Melina Esse

Associate Professor of Musicology

Academic Leave Fall Semester 2021




In her writing, teaching, and personal practice, Melina Esse enacts her longstanding fascination with the connections between gender, materiality, and performance. A scholar of opera in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, she has published widely—on voice and technological mediation, on opera and film, and on gender and the emotive body. Her latest book, Singing Sappho: Improvisation and Authority in Nineteenth-Century Opera (University of Chicago press, 2021), probes the intertwining histories of musical texts and improvisatory performance and was awarded the 2020 Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Publication Award for a Manuscript in Italian Literary Studies from the Modern Language Association. The book shows how discourses of spontaneity—specifically those surrounding the improvvisatrice, or female poetic improviser—were paradoxically used to carve out a new authority for opera composers just as improvisation itself was falling into decline. Her initial foray into this field, the article “Encountering the improvvisatrice in Italian Opera,” received the 2014 Einstein Award from the American Musicological Society. Professor Esse’s research on the improvvisatrice was supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities in the form of a 2010 Summer Stipend.      

Professor Esse received her Ph.D. in music history and literature from the University of California at Berkeley, where she was recognized for excellence in teaching. A fellow at the Townsend Center for the Humanities in 2003-04, she was also the recipient of the Alvin H. Johnson AMS-50 Dissertation Fellowship and the Mabelle McLeod-Lewis Memorial Fund Fellowship. Her articles have appeared in the Journal of the American Musicological Society, Cambridge Opera Journal, Opera Quarterly, Nineteenth-Century Music, Current Musicology and Women in Music. She has presented papers to the American Musicological Society, the International Association for the Study of Popular Music, the American Society for Theater Research, the North American Society for the Study of Romanticism, and the Feminist Theory and Music annual conference. In addition to her publishing and teaching activities, she has given many pre-concert lectures and seminars at both the San Francisco Opera and the Minnesota Opera.  In 2018, she was awarded a Bridging Fellowship to the School of Arts and Sciences Dance and Movement Program.

 At Eastman, Esse teaches courses on eighteenth-, nineteenth- and twentieth-century music history, visual spectacle and the modern voice, and singers in nineteenth-century opera. Her dissertation advisees have worked on topics as diverse as ornamentation in Italian opera, early music revivals, opera and technology in fin-de-siècle France, and the role of live performance in solidifying jazz traditions.

Works / Publications

Books and Edited Collections

  • Singing Sappho: Improvisation and Authority in Nineteenth-Century Italian Opera. (Chicago, 2021). Visit the University of Chicago Press page.
  • Mediating Opera (editor), a special issue of Opera Quarterly 26, no. 1 (Winter 2010).

Articles and Essays

  • “Vessels of Flame: Letitia Elizabeth Landon and the Improviser’s Voice.” Chapter in London Voices 1820-1840: Vocal Performers, Practices, Histories, edited by Roger Parker and Susan Rutherford. Chicago University Press (2019).
  • “The Sexual Politics of Operatic Collaboration: Gounod, Ô ma lyre immortelle’ (Sapho).” Cambridge Opera Journal 28 (2016): 171-4.
  • “The Silent Diva: Farrar’s Carmen.” Essay in Technology and the Diva: Sopranos, Opera and the Media from Romanticism to the Twenty-First Century, edited by Karen Henson. Cambridge University Press (2016).
  • “Encountering the improvvisatrice in Italian Opera.” Journal of the American Musicological Society 66, no. 3 (Fall 2013): 709-70.
  • “Performing Sentiment, or How to Do Things with Tears.” Women and Music 14 (November 2010): 1-21.
  • “Don’t Look Now: Opera, Liveness, and the Televisual.” Opera Quarterly 26, no. 1 (Winter 2010): 81-95.
  • “A Note from the Guest Editor.” Opera Quarterly 26, no. 1 (Winter 2010): 1-3.
  • “Donizetti’s Gothic Resurrections.” 19th-Century Music 33, no. 2 (Fall 2009): 81-109.
  • “Rossini’s Noisy Bodies.” Cambridge Opera Journal 21, no. 1 (March 2009): 27-64.
  • “Speaking and Sighing: Bellini’s canto declamato and the Poetics of Restraint.” Current Musicology 87 (Spring 2009): 7-45.
  •  “‘Chi piange, qual forza m’arretra?’: Verdi’s Interior Voices.” Cambridge Opera Journal 14, nos. 1-2 (March 2002): 59-78


  • Review of Hilary Poriss, Changing the Score: Arias, Prima Donnas, and the Authority of Performance (Oxford University Press, 2009). Journal of the American Musicological Society 64, no. 3: (Fall 2011): 725-30.
  • Review of En Travesti: Women, Gender Subversion, Opera, edited by Corinne E. Blackmer and Patricia Juliana Smith. Jointly authored with Holly Watkins. GLSG: Newsletter of the Gay and Lesbian Study Group of the American Musicological Society, October 1997.

Program Notes

  • “Hugo von Hofmannsthal.” Published in the Lyric Season Companion: 2005/2006 (Chicago: Lyric Opera of Chicago, 2005).