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  • The Arts of the Prima Donna in the Long Nineteenth Century ed. by Rachel Cowgill and Hilary Poriss
  • Kimberly White
The Arts of the Prima Donna in the Long Nineteenth Century. Edited by Rachel Cowgill and Hilary Poriss. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. [xlvi, 368 p. ISBN 9780195365870 (hardcover), $99; ISBN 9780195365887 (paperback), $35.] Music examples, illustrations, index.

The study of singers has emerged as a cutting-edge area of inquiry in musicological scholarship over the last three decades and has been instrumental in challenging the hegemony of the composer’s work with its insistence on the materiality and provocative mutability of operatic creation. Recently, scholars have begun to focus more on the social, cultural, and artistic contributions of individual singers—the famous and the not-so-famous—often sharing methodology and critical approaches used by other disciplines for exploring cultures of celebrity. Drawing on an excellent group of scholars, many of whom have made important contributions to the field, Rachel Cowgill and Hilary Poriss’s collection of essays reveals exciting new directions in scholarship on vocal artists. Most important is the collection’s focus on the archetype of the prima donna—particularly its multiple manifestations and mutilations over the long nineteenth century—which significantly redresses the tendency in earlier musicological literature that, as James R. Currie points out, “sometimes erred toward potentially one-dimensionally negative understandings of the prima donna’s historical inscriptions” (p. 104). Sixteen essays, two “interludes,” and an excellent introductory chapter instead refract the image of the prima donna through different critical lenses, revealing a dazzling array of prima donnas—historical, fictional, mythical—that destabilize the very identity of this category. Initially a term of convenience used to refer to an opera troupe’s leading lady, “prima donna” has picked up considerable cultural baggage over four centuries of opera, referring at once to a person’s occupation, talent, and prestige as well as personality traits and behavior. Certainly, one cannot spare singers from bearing part of the responsibility for the evolution of the term: as the editors assert, opera’s leading ladies have often been notoriously “difficult” (p. xxxiii). But as the essays in this collection astutely argue, being “difficult” is also relative. The myths bound up into the prima donna stereotype have much to do with the passionate reactions and responses to women whose actions, lifestyle, and behavior provocatively transgressed boundaries of gender, class, and race. The prima donna is, in short, a cultural construct, and a multi-authored one at that—one of the authors being the prima donna herself.

The “arts” of the prima donna are construed broadly “as the ways and means by which leading female singers can be seen to embrace and project their own agency, as well as artistic and literary responses that document their impact on contemporaries” (p. xxxi). The editors divide their collection into three broad sections. The first, “Promotion and Image-Making,” elaborates on the mediation of the prima donna’s identity by various promotional tools, from laudatory Italian poetry in the newly flourishing periodical press (Francesco Izzo) to the new media of film (Mary Simonson). Perhaps the most disparate section of the collection, the second, “Fantasy and Representation,” contains examinations of the prima donna in fiction (J.Q. Davies, Grace Kehler) along with an exploration of the art of dying in opera (Helen Greenwald) and a refreshing reconsideration of coloratura in Delibes’s Lakmé (Gurminder Kaur Bhogal). The third, “Cultures of [End Page 87] Celebrity,” presents a series of case studies on individual prima donnas.

Aside from the collection’s principle theme, there are a few other threads run across the collection and I will pick up on a couple of them here. Suspicions regarding moral character generally plagued those who pursued professional stage careers, and many sought to evade negative stereotypes by bolstering their public image. Thus Hilary Poriss reveals how anecdotes about prima donnas’ selfless philanthropy, pervasive in nineteenth-century singer biography, served to mitigate negative perceptions of singers as overpaid and greedy, and instead repositioned them as participants in an acceptable activity for women of a certain class and moral integrity. In her examination of iconography in the Illustrated London...


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