Francesca Cuzzoni (1696-1778) was considered one of the greatest singers of the Baroque era. She had a two octave range from C4 to C6 and, reportedly, never sang off key. Composers from Vivaldi to Handel sought her out to perform their works. However, with the flawless voice came an absolutely hellish temper. The prima donna would refuse to sing music as the composers had written it and would often verbally and physically abuse female singers.
Apparently, when she was rehearsing Handel’s new opera Ottone, she refused, for no apparent reason, to sing the aria Falsa Immagine. Handel, who had had enough of her diva behavior, responded by picking her up by the waist and threatening to throw her out the window. After this incident, Cuzzoni reportedly never sang anything as beautifully as she did Falsa Immagine.
On June 6, 1727, Cuzzoni started an onstage catfight with her greatest rival Faustina Bordoni. The two ladies exchanged obscenities whilst each tried to rip the other’s hair out. Unfortunately, the princess of Wales just happened to be in the audience that night. The subsequent scandal caused the premature end of that year’s opera season.
Adelina Patti (1843-1919) was one of the first superstar celebrities. She had everything: she was beautiful, she had a flawless voice with a range from C4 to F6, and she was one of the few opera singers who could actually act. And she certainly knew it! To insure she never had any rivals, Patti would often pull tricks on fellow sopranos so they would feel uncomfortable and be unable to sing. Patti also insisted on being paid an obscene amount of money and would refuse to go onstage if it wasn’t delivered 12 hours before the curtain went up.
Patti even allowed the scandal of her personal life to interfere with her professional life: a rather unusual action for that time frame. During the 1880s, it was suspected that she was having an extramarital affair with a tenor named Nicolini. During an 1886 performance of Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette, Patti and Nicolini exchanged a total of 29 kisses during the balcony scene, thus leaving no doubt in the public’s mind about her moral standing.
However, Patti’s glorious voice and flirtatious personality always kept her from being condemned by the straight-laced Victorian society. Patti was constantly in contact with kings, heads of state, and other important personages. She is even mentioned, with admiration, in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Dame Nellie Melba
The next time you eat melba toast or peach melba, you can thank the Australian soprano Nellie Melba (1861-1931) after whom the foods are named. Melba had a glorious, wide-ranging voice that could sing everything from Madame Butterfly to La Boheme to Hamlet.
However, the diva was extremely egotistical. She honestly thought that the entire opera world revolved around her. Apparently, during a Chicago performance of Romeo et Juliette, she insisted on the premature ending of the performance because her voice was supposedly gone. Melba would often interrupt the high notes of other sopranos and, reportedly, made life miserable for several young singers including Rosa Ponselle and Luisa Tetrazzini. One of the most famous stories about the diva says that, when John McCormack made his London debut, Melba pushed him away at the curtain calls and said “In this opera house, no one takes a bow with Nellie Melba!”
However, like all other divas, Melba’s faults were forgiven because there simply was not a more beautiful voice.
Kathleen Battle (1948- ) is blessed with a voice so beautiful that she became world famous despite that fact that she usually sang secondary roles. However, her beautiful voice could not hide her almost unbelievably difficult personality.
Battle would constantly be rude to fellow performers and would even refuse to speak to “inferiors” such as stage hands and chauffeurs. Apparently, after an appearance at San Francisco opera, the stage hands had T-shirts made that stated “I survived the Battle”.
The situation came to a head when, in 1994, Battle insulted fellow cast members of the Met’s The Daughter of the Regiment, came late to rehearsals, and insisted that no one look at her. The Met’s general manager, Joseph Volpe, responded by dismissing the diva. Battle has never performed on the operatic stage since.
Without a doubt, Angela Gheorghiu (1965- ) has one of the most beautiful voices in the world. Her rich soprano is as soft as velvet and has lovely dark colorings. However, Gheorghiu also has one of the most difficult personalities the opera world has ever known. Her notorious diva behavior has earned her the unenviable nickname “Draculette”.
Gheorghiu is notorious for missing rehearsals and often insists on having new costumes for revival productions. She is constantly getting into arguments with conductors, directors, and other opera bigwigs. In fact, she has been dismissed for “unprofessional behavior” from both the Metropolitan Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Sources: McGovern, Dennis and Deborah Winer “I Remember Too Much”
Pogue, David and Scott Speck “Opera For Dummies”