Ellan Read

sometimes witty book reviews

The Arts of the Prima Donna in the Long Nineteenth Century

First published: 2012
Found: via my masters’ thesis research reading
Pages/read time: 368, one frenzied reading afternoon

‘This consciousness and earnest will-power to move one’s public by the force of one’s art is one of the first steps toward being a true prima donna.’
 – Clara Louise Kellogg, quoted by Cowgill and Porriss xxvii
The great ladies of opera. The legends of the classical world. Captains of symphonic vessels past and masters of the High Cs. Or indeed the Low Cs, one cannot forget contralto queens such as Dame Clara Butt. Prima donnas, If you’re a classical music buff, you love to hate them. If you’re into pop fan you probably call them divas. Either way, there’s no mistaking them. (I hope that is a sufficiently melodramatic opening to this subject.)

This book is a collection of essays, edited by Rachel Cowgill and Hilary Poriss, which explores the increasing power of both female singers’ roles in operas but also in opera companies, the media, public relations and politics throughout the nineteenth century. The nineteenth century and it’s sensibilities affected the opera word right up until the late 1920s, when recordings started to take the classical world in new directions.

After the rise and fall of the castrati opera stars over the course of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centirueis, women began to win more work in the opera world in roles of power that were previously largely out of bounds for females.1 These women, helped by the starring parts they sung, quickly became major players in the running of elite cultural institutions. These prima donnas (first/leading ladies) unfortunately also inherited the flamboyant and often erroneous stereotypes (sopranos especially, it has to be said) from the eccentric castrati – the diva. Throw in a few stubborn temperaments, keen political minds and the patriarchy and ‘prima donna’ soon became synonymous with ‘diva’. Cowgill and Pris, however, give a wonderful explanation as to the difference between the two:

The traits of the ‘prima donna’ and the ‘diva’ frequently overlap, but that the term ‘”prima donna” carries greater potential for neutrality … [as it] is less highly charged than “diva”’.2  Prima donnas  were and are ‘leading women singers’ whose contributions to opera broaden our understanding and appreciation of the power of the female voice in particular’.3  The ‘diva’, they distinguish, singles out the women (and increasingly men) who are ‘unimpeachably wonderful or disproportionally (even deliciously) wicked’.4

This fabulous text, though wonderfully academic with hundreds of juicy footnotes, reads compellingly. The real lives of these vocally and politically powerful women unfold like the most fantastic of opera plots. With titles such as ‘Staging  Scandal with Salome and Elektra‘ and ‘Screening the Diva’, each essay offers one or more case studies of prima donnas throughout the long nineteenth century and demonstrates how the prima donna’s ever expanding arts continue to grow today in the opera world and beyond into other areas of Western arts and popular culture.

Reading suggestion: Make a playlist of (Top 100 style) of contralto/mezzo/soprano to listen to while you peruse. 
1Castrati, plural of castrato. A male who was castrated pre-puberty in order to develop the high and very powerful voice type required for these these early, high-voice roles. Though the practice had largely died out by the early 1800s, the very last of the castrati lived until 1922.
2Cowgill and Poriss, ‘Introduction’, xxxvi.
3Ibid., xxiv.
4 Ibid.

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This entry was posted on April 7, 2017 by in biography, Non-Fiction, Women Authors and tagged , , , , , , , , , .

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