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.