The best books about nineteenth-century divas

The Books I Picked & Why

Queens of Song

By Ellen Creathorne Clayton

Queens of Song

Why 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. 


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Maria Malibran: Diva of the Romantic Age

By April Fitzlyon

Maria Malibran: Diva of the Romantic Age

Why 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.


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

By Joie Davidow

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

Why 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.


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Female Singers on the French Stage, 1830-1848

By Kimberly White

Female Singers on the French Stage, 1830-1848

Why 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.


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The Queen of the Night

By Alexander Chee

The Queen of the Night

Why 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.


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