- Technology and the Diva: Sopranos, Opera and Media from Romanticism to the Digital Age ed. by Karen Henson
In recent years, female singers have received considerable attention in opera studies. This belongs to a general shift away from the written work to the experiencing of opera, which takes in its performers, presentation, dissemination, reception, and cultural meanings. Among recent publications, notably, are Susan Rutherford's book The Prima Donna and Opera, 1815–1930 [End Page 678] (Cambridge, 2006), Karen Henson's study Opera Acts: Singers and Performance in the Late Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, 2015), and Ethel Matala de Mazza's article 'The Diva: Fates of an Archetypal Figure in Operetta', Opera Quarterly, 33 (2017), 49–61. Technology and the Diva represents a valuable contribution to this growing body of work. Henson's collection offers fascinating insights on the partnership between the diva in her real and constructed forms, and technology in its many guises across time and place. The essays are ordered chronologically and written by scholars from diverse disciplines, including theatre studies, cultural and media studies, and philosophy as well as musicology. They originated in an interdisciplinary conference at Columbia University in 2007 and a panel session at an earlier (unspecified) annual meeting of the American Musicological Society.
The nine essays approach the topic from a variety of perspectives. Many are devoted to a single figure (Sibyl Sanderson, Geraldine Farrar, Cathy Berberian, Anna Netrebko), while others address a particular repertory (the mad scene, Carmen, the film Meeting Venus), technology (the telephone), or context (nineteenth-century French theatre). The body is framed by Karen Henson's excellent Introduction and Jonathan Sterne's stimulating Afterword, although the rich chronology ('A Chronology') that appears first, compiled by Hannah Clancy, David Gutkin, and Lucie Vágnerová, feels intrusive in this location—one is eager to get to the explanation of the volume—and would better have served the whole as an Appendix. I also wonder why the entries end at 2011, five years before the volume was published.
Henson's Introduction is one of the best I have encountered in a collection. She uses a passage from Villiers de l'Isle-Adam's literary work L'Ève future and its invocation of voice and of technology in a metaphorical sense to structure the chapter. Citing other works of literature, Henson tells of the changing notion of the diva and its implications for women, some of which were not salutary. Technology also brings troubling aspects as well as positive ones. Historically the diva and technology became increasingly intertwined, and their emergence 'in the same period, and their rise to prominence over the following two hundred years, have been more than a coincidence' (p. 19). The voice, not surprisingly, has been central to the pairing and features prominently in the essays. Henson's expertise is also on display in her fine essay,'Photographic Diva: Massenet's Relationship with the Soprano Sibyl Sanderson', which appeared in a longer form in her 2015 book. This perceptive inquiry, with musical examples and figurative illustrations, showcases the relationship, unusual for its time, between the composer and the curvaceous singer—one that Henson describes as a Pygmalion-like shaping of his young and inexperienced Galatea. When an 'S' for Sanderson appeared in Massenet's manuscripts, it seemed that he was granting her agency and a slice of co-authorship. Yet Henson believes he was 'as controlling and she as circumscribed as any singer and composer were in the late nineteenth century' (p. 49), creating another 'Massenet problem'. In the role of Manon and other Massenet heroines, Sanderson became a media star by virtue of the photograph—'A Photographic Galatea', as Henson titles the discussion—and this had great force in the era's obsession with visual culture, where paratextual material such as postcards and visiting cards were common. In Massenet's hands, Sanderson became an eroticized figure and further encouraged the voyeuristic gaze...