defines prima donna as 'the lead female singer in an opera'. But we're used to seeing prima donnas as much more than that: incredible stage stars with unearthly voices and ill-tempered personalities. How did a standard wage rate in Italian theatres (where there was a seconda donna and even an altra prima donna as well as the prima donna) come to signify musical royalty?
Cecilia Bartoli, who has long earned the title of 'prima donna assoluta', described the ascent of women to opera stardom in our recent interview
'I was curious how, at the turn of the 18–19th centuries, the common term 'divo'
gradually morphed into the contemporary 'diva'
, while the meaning remained essentially unchanged: the word was still used to refer to an outstanding operatic personality around whom the entire colour of musical and secular society revolved. In the 1730s England and Spain were focused on one superstar – Farinelli. Farinelli was a symbol of the glamorous world of the castrati, with their distinctive vocal gift and equally remarkable tantrums on and off stage. However, views changed during the Enlightenment, and opera fans in the early 19th century began to turn their attention away from extravagant castrati to a completely different kind of theatre celebrity – opera prima donnas. Women performers better fit the demands and values of post-revolutionary bourgeois society; the castrati suddenly became a symbol of all things artificial. Young composers now took inspiration from women, whose influence extended beyond the musical scores to theatre repertoires, the vocal compositions of premieres and even the salaries of singers. Women became increasingly present in the social and cultural life of Europe: Isabella Colbran, Giuditta Pasta and Maria Malibran – all embodied the freedom-loving, impulsive spirit of romanticism.'
Certainly, few opera divas today can boast such ubiquitous authority. That said, there are a few names worth mentioning. Our current selection of productions is dedicated to the Prima Donnas of modern-day opera, exclusively for StayHome.Moscow.