The best books about nineteenth-century divas

Why am I passionate about this?

I fell in love with opera history as an undergraduate exchange student in Vienna and went on to pursue my passion in graduate school. Rather than writing about opera composers and their music, I chose the unusual path of studying famous singers from the nineteenth century, especially the prima donnas who exerted extraordinary authority over composers, theater directors, and spectators. In my books and articles, I focus on the power of divas to thrill audiences and to shape the musical culture of which they are an integral part. The books I am recommending explore the lives and careers of some of the most fascinating prima donnas of the nineteenth century.


I wrote...

Gioachino Rossini's The Barber of Seville

By Hilary Poriss,

Book cover of Gioachino Rossini's The Barber of Seville

What is my book about?

I wrote Gioachino Rossini’s The Barber of Seville as an homage to the singers who have performed the roles of Almaviva, Bartolo, Rosina, Basilio, and Berta since the opera’s raucous premiere on February 20, 1816 up to the present day. 

While Rossini and his music play prominent roles in this book, the true stars are the prima donnas and leading men who altered Rossini’s score in performance. Some of these actors cut musical numbers, while others added new arias and layered Rossini’s music with ornaments so thick that the original melody became virtually unrecognizable. This book tells the stories of these singerly alterations, illustrating how performers’ creativity, combined with operatic malleability, has helped this opera remain one of the most popular works of all time. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Queens of Song

Hilary Poriss Why did I love this book?

First published in 1864, Queens of Song is one of the earliest group biographies of famous divas of the operatic stage. Beginning with chapters on prima donnas who lived during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Creathorne Clayton moves quickly to the nineteenth century, focusing on powerful divas like Giuditta Pasta, Henrietta Sontag, and Giulia Grisi. Renowned for their talents and beloved by audiences worldwide, these divas often wielded outsized influence on the composers who wrote music for them and the impresarios who hired them. The individual chapters are short, but they are each surprisingly comprehensive, providing a full and vivid picture of the lives and accomplishments of these memorable, and often very demanding, artists. 

By Ellen Creathorne Clayton,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Queens of Song as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This work has been selected by scholars as being culturally important, and is part of the knowledge base of civilization as we know it. This work was reproduced from the original artifact, and remains as true to the original work as possible. Therefore, you will see the original copyright references, library stamps (as most of these works have been housed in our most important libraries around the world), and other notations in the work.

This work is in the public domain in the United States of America, and possibly other nations. Within the United States, you may freely copy and…


Book cover of Maria Malibran: Diva of the Romantic Age

Hilary Poriss Why did I love this book?

Few nineteenth-century celebrities were as fascinating as Maria Malibran (1808-1836). She made her debut at London’s King’s Theatre at the ripe age of seventeen, and then blazed a trail across Europe and New York City, becoming one of the most in-demand and beloved prima donnas of her day. But, as April FitzLyon compellingly illustrates, Malibran’s life was anything but perfect. Her father, the famous tenor Manuel Garcia, may have abused her as a child, and her first husband, Eugene Malibran, went bankrupt shortly following their wedding. Most disturbing was her premature death at the age of 28, the result of overwork and a gory horse-riding accident. This biography presents a devastating account of the pressures, pains, and glories inherent in leading the life of a superstar during the first half of the nineteenth century.

By April Fitzlyon,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Maria Malibran as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Book


Book cover of An Unofficial Marriage: A Novel about Pauline Viardot and Ivan Turgenev

Hilary Poriss Why did I love this book?

Pauline Viardot (1821-1910) was one of the most celebrated prima donnas of the nineteenth century, but she was much more than a typical diva. She was also one of the most versatile artists of the era, a talented composer, arranger, teacher, autograph collector, entrepreneur, salonnière, and promoter of early music. While fictionalized, this novel sticks closely to historical events of her life, focusing on her marriage to Louis Viardot, her long-lasting affair with Russian author Ivan Turgenev, and the unconventional and loving bonds that formed between these three extraordinary artists. If you’re looking for historical fiction about one of the most fascinating divas of the nineteenth century, An Unofficial Marriage is a great choice.

By Joie Davidow,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked An Unofficial Marriage as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

For Fans of Alexander Chee's best-selling novel, The Queen of the Night and opera fans everywhere.

Set against the backdrop of the tumultuous events of 19th century Europe, An Unofficial Marriage dramatizes the equally tumultuous real-life love affair of two great artists—the famous Russian author, Ivan Turgenev, and the celebrated French opera singer, Pauline Viardot. From the moment he encounters her on the St. Petersburg stage, Ivan falls completely for Pauline. Though Pauline returns his feelings, she is bound by her singular passion for her art and her devotion to her gentle, older husband, Louis. Nevertheless, Ivan pursues Pauline across…


Book cover of Female Singers on the French Stage, 1830-1848

Hilary Poriss Why did I love this book?

Through a dazzling collection of sources that include letters, contracts, memoirs, biographies, newspaper reviews, and fictional stories about the figure of the cantatrice, Kimberly White’s French Singers on the French Stage is a brilliant account of the various stages of singers’ lives in nineteenth-century France, beginning with their births and following them up to and past their retirements. In between, she describes their training at the Paris Conservatoire, debuts, marriages, benefits, and scores of other important issues that they grappled with throughout their careers. I do not know of any other work in the field of prima donna or opera studies that is at once as thorough and as lucidly written—it is a page-turner from beginning to end.

By Kimberly White,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Female Singers on the French Stage, 1830-1848 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The study of singers' art has emerged as a prominent area of inquiry within musicology in recent years. Female Singers on the French Stage, 1830-1848 shifts the focus from the artwork onstage to the labour that went on behind the scenes. Through extensive analysis of primary source documents, Kimberly White explores the profession of singing, operatic culture, and the representation of female performers on the French stage between 1830 and 1848, and reveals new perspectives on the social, economic, and cultural status of these women. The book attempts to reconstruct and clarify contemporary practices of the singer at work, including…


Book cover of The Queen of the Night

Hilary Poriss Why did I love this book?

This novel is pure guilty pleasure, telling the captivating tale of Lilliet Berne, one of Europe’s most sought-after prima donnas. Although Berne herself is fictional, her adventures and the mystery she attempts to solve bring her into contact with a number of historical figures like Giuseppe and Giuseppina Verdi, Cora Pearl, and Pauline Viardot. I love this book for its deft combination of real and imaginary, layering a story of lust, love, and murder over a meticulously researched education in the realities of nineteenth-century theatrical life.

By Alexander Chee,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Queen of the Night as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Recommended by The Observer . . .

'One doesn't so much read it, as one is bewitched by it. Epic, gorgeous, haunting' HANYA YANAGIHARA, author of A Little Life

When it begins, it begins as an opera should begin: in a palace, at a ball, in an encounter with a stranger, who you discover has your fate in his hands . . .

She is Lilliet Berne. And she is the soprano.

1882. One warm autumn evening in Paris, Lilliet is finally offered an original role, though it comes at a price. The part is based on her deepest secret.…


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By Norrin M. Ripsman,

Book cover of The Oracle of Spring Garden Road

Norrin M. Ripsman Author Of The Oracle of Spring Garden Road

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Too often, I find that novelists force the endings of their books in ways that aren’t true to their characters, the stories, or their settings. Often, they do so to provide the Hollywood ending that many readers crave. That always leaves me cold. I love novels whose characters are complex, human, and believable and interact with their setting and the story in ways that do not stretch credulity. This is how I try to approach my own writing and was foremost in my mind as I set out to write my own book.

Norrin's book list on novels that nail the endings

What is my book about?

The Oracle of Spring Garden Road explores the life and singular worldview of “Crazy Eddie,” a brilliant, highly-educated homeless man who panhandles in front of a downtown bank in a coastal town.

Eddie is a local enigma. Who is he? Where did he come from? What brought him to a life on the streets? A dizzying ride between past and present, the novel unravels these mysteries, just as Eddie has decided to return to society after two decades on the streets, with the help of Jane, a woman whose intelligence and integrity rival his own. Will he succeed, or is…

The Oracle of Spring Garden Road

By Norrin M. Ripsman,

What is this book about?

“Crazy Eddie” is a homeless man who inhabits two squares of pavement in front of a bank in downtown Halifax, Nova Scotia. In this makeshift office, he panhandles and dispenses his peerless wisdom. Well-educated, fiercely intelligent with a passionate interest in philosophy and a profound love of nature, Eddie is an enigma for the locals. Who is he? Where did he come from? What brought him to a life on the streets? Though rumors abound, none capture the unique worldview and singular character that led him to withdraw from the perfidy and corruption of human beings. Just as Eddie has…


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