Opera divas brought "girl power" to 18th century

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - They were talented singers, superstars of their age and the subject of salacious gossip who brought “girl power” to the world of entertainment.

The opera divas of the 18th century would have given some of today’s troubled celebrities a run for their money.

“Handel and the Divas” is an exhibition at the Handel House Museum ( in London where the German-born composer was based for many years, and focuses on the careers and torrid personal lives of the leading ladies of the stage.

While the world they moved in was very different from today’s, their tantrums, rivalries and affairs bear comparison to many modern-day pop queens.

“They were very much in the public eye, were extremely successful, some did financially very well and some didn’t,” said curator Nicholas Clapton.

“In a way there’s a sort of Amy Winehouse story in some of them,” he added, referring to the British singer whose torrid personal life threatens to overshadow a promising career that has already brought financial reward and critical acclaim.

Francesca Cuzzoni, an Italian-born singer whose London debut in 1723 was a sensational success, was a favorite of King George I and performed some of Handel’s greatest roles.

But having failed to save what would have been a considerable income, she spent her later life between debtors’ prisons and giving concerts in order to reduce her arrears.


British vocalist Susannah Cibber, who sang in the first performance of Handel’s “Messiah” in 1742, would have been a 21st century tabloid favorite.

Her husband, Theophilus Cibber, accused her and their tenant William Sloper of adultery and took the case of “criminal conversation”, as the offence was known at the time, to court.

The resulting scandal threw up many versions of what actually happened in the house, including the possibility of a “menage a trois”. Sloper’s defence was that Cibber encouraged the affair and allowed Sloper to pay off his gambling debts.

Handel’s interaction with some of the great Italian and British singers of his age was generally cordial, and he unusually wrote equal female leads to avoid squabbling.

That did not prevent some infamous rows developing, however, as between Cuzzoni and Italian soprano Faustina Bordoni who became know as the “rival queens”.

Although reputed to have attacked each other on stage, the Handel museum says it was their supporters, not the women themselves, who fought. But satirical pamphleteers jumped on the story and the divas were immortalized in “The Beggar’s Opera”.

Although the limelight tended to shine on the less savory aspects of their lives, the divas of Handel’s age were also symbols of female empowerment long before the Spice Girls burst on to the pop scene in the 1990s with “girl power”.

“They were very famous and even notorious, and perhaps the first female performers who got about the world,” Clapton said.

“They would negotiate their own salaries and were unusually independent for women in the 18th Century. They weren’t stuck behind a curtain knitting.”

“Handel and the Divas” runs from April 30 to November 16.

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