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  • Writer's pictureTim Braithwaite

Gilbert Austin on the Acting of Opera Singers (1806):

‘...The union of all those talents, which we have mentioned, and their bearing thus upon a single point condensed into a focus, is a hopeless imagination; and therefore the opera will always rank below the dignity of tragedy.

The utmost that can be expected, is that the ear shall sometimes, at the opera, be delighted with fine music executed by fine singers, moderately skilled in the habits of acting, and accompanied by a fine band, with the addition, to delight the eye, of splendid dresses, dances, and decorations.

The poetry, the sublimest part of tragedy, merges in this apparatus, and ceases to be an object of regard. All interest in the progress of the action is lost on account of the difficulty of comprehending the dialogue delivered in recitative; which is not intelligible even to native Italians, being too often articulated badly, of which a celebrated critic complains.

To this we must add the carelessness and even clamour of the audience, which is not chargeable on the nature of the opera itself; but upon the frequent repetition of the same entertainment till all become weary of it, when afterwards the favourite airs of the favourite singers appear alone to arrest the attention. So that in an opera there appear only certain brilliant points by which the attention of the audience can be excited, all the rest seems as if calculated to induce conversation, or contrived in order to prolong the occasions of polite intercourse.’


Gilbert Austin, Chironomia; Or, a Treatise on Rhetorical Delivery (London: T. Cadell & W. Davies, 1806).

The image below is plate 3 of Gilbert Austin’s ‘Chironomia,’ showing the systematic realisation of the positions of the arms during the act of declamation.

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