Hercules: Procreative Poetics and the Rise of the Opera Libretto
Katharina N. Piechocki is Associate Professor of Comparative Literature at Harvard University. She joined Harvard in July 2013, after completing a PhD in Comparative Literature at NYU (May 2013) and a Dr.Phil. in Romance Studies at the University of Vienna (January 2009). The author of Cartographic Humanism: The Making of Early Modern Europe (University of Chicago Press, 2019), she works in ten linguistic traditions—including Italian, French, Portuguese, German, and Polish—and publishes widely on early modern literature and culture. Her research focuses on interdisciplinary topics such as cartography, opera, theater, gender studies, and translation studies, and centers on canonical texts alongside not-yet-translated and/or less-studied authors.
This project studies the rise of Italian and French opera from the perspective of comparative literature and gender studies. Shifting from music to poetics and from the figure of Orpheus to Hercules, the libretto is here studied as a poetic laboratory which redirected sexual and gender politics across Europe at the time of the Peace of Westphalia (1648), even as it was shaped by rising absolutism. A powerful catalyst of ideological mobilization, a spectacular display of sovereign authority and, later, a celebration of civic life, opera grew out of a wealth of literary genres, art forms, and theoretical reflections on the blend of poetry and music, as it was, at the same time, informed by competing philosophical and scientific discourses—from Descartes to Spinoza, from Galen to Galileo, from Aristotle to Leeuwenhoek. Hercules reveals a new history of the origins of opera and dramatically redirects our understanding of the genre: by delving into the question of the sovereign’s fertility (and potential sterility), the use of Hercules in opera librettos is here shown to codify not the king’s body politic and the representation of absolutist power, but the king’s body natural and the anxiety about dynastic continuity and political stability. The term “procreative poetics” here esdescrib the novel bonds among literary, medical, political, and gender discourses which coalesced, with the figure of Hercules, into the poetics of early opera.