratura Soprano in Nineteenth-Century Opera. By Sean M Parr. Oxford University Press, 2021.

Vocal Virtuosity offers an intriguing and thought-provoking narrative about the nineteenth-century evolution of a specialized voice type: the coloratura soprano. Singing with ‘nonchalance’ demanding melismatic passages at stratospheric heights, while being supremely expressive, was the achievement of some extraordinary prima donnas in mid- to late nineteenth-century France. They gave coloratura many new, then-modern qualities connected to an exuberant female sexuality, the dancing body, technological advancements of the Second Empire, super-human control akin to instrumental virtuosity, ‘real’ and staged madness, and mechanistic perfection. Parr starts off by closely questioning a well-worn trope in the history of singing—the shift away from mid-nineteenth-century melismatic, agile singing to a more sustained, loud vocalism. Weaving together a wealth of historical sources, detailed musical and textual analyses, and his own experience as a singer, Sean Parr demonstrates not only the continuing presence of florid singing, or ‘coloratura’ during the century, but also its increasingly specialized relevance to its contemporary audiences. By becoming ‘feminine’, coloratura empowered women, becoming inextricably linked to issues of female authorship, cultural advocacy, agency, and representation. The book thus contributes in important ways to both a performance-centred historical musicology and feminist musicology, reclaiming a space for coloratura sopranos in the history of opera.

Barbara Gentili (2021) The Changing Aesthetics of Vocal Registration in the Age of ‘Verismo’, Music and Letters 102, pp. 54-97

The idea that classical singers should join the notes of the vocal line by maintaining a consistent vocal colour is a relatively recent historical construct. In the last decades of the nineteenth century, singers in the Italian tradition were loyal to a very different vocal aesthetic, which valued the distinct differences in timbre between different vocal registers, as this article shows through a comparative analysis of pedagogical writing and pre-1925 recordings. The latter reveal that, in the early twentieth century, old and new techniques for uniting the vocal registers coexisted, and reflected an aesthetic transition towards a more gendered quality of the operatic voice. This process was intertwined with profound transformations in Italian operatic culture. The demands of a new realistic idiom known as verismo required a new type of vocalism, which prompted singers to re-conceive the ‘art of vocal registration’.

Barbara Gentili (2021) The Birth of ‘Modern’ Vocalism: The Paradigmatic Case of Enrico Caruso, Journal of the Royal Musical Association 146, pp. 425 - 53

In the decades spanning the turn of the twentieth century Italian opera singing underwent a profound transformation and became ‘modern’. I explore the formative elements of this modernity and its long-term effects on the way we sing today through the paradigmatic case of the tenor Enrico Caruso. I frame Caruso’s vocal evolution within the rise of verismo opera, comparing selected recordings, reviews and the rules and aesthetic prescriptions contained in vocal treatises to show how his new vocalism differed from that of the old bel canto. To set Caruso’s achievement in context I also analyse recordings of two other tenors of the era: Giovanni Zenatello and Alessandro Bonci.

Barbara Gentili (2017) 'Early Recordings, Audiences and Celebrities' in Listening to Music: people, practices and experiences, edited Helen Barlow and David Rowland (The Open University, 2017)

Early recordings from the pre-electrical era have something magical and unique about them: they preserve the fresh impression of live performances, unmediated by the adjustments of technology. The singers’ lack of any previous experience in what recording a disc of a cylinder consisted of explains why they failed to appreciate the profound differences between singing on stage and singing in front of a phonograph.

Emma Calvé could not be convinced that stamping her feet while recording Carmen’s Seguedilla was pointless for the listener, who was unable to see her acting. The negotiations which often preceded great singers’ involvement with the recording industry were exhausting, such as in the case of Nellie Melba. In particular, Melba’s reluctance to release her recorded material, and her skepticism regarding the ability of the early reproduction process to capture the quality of her voice, show how traumatic the advent of recording was for some interpreters of those days.

From the exclusive perspective of the Italian operatic tradition, I will focus on the reactions of singers and audiences to the advent of recorded sound, and its revolutionary impact on the personal experience of listening to music.

Barbara Gentili (2016) 'The Elaboration of Highly Characterised Vocal-Types in the Context of Building a National Identity in Late Nineteenth-Century Italian Opera' in The Proceedings Book - Musicult '16, edited by Burcin Ercan (Bilsas, 2016)