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"Prima Donnas"


The dictionary defines prima donna as 'the lead female singer in an opera'

But we're used to seeing prima donnas as much more than that: incredible stage stars with unearthly voices and ill-tempered personalities. How did a standard wage rate in Italian theatres (where there was a seconda donna and even an altra prima donna as well as the prima donna) come to signify musical royalty?

Cecilia Bartoli, who has long earned the title of 'prima donna assoluta', described the ascent of women to opera stardom in our recent interview 'I was curious how, at the turn of the 18–19th centuries, the common term 'divo' gradually morphed into the contemporary 'diva', while the meaning remained essentially unchanged: the word was still used to refer to an outstanding operatic personality around whom the entire colour of musical and secular society revolved. In the 1730s England and Spain were focused on one superstar – Farinelli. Farinelli was a symbol of the glamorous world of the castrati, with their distinctive vocal gift and equally remarkable tantrums on and off stage. However, views changed during the Enlightenment, and opera fans in the early 19th century began to turn their attention away from extravagant castrati to a completely different kind of theatre celebrity – opera prima donnas. Women performers better fit the demands and values of post-revolutionary bourgeois society; the castrati suddenly became a symbol of all things artificial. Young composers now took inspiration from women, whose influence extended beyond the musical scores to theatre repertoires, the vocal compositions of premieres and even the salaries of singers. Women became increasingly present in the social and cultural life of Europe: Isabella Colbran, Giuditta Pasta and Maria Malibran – all embodied the freedom-loving, impulsive spirit of romanticism.'

Certainly, few opera divas today can boast such ubiquitous authority. That said, there are a few names worth mentioning. Our current selection of productions is dedicated to the Prima Donnas of modern-day opera, exclusively for


Semele, conceived by Handel as an opera dressed up as a traditionally religious oratorio, caused outrage among the London public with its unusually immoral characters. Robert Carsen's production, originally from 1999, found a new lease of life only after the Zurich Opera invited Cecilia Bartoli for the main part.

Written on Skin

George Benjamin's Written on Skin (Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, 2012) is a prominent example of Katie Mitchell's direction and serves as an equally brilliant showcase of Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan.

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The Russian Society of Friends of the Salzburg Festival is a national community of philanthropists established in 2013 by the president of the Festival to support Russian performers.
The Aksenov Family Foundation is a platform that initiates and supports projects aimed at developing culture and intellectual innovations. The Foundation explores the contents and boundaries of the cultural sector and the development of means of assessing the social significance of contemporary culture and art.

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