A German woman in Indian garb : German orientalism and ideal womanhood in Spohr’s Jessonda
Though Louis Spohr’s Jessonda is primarily remembered for being an early attempt at a continuous opera, its portrayal of India presents an interesting perspective of orientalism in Biedermeier Germany. German orientalism in the early nineteenth century was not motivated by imperialism, and thus differed fundamentally from French and British orientalism. Jessonda presents a unique opportunity to study these varying motivations, due to the story’s frequent translation and adaptation to different national stages: France, Germany, England, and America. A comparison of these possible sources for the opera reveals the authors’ varying political and/or cultural motivations. Spohr’s and his librettist’s alterations to the story were motivated in part by Biedermeier values, but also by Spohr’s classicist aesthetics. Spohr believed that an opera’s story should appeal to the everyman but music should remain elevated, untainted by popular elements-- more in line with Mozart than Spontini. The women portrayed in Jessonda, however, are constructed to particularly cater to Biedermeier values: they are stripped of their agency, left with only passive loyalty to Brahma and to the male characters. Jessonda (the character) may visually represent the exotic but, in line with Spohr’s aesthetics, she acts and sings like a European. Spohr’s musical and dramatic constructions enhance the Indian-versus-European and male-versus-female binaries, and illustrate common German conceptions of both the Indian and female Other.