How to become one of Handel's divas

Monday 15 September 2014

George Frideric Handel came across a number of different singers throughout his career. Some of the women he worked with turned out to have strong, diva-like, personalities. If you are interested in gaining the ‘diva’ status in preparation for Handel’s Ottone this Autumn, read our quick guide!

1. Make sure people know that you are the best singer on the stage

Francesca Cuzzoni (who created the role of Teofane in Ottone in 1723) and Faustina Bordoni (who created the role of Rossane in Alessandro in 1726) were sworn enemies (affectionately known as ‘The Rival Queens’), their rivalry causing riots between audience members at opera houses as they booed and cheered their favourite singer. In June 1727, they fought on stage in front of the Prince of Wales at the King’s Theatre. The women were free with their insults in Italian, and pulled at each other’s hair and costumes before being escorted from the stage. Handel still kept both of these singers in his company however, despite the fact that this fight ended the opera season at the theatre!

2. Always keep your secrets under wraps

Susannah Cibber (contralto, whom Handel wrote the contralto arias in the Messiah for, as well as creating the roles of Micah in Samson, Lichas in Hercules and David in Saul) had an affair with a young man while married, and a court case revealed the sordid details. Consequently she was sued for damages by her angry husband, and fled to Dublin before Handel cast her in his Messiah in order to help her move back into polite society.

3. Have a thick skin for bad nicknames

Two of Handel’s sopranos, Margherita Durastanti (Handel wrote Agrippina for her in Venice), and Anna Maria Strada del Po (who sang in many premieres, including Orlando) both gained unfortunate nicknames during their careers. Margherita Durastanti was much admired by Handel, but not by his librettist Rolli, who said ‘What a bad choice for England! I shall not venture into her singing merit, but she is really an Elephant’. The nickname of ‘Elephant’, sadly, stuck. Anna Maria Strada del Po was very loyal to Handel, but the public in London called her ‘The Pig’ Strada – despite liking her voice!

4. Never get thrown out of a window…

Francesca Cuzzoni was clearly a feisty soprano, and allegedly refused to sing one of Handel’s arias in Ottone (‘Falsa immagine’) because it had been written before she was hired. The historian John Mainwaring documented that Handel responded to Cuzzoni’s refusal to sing with a heavy-handed threat: ‘Oh! Madame, I know well that you are a real she-devil, but I hereby give you notice that I am Beelzebub, the chief of devils’, and with this he picked her up by the waist and threatened to throw her out of the window. Needless to say, the aria was then allowed to stay in the opera, and became one of Cuzzoni’s greatest concert and recital arias for the remainder of her career. She eventually moved back to Italy after retiring from singing, and it is said that she worked in a button factory to earn her now small living.

Alice Wright

Made Media Ltd.