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  • The Arts of the Prima Donna in the Long Nineteenth Century ed. by Rachel Cowgill and Hilary Poriss
  • Julia Grella O’connell (bio)
The Arts of the Prima Donna in the Long Nineteenth Century. Edited by Rachel Cowgill and Hilary Poriss. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. 368 pp.

The birth of the scholarly discipline informally known as “diva studies” can be traced to two influential works published in the past three decades, both of them outside the boundaries of traditional music scholarship: Wayne Koestenbaum’s 1993 The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire, and the 1988 English translation of Catherine Clément’s Opera, or the Undoing of Women (published in France in 1979 as L’opéra ou la défaite des femmes). Koestenbaum’s book was a memoir of his coming of age as a gay man and the ways his participation in opera spectatorship assisted and intersected with this dawning self-emergence, while Clément’s was a somewhat strident analysis and critique, a-throb with the passion of second wave feminism, of the standard plot trajectory of the operatic prima donna (to wit: the soprano dies). Both works were short on musical analysis and historiography and long on the aesthetic of the cri de coeur, which was not, of course, entirely unsuited to their subject. Perhaps most importantly, however, Koestenbaum and Clément each proposed the prima donna as an object of deep contemplation, offering her up not just as a symbol of personal transformation or universal victimization but also as a subject for serious scholarly study.

Musicology often seems to lag behind cultural trends in the other humanities, however, and it was not until 2012 that the first full-length volume of essays devoted to diva scholarship was published. That volume, The Arts of the Prima Donna in the Long Nineteenth Century, edited by noted opera scholars Rachel Cowgill and Hilary Poriss, has been worth the wait. While the dearth, until now, of serious scholarship about the lives and work of women in opera betrays the long-held suspicion among musicologists that the work of singers is a matter best left to gay neurotics and middle-brow canary fanciers, Cowgill and Poriss have done much to upend such notions. The two have compiled a volume of well-chosen essays from scholars working across disciplines—primarily in musicology but also in English literature, theater history, film, and Victorian studies—that examine the cultural quiddity and historical significance of the [End Page 186] nineteenth-century female opera singer through a multitude of lenses. While the book’s chronological scope stretches rather far even by long-nineteenth-century standards—the time period covered spans the Georgian era to the 1930s—the range of perspectives on the prima donna provides a fascinating introduction to an emerging interdisciplinary field, one that promises to be a fruitful subject for students of music history, gender and women’s studies, performance studies, and cultures of celebrity.

The book is divided into three sections: “Promotion and Image-Making,” “Fantasy and Representation,” and “Cultures of Celebrity”; the first and second parts conclude with a short essay, described by the editors as an “interlude,” by acclaimed scholars, each by turns informal and elegiac. Julian Rushton provides the first interlude, “The Prima Donna Creates,” a meditation on the significance of great sopranos to the operatic genre. Terry Castle’s part 2 interlude, “Breath’s End: Opera and Mortality,” is a brief, funny, and subtly moving piece that functions as a reassessment of Catherine Clément (“How pornographic—at least to this jaded reader—a certain strain of late-seventies-feminist discourse now sounds. . . . Clément is relentless. . . . [Susan McClary’s] introduction, twenty years on, is . . . as hortatory and sentimental as a now manifesto” [206–7]), and, at the same time, a meditation on the fleetingness of life and the solace that opera can give in the face of impending mortality. Both of these “interludes” take the particularities of their subject into the sphere of the universal and introduce a welcome note of personal sincerity into a field that, owing to its origins, might easily veer off into camp or kitsch. Instead...


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