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Before The Curtain
Of The Barytone
Of The Opera In The Concrete
Of The Prima Donna
Of The Primo Basso
Of The Suggeritore Or Prompter
Of The Tenore
The Opera In The Abstract

Physiology Of The Opera

Of The Prima Donna

"Your female singer being exceedingly capricious and wayward, and
very liable to accident."--SKETCH BOOK.

Every body knows what a prima donna is. She is the first lady, and
this is a fact apparently better known to the individual herself, than
to any body else--at least her actions would warrant this inference. She
deems herself more indispensable to an opera than an executioner to an
execution, or the thimbles to a thimble-rig man. She takes no pains to
conceal what a high price she sets on the value of her presence. She
sings just when she pleases, and just as she pleases. Caprice itself is
not more capricious than this fair creature. As capricious as a prima
donna has almost become a proverb, and we predict that in a few years it
will become fully established as such. She is a female tyrant.
Impresario, treasurer, chef (d'orchestre,) chorus master and chorus
tremble before her, when in one of her passions she brings down her
pretty little foot in a most commanding stamp. She gives the first
mentioned person more trouble than all the singers, orchestra and
officials together, with her coughs, colds and affected indispositions.
Next to the impresario, the chef (d'orchestre) suffers most from her
imperious spirit. He never conducts so as to accompany her properly, and
though she sings a half a note higher than she did at rehearsal, she
expects every poor musician to transpose his magic at sight, or receive
the indications of her displeasure in a way that leads the audience to
believe that the fault lies entirely with the orchestra. She worries the
basso,--poor, heavy, drowsy fellow,--because he's such a slow
coach--and such an oaf. She is disposed to be more friendly to the
tenor, who is the only person who receives any tokens of her good-will;
but in truth, she would cease to be a woman, if she were unkind to this
gentlemanly, polite little fellow. Neither does she hold the public in
the least regard, but conceives that she has a right to be seriously
indisposed as often as she thinks that people are really desirous to
hear her; and "is subject when the house is thin, to cold," as Byron
says. She keeps all the town who have determined to go and hear her, in
the most provoking suspense. Balls and evening parties are sadly
interrupted by her erratic course, for she is sure to sing on the
evenings assigned to those delightfully laborious modes of destroying
time. All the pleasure promising engagements made by the Browns and the
Smiths to form a party, and go in concert to the opera, are postponed
from time to time, to the great vexation of young Harry Brown, who
craftily set the affair on foot, in order to have an evening's "chaff"
with Miss Julia Smith.

Sometimes the prima donna's "serious indisposition" is not discovered by
the fair singer herself, until the ladies of the audience have removed
the cloaks, furs and hoods which guard their loveliness from the cold of
a winter night; until the young gentlemen have jammed their opera hats
into an inconceivably small space, and adroitly passed the hand up to
the collar and cravat to discover how things are in that quarter; and
until the old habitues have settled themselves down into the softest
chair of the pit, with the full intention of being extremely displeased,
and making very unfavourable comparisons between the performance about
to take place, and one at which they were present some twenty years
before. However, she is a splendid creature--a small miracle in the way
of humanity--and can therefore be excused from pursuing that monotonous
and regular course of life which "patient merit" is obliged to take.

She is either a beautiful woman in reality, or one who can get up such
an admirable imitation that it is difficult to distinguish it from the
genuine. She is well skilled in music, at least in its execution; but
she is always much more deeply versed in the virtues of cosmetics, and
in the art of making herself beautiful.

There are two varieties in the figure of the prima donna; either,
firstly, such as to qualify her for opera buffa and certain tragic
roles, in which case she is of medium stature, delicate proportions, and
possesses the most graceful and vivacious action. Prima donnas of this
stamp make the dearest, sweetest, most innocent-looking Aminas; the most
sprightly, coquettish Rosinas, and the most faithful, confiding and
sincere Lucias. Or, secondly, she is of a large mould, more masculine
dimensions, with a countenance that can gather up in a moment a show of
the requisite amount of fury to poignard the husband and strangle the
babbies. She plays all the high tragedy roles, doing the Semiramide,
Norma and Lucrezia, with a very sanguinary power and effect. Those of
the first kind are most admired by the gay young fellows about town who
have no taste for music, and who do not resort to the opera to hear it,
but make the parquette a lounging place where they can be in the mode,
see beautiful women, and show themselves.

The prima donna, in her attempts to render herself personally
attractive, has an auxiliary in her maid, who is a compound of companion
and servant, and a coiffeuse gifted with the most delicate taste and
artistic execution. How often have we looked round the house and been
forced to confess that the prima donna was literally the first lady in
the building, in respect to costume and coiffure. This maid too, is
almost as much of a curiosity among maids as her mistress among fine
ladies. She may be regarded as a prima donna without a voice, without
fine clothes, bouquets, and a tenor companion; and it is her destiny
to marry one of the violinists, when her mistress marries the tenor. It
is upon this official that the duty of attending to the prima donna's
lap-dogs Beatrice and Amore, particularly devolves--two animals that are
almost as dear to their possessor as her professional reputation. In
addition to these darling little quadrupeds, upon which so many caresses
are bestowed, both by the faultless hand of the mistress, and the same
well-diamonded member of the tenor, a parrot usually divides the
affections of one, who woman-like, must love something, but who has
been so far initiated into the ways of the world as to doubt the
sincerity of all mankind, except probably that of the aforesaid tenor.
We remember once being present when a well-known prima donna was about
to leave a northern city, where a rival cantatrice had lately appeared,
and was inducing comparisons unsatisfactory to the former. She had been
informed that an overland trip to New Orleans would be greatly
incumbered by the presence of her lap-dogs and parrot, and was prevailed
on to bestow them on some tender-hearted persons, whose extreme
affection for domesticated animals would be a guaranty for their gentle
treatment. A married gentleman--we are afraid without having consulted
his wife--kindly offered to relieve the lady from all trouble in finding
the suitable persons, by taking them himself. Assuming the attitude of
Norma handing over babes, she delivered up the poodles. With what
sadness were the little creatures confided to his care. What admonitions
and instructions to carefully keep them; what prayers for their faithful
protection; a womanly tear bedewed the cheek of the fascinating lady,
and a smile followed, as if to ask forgiveness for what she feared
those present might consider an unbecoming weakness. Five years
afterwards, we saw in a concert room this same sensitive creature, who
was so moved and affected at the derniers adieux paid to her hateful
little poodles, scowl darkly, bite her lips, and turn her back on the
person who had engaged her, whom, by the by, we, in common with the
audience, regarded as a much aggrieved individual.

Between the attention and affection bestowed on her pets, some hours
devoted to study and rehearsal, occasional rides and walks, and time
spent in the pleasing avocation of arranging her wardrobe, and in
innocently admiring her fair self in the mirror, the days of this
spoiled child of the music-loving are whiled away. She is acquainted
with some of the dandies of the place where she for the time resides,
but as such gentlemen in this country seldom have the temerity to
appear with her in public, their usefulness as escort promenaders is
greatly abridged. The fast men sometimes smuggle themselves into her
visiting circle, in order to be able to boast of their intimacy with the
prima donna; but as this class of society is seldom very fluent in the
use of Italian, and as there is small affinity between the
sentimentality of the opera and "mile heats to harness," this
acquaintance is not of very long duration.

The necessity of personal beauty in a prima donna is such, that she must
"assume that virtue if she have it not." Not many winters since, a
beautiful cantatrice was induced to undertake the role of Romeo in "I
Montecchi ed I Capuletti." The lady was excellently proportioned, except
that there existed a great want of symmetry in the inferior members;
and as Romeo's skirts must necessarily be short, and the lady could not
at will assume a pair of well turned knees and calves, she clothed the
offending limbs in what, at this day would be called "Bloomer
pantaloons." The attempt to ingraft turkish trowsers on the Veronese
costume, proved too absurd to warrant the continuance of such a
representation, and was abandoned after the night of its introduction.

The effect of a prima donna on society is very various. If she be of the
high tragic or strangulation school, it is to induce young ladies of
some voice, and a good deal of person, to clothe themselves in white
tulle on the occasion of evening parties and amateur concerts--draw
their hair very smoothly over the temples--drive a white camellia into
the left side of the head, and sing long recitatives from Norma or
Lucrezia;--in the case of evening parties to the infinite chagrin of
young gentlemen possessed of great waltzing powers and passions; and in
the case of amateur concerts, to the fatigue of yawning audiences. If
the prima donna is of the coquettish school of song, every damsel of
sylph-like proportions, vivacious expression, and a turn for
man-killing, chirps and warbles away in the sprightly passages of the

As for the male part of the community, it is perfectly easy to divine
how they will be affected by the appearance of the different "prime
donne" who from year to year present themselves for musical honors.
They will always be pleased, but chiefly by those who are rather
attractive in features than in voice. The very young and inexperienced
men just entering into society, denominated "cubs" by the beaux of some
years standing, affect most the prima donna of the sanguinary school,
because she seems more in accordance with the ideas they have derived
from the study of Medea, a work to which they have not long since bid
adieu. They regard the killing of babes as the most tragic of tragedy,
and the actress who can do the thing best, as the most accomplished of
actresses. But the knowing fellows of mature years prefer the pretty
creatures who look so fond and affectionate, in their short peasant
dresses, displaying the delicate little foot and well turned ancle. How
they gather night after night into the parquette, to compare opinions on
the merits of Orsini's soft notes, and the long, beautifully-filled
stockings of the page dress. We once heard an enthusiastic Cuban remark,
when Patti was singing Orsini to Parodi's Lucrezia; "Parodi is the
finest singer I ever heard,--she is the best actress I ever saw; some
few people can appreciate her singing, many more her acting;--but
Patti's legs! Ah! Sir, that is something that everybody can understand."
How delighted the young fellows pretend to be with the wild, bacchanal
song, when in reality they only encore the songstress, in order to have
another opportunity of admiring her pretty knees. Alas, how foolish they
are to throw away admiration on one who takes no more thought of them
than if they never existed; but each one of them supposes that she must
necessarily, be slightly enamoured of himself. The consequence is, that
next morning divers bouquets, with small notes or cards containing a few
amatory words, appended to them, are handed in to the servant, who is
very much out of humour at what has become troublesome from its over

The old habitues, of course, will not be affected in any way except by
peevishness and petulance, which will drive them into their usual course
of detraction. "Ah!" says old Twaddle; "Pasta--you should have seen
Pasta! No melodramatic twaddle about her! Genuine, artistic delineation
of passion and profound emotion. And then what a voice! none of your
ambiguous voices there; no difficulty in pronouncing, whether soprano or
contralto. And then her beauty--none of your namby-pamby, sickly,
insignificant prettiness." And thus Twaddle grumbles on, making shocking
comparisons between the past and present. Poor old Twaddle! he has,
according to his own showing, outlived all that is good in the province
of music.

The prima donna in this country will, generally speaking, produce on any
foreigner who happens to be among us, an effect very much akin to that
exercised upon Twaddle. She will set him sighing after the vocalization
of the other side of the Atlantic. He will seem to forget that Parodi or
"the Hays" ought to sing as well in this country as in Europe. But still
he can't be brought to that belief; and what is worse, upon your
venturing to suggest any possibility of such a state of the case, you
are made to perceive that he considers that your nationality puts you
off the bench of musical critics.

* * * * *

Query. Why is it that every Frenchman is supposed to be an infallible
judge of sweet sounds? For our own part, we no more believe that every
Gallic gentleman is fit for a critic, than that every one can raise a
handsome moustache.

* * * * *

Another effect of a beautiful prima donna, is to make young husbands,
who have been married just two years, look so steadfastly on the
stage, that their young wives sit with their eyes fastened on a cousin
George or Harry, in the parquette.

Next: Of The Barytone

Previous: Of The Primo Basso

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