I’ll Be a Viper: Postmodern Perspectives and “Una Voce Poco Fa” from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville

In which a great deal of extra-ness occurs across many periods of history.


To my dear reader,

As those of you that follow me on Instagram know (and if you don’t follow me, you should, so you can see killer pictures of things like accidental close-ups of my flared nostrils), I’m currently engaged in a music research project. Given the fact that I’m doing this purely for my own edification, the topic and goal are nebulous, but are taking the shape of a comparison of contemporary literary techniques and contemporary music composition. As such, the first book I picked up for the project was Postmodern Music, Postmodern Thought, a collection of essays edited by Judy Lochhead and Joseph Auner.


I know. I’m the most extra. Let’s not talk about it.

Anyway, the essays in the book examined the intersection between contemporary music, postmodernism, and other social forces, including feminism, industrialism, and globalism. Authors throughout grappled with the definition of “postmodernism,” debating its arguably dependent relationship with modernism, and what characteristics differentiate them. Of the many interesting viewpoints offered, however, the one that struck me most was that of postmodernism not as a recent (or current) phenomenon, but rather as an attitude towards the current culture (particularly among the elite) that has appeared many times throughout history. What this in turn reminded me of was Classical composer Gioachino Rossini, and specifically, his opera The Barber of Seville.

Among opera aficionados, Rossini is something like the Mariah Carey of opera composers – incredibly well known, with music that might be shallow, but is brimming with crowd-pleasers. Of his many famous and frequently-performed operas, The Barber of Seville is at the top, and of its many crowd-pleasing arias, “Una Voce Poco Fa” steals the show. The Barber of Seville concerns the hilarious misadventures of the titular barber as he helps the love-struck young Count Almaviva and the conniving young Rosina end up together, and “Una Voce Poco Fa” introduces us to Rosina. Intent on escaping her buffoonish guardian and marrying the count, she sings that she’ll be docile and sweet when necessary, “but if they touch where [her] weak spot is/[she’ll] be a viper and lay a hundred traps/Before giving up [she’ll] make them fall (translated from Italian).” It’s a song full of derisive humor and laden with vocal acrobatics meant to dazzle the audience – both with the heroine’s iron will and her vocal capabilities.

In many ways, the song is, for lack of a better term, extra, and I do mean it in the urban dictionary sense of the word. The character of Rosina isn’t singing of her profound love for the Count, or her desperation to escape her unhappy home. She instead sings of her own infallibility, and decorates the song with excessive coloratura to prove her point. Based on what I’ve read of Rossini in Paul Robinson’s Opera and Ideas: From Mozart to Strauss, however, I don’t believe this to be a failure on Rossini’s part. According to Robinson, at the time Rossini was writing this opera, classical opera had already reached the height of its potential with Mozart, and Rossini – bored and tired of classical operatic conventions, but unwilling or unable to break new ground – derived great satisfaction from mocking it. Rossini makes little attempt to musically give full character to any of the roles. Instead, he fills the opera with fun, cartoonish, and often vocally gymnastic music. In “Una Voce Poco Fa,” and many other parts of the opera,” the character is not singing about her own thoughts or feelings, so much as the vocalist is saying, “My goodness, did you know that I can sing OPERA?!?”

I’m a fan. The song is super extra. I’m super extra. Everyone wins.

But real talk, I definitely see this attitude as postmodern – a display of the same sort of satirical humor, meant to ridicule the conventions of the day, that we see now. The self-aware derisiveness and biting satire that Rossini employs against the very art form he uses is an attitude we can see echoed now in movies like Deadpool. I even wrote a ten-minute opera based around the same self-deprecating style! Beginning this research project, reading Postmodern Music, Postmodern Thought, and “Una Voce Poco Fa” have taught me many things, but among them is postmodern’s precedent for being the most extra.

I’m glad that I’m in good company.

With all due respect,

Daniel Wolfert


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