Late 18th century opera may be seen as the staging of and for new and free subjects in the Europe of the Enlightenment. This article is an attempt to look at the new forms of opera in foucauldian terms: The liberation of the subject becomes the construction of the subject as an object of knowledge and power. The replacement of the older, strict form of the opera seria by new and freer forms, strongly inspired by the works of Gluck, may then be interpreted in the light of Michel Foucault’s theory about a change in the forms of power, from «right to death» to «power over life». This upheaval is followed by a change in the modes of historiography.

The source material is Swedish opera from the Gustavian era (1771–1792) and French and Swedish texts on the effects of music and historiography. The article is thus both a historical study of performativity and political culture, and an overview of foucauldian theory and methodology.