- The Prima Donna and Opera, 1815-1930
Ever since the middle of the eighteenth century, when female singers began to gain ascendancy over the declining castrati, the term prima donna has been subject to a sort of semiotic inflation that has seen it acquire ever more pronounced overtones of distinction and exclusiveness. Although nominally denoting only a position on a playbill, "prima donna" has over time come to connote a class—one is almost tempted to say a race—of exceptional beings. This is a conception that past commentators have often bought into: the topic of the prima donna has largely been the preserve of those willing and able to deal with the phenomenon on its own exceptionalist terms, from traditional, mythologizing biography to the more recent and theoretically savvy scholarly subdiscipline of "diva studies."
Susan Rutherford's recent book takes a very different line. Declining to view the prima donna as sui generis, or different in essence from singers of lesser prestige, Rutherford treats prime donne as no more (and, to be sure, no less) than a subset of professional female singers in general. As a study of singers' working lives, The Prima Donna and Opera is characterized by a refreshingly down-to-earth perspective that emphasizes quotidian routine over excitement and glory: while torch-lit processions and public serenades were undoubtedly part of the experience of highly successful singers, Rutherford's discussion is instead concerned with the more humdrum aspects of singers' lives, from child-care problems to disputes with impresarios. Indeed, the great value of the book lies in the way in which it roots the practical circumstances of singers' working lives in nineteenth-century social history, a discussion that takes in such issues as developments in the international opera industry, women's increasing freedom in the workplace, and changing social attitudes to their public performance. This detailed account is supported by a rich array of primary sources, both published and unpublished. Besides singers' memoirs and nineteenth-century Italian and English journalism, Rutherford draws on letters and documents unearthed in a number of theatrical archives, including her own detailed study of the correspondence between Mary Garden and her American patron Florence Mayer (which is held by the Chicago Historical Society).
There is a sense in which the Prima Donna of the title sells the book rather short. Much, if not most, of what Rutherford has to say concerns professional women singers in general, and only the first of the book's three broad sections [End Page 120] deals with the prima donna strictly speaking. This opening pair of chapters addresses conflicting portrayals of top-flight singers in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century literature, yet it is already characteristic of the book's wider project that Rutherford's primary interest here is in how the figure of the prima donna might have served as a catalyst to the ambitions of female singers understood more broadly. In an age in which women were generally denied autonomous careers, the idea of the prima donna as successful and powerful represented an anomaly. Rutherford argues that contemporary (patriarchal) culture responded to and managed this anomaly by figuring such women as dangerously seductive sirens or by propagating narratives in which the female singer was subjected to male control (a relationship immortalized in George du Maurier's characters Trilby and Svengali). These attitudes are seen to be contested in works by three progressive female authors: George Sand, George Eliot, and Willa Cather. In a series of fictional creations modeled on the legendary contralto Pauline Viardot (arguably one of the most intelligent and best-regarded singers of the nineteenth century), these authors portrayed the prima donna as a gifted and intelligent professional, an image that held out the possibility that women might find fulfillment as public performers.1
The rest of the book turns away from questions of representation to deal instead with the experiences of real women. Chapters 3, 4, and 5 direct attention to the practical foundations on which singing careers were built and sustained. Rutherford...