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Sex, lies and arias: the prima donnas of Georgian London

Prima donnas were the A-listers of Georgian London, lionised for their heavenly voices. But, writes Brianna Robertson-Kirkland, in a society that cherished quiet female domesticity, they paid a high price for their fame

This print from 1807 shows John Bull sat between the rival singers Elizabeth Billington (left) and Angelica Catalani, who sing lines adapted from The Beggar’s Opera.
Published: December 23, 2021 at 8:22 am
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On 14 January 1792, James Ridgway did something that set Georgian London’s gossip-mongers into overdrive: he published the Memoirs of Mrs Billington. This account of one of the darlings of the 18th-century stage – the prima donna Elizabeth Billington – was so shocking, so salacious that, according to composer Joseph Haydn, it had sold out by 3pm that same day. Yet this was a publishing sensation with a difference.

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Prima donnas were the leading female singers in Europe’s operatic productions – and Billington was among the most popular. But, as it turned out, she hadn’t actually written her own memoirs – Ridgway had done that. That didn’t stop advertisements declaring that Ridgway’s publication would include revelatory letters written by “that lady to her late mother, Mrs Weichsel”, who was also a famous singer.

Ridgway argued that, by releasing the Memoirs, he was revealing Billington’s true character, stating: “Vice, ugly vice, in all its deformities, is too often countenanced upon the stage; and it is a lamentable reflection, that in the following publication – not one chapter, can equitably be allotted, to poor neglected VIRTUE!” In other words, The Memoirs of Mrs Billington were something of a character assassination. The Memoirs claimed that not only had Billington engaged in multiple affairs, she had even had incestuous relations with her brother, the violinist Charles Weichsel, and her father, Carl Weichsel, who was an oboist and clarinettist at the King’s Theatre and Covent Garden.

And yet, there was no mention of incest in the letters published as part of the Memoirs. The missives mainly discussed the plights of pregnancy, homesickness and complaints about James Billington, Elizabeth’s husband.

Apparently, the content of the most damning letters was so outrageous that Ridgway could not publish them. So, instead, he printed a 40-page summary of Billington’s exploits, taking care to point out that all female singers in the public eye were every bit as disreputable.

In publishing his exposé, Ridgway may have claimed that he had the public’s best interest in mind. However, in reality the Memoirs were the 18th-century equivalent of a modern gossip magazine, feeding readers’ desire to know more about prima donnas – and that “more”, of course, included the sordid details of their personal lives.

In 18th-century London, opera was the most popular form of entertainment, and opera singers were the A-listers of the Georgian era. Unfortunately, the cost of celebrity was high and while audiences flocked to see the prima donnas perform, these women were also scrutinised, satirised and sexualised in the most public of settings.

Exceptional talents

Prima donna literally means “first woman”. Initially, the term was purely descriptive, indicating that she (along with the leading man) earned the most stage time and performed the most dazzling arias.

Plenty of female singers aspired to become a prima donna, but this was no easy feat. Prima donnas displayed exceptional vocal talent and a sound understanding of music. However, they had fewer musical training opportunities than their male counterparts. Even the Ospedali, a collection of four charitable institutions in Venice, famously known for training female musicians, did not produce many prima donnas because society did not expect women to become professional musicians. Instead, they were destined for marriage, a convent, or to remain with the Ospedali as a teacher.

Some of the most celebrated prima donnas were themselves the daughters of musicians, and that meant that their musical education was, in effect, an induction into the family trade. Musicians’ children frequently performed in public from a young age – with some, including Elizabeth Billington, billed as musical prodigies.

Belonging to a family of musicians gave aspiring prima donnas more opportunities to build a successful career, simply because they had a ready-made network of professional connections. However, they still needed to earn their place. In 1775, German soprano Caterina Schindlerin lost her position as prima donna at London’s King’s Theatre after one season because she failed to excite audiences. Critics labelled her acting, singing style – and even her demeanour – unappealing. The contemporary music historian Charles Burney went as far as to call her “silly and insipid”.

One way in which prima donnas could excite audiences was to become embroiled in spats with their fellow performers. The rivalry between George Frideric Handel’s two prima donnas, Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni (both shown below), thrilled Londoners throughout the 1726–27 season, culminating in a physical fight during a performance of Giovanni Bononcini’s Astianatte. While this case of bad blood may have been manufactured in order to drive up attendances (it wasn’t long before the pair were performing together again), episodes like this came at a cost: prima donnas earned the reputation as jealous, entitled narcissists, who would do anything for attention.

Prima donnas Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni
Prima donnas Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni had a fight on stage in 1727. But was their rivalry a genuine one? (Image by Alamy)

In truth, however, prima donnas attracted attention whether they sought it or not – especially if the London press got whiff of an alleged affair. In 1728 it was reported that English singer Lavinia Fenton, who famously performed the role of Polly in the popular ballad opera The Beggar’s Opera, had run off with her much older lover, Charles Powlett, 3rd Duke of Bolton. On hearing the news, the poet and dramatist John Gay observed: “The Duke of Bolton, I hear, has run away with Polly Peachum, having settled £400 a year on her during pleasure, and upon disagreement £200 a year.” The implication was clear: in Gay’s eyes Fenton had prostituted herself to the old duke, despite the couple having decided to marry.

By performing before the public, prima donnas were actively breaking protocols that wider society expected women to follow. The “ideal woman” lived a quiet, domestic life behind closed doors, counselled Georgian conduct books. The prima donna was quite the opposite. In the eyes of many, she was a public figure who used her voice and body to flaunt her talents, just like a common prostitute.

Sent into exile

Marriage could offer a prima donna some level of protection from public scrutiny, though that depended on whether her husband permitted her to continue performing. Many female singers, including Elizabeth Ann Linley, theatre manager Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s wife, retired from public performance immediately after marrying. Others continued performing on stage after marrying fellow musicians, but this did not guarantee a happy union or a scandal-free life. A number of prima donnas were abused by their husbands and could only leave the relationship because they had garnered social influence, wealth and the support of a powerful patron.

One such was English soprano Anna Selina (Nancy) Storace, who had earned the adoration of Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II and the position of prima donna in his new opera company in Vienna. Storace was a genuine superstar but that didn’t stop her husband, the violinist John Abraham Fisher, from beating her so severely that Joseph II banished him from Venice. Storace never married again, though she had a 20-year-long romantic relationship with fellow singer John Braham.

Storace and Braham regularly appeared in concerts together, and this fuelled speculation about their relationship. Indeed, newspapers were not afraid to print sexually explicit comments. On 10 July 1797, the Morning Post informed its readers that “Braham has promised Storace to give her a very animating description of Moses erecting his serpent in the wilderness!” This anti-Semitic, sexually overt comment chastised Storace for engaging in a romantic relationship with a Jewish man.

Later that same year, the Oracle and Public Advertiser stated that Storace was “seriously intent on instructing young Braham in some Italian movements. It must be confessed that he is under the tuition of an experienced guide!” This time the press trained their guns on Storace’s sexual experience – at 31, she was around nine years Braham’s senior.

Press pariahs

Storace was not the only prima donna to be abused by her husband and later find solace in the arms of another man. Gertrud Mara frequently endured the drunken behaviour of her husband, German cellist Johann Baptist Mara. He also regularly engaged in affairs and spent all her money. Tired of his antics, in 1792 Mara decided to separate from her husband, and reportedly paid him an impressive sum in exchange for his co-operation.

He accepted the terms, and she never saw him again. But that wasn’t enough to prevent the press from announcing that Mara was having an affair with English flautist Charles Florio. The newspapers clearly disapproved – and so, according to the Morning Post, did the public. In 1801, the paper claimed that, when the couple performed together in Glasgow, few spectators attended because “the Scotch [carry] their moral feelings into public places”.

Georgian opera star Gertrud Mara
After escaping an abusive marriage, Gertrud Mara had an affair with the flautist Charles Florio, much to the disgust (according to the moralising Morning Post) of Scottish opera-goers. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images via Getty Images)
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Neither Storace nor Mara remarried, though their relationships with Braham and Florio were long term. Storace even had a son with Braham. The press did not object to Storace or Mara escaping their abusive marriages, but publicly engaging in a romantic relationship with a man they could not and did not marry was deemed unacceptable.

Other prima donnas were similarly suspected of having extra-marital relationships, even when there was little evidence for them. Elizabeth Billington stood accused of seducing a number of powerful men, including William Henry Cavendish Bentinck, 3rd Duke of Portland. Billington denied the affair but that didn’t stop the caricaturist James Gillray satirising their relationship in an engraving titled “The Bulstrode Siren”.

Prima donnas were lionised for their musical abilities. But, as Billington’s story demonstrates, there was a dark side to their celebrity: the unforgiving glare of public scrutiny. And, in some respects, attitudes haven’t changed: if a number of recent period dramas are to be believed, prima donnas spent a lot more time in bed with the rich and famous than performing on stage.

Such depictions undermine the extraordinary talents of prima donnas by suggesting that they were all sexually promiscuous. The stark reality is that many prima donnas were unfairly branded immoral temptresses simply because their profession did not align with Georgian society’s notion of appropriate female behaviour.

Scandalous screen portrayals of prima donnas

Georgian stereotypes of prima donnas have proved enduring, as two recent period dramas prove
Siena Rosso in Bridgerton 
Netflix’s Bridgerton taps into two very real Georgian obsessions: propriety and scandal. Siena Rosso (played by Sabrina Bartlett) is an opera singer, though little screen time is devoted to her singing. Instead, she is often shown naked, lying in the arms of her secret lover, Viscount Anthony Bridgerton. Siena’s styling – beauty spot, exposed shoulders and a scarlet dress – suggests she is a seductive temptress.

Bridgerton does well to show the unique social divide between Anthony and Siena. He is her social superior, but he risks his name and reputation if their liaison were ever made public. In reality, a prima donna in Siena’s position also risked her reputation since a relationship with a wealthy nobleman would confirm what everyone already suspected.

Jenny Lind in The Greatest Showman
The Swedish soprano Jenny Lind was the inspiration behind one of the lead characters (played by Rebecca Ferguson) in the 2017 musical telling of showman PT Barnum’s life. The film references several real-life events, including the time when Barnum risked everything to lure Lind out of retirement to tour the US.

Known as the “Swedish Nightingale”, Lind was hugely famous in 19th-century Europe and performed for Queen Victoria. She is undeniably talented in the film, but is also a seductress who tries to tempt Barnum into an affair. Of course, no such affair occurred.

In fact, the real Lind was close with another married man, composer Felix Mendelssohn. Their relationship was not publicly known when they were alive, but evidence has emerged that Mendelssohn wrote several love letters to Lind, which were later burned.

Dr Brianna Robertson-Kirkland is a lecturer in historical musicology at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. Her book Venanzio Rauzzini and the Birth of a New Style in English Singing will be published by Routledge in January 2022

This article first appeared in the Christmas 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine

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