Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Reframing the Victorians: Opera Singers in the Victorian Society

If I do say so myself, opera is amazing. As an opera singer in training, I greatly admire female opera singers of the 19th century. They were strong independent women who succeeded in a male dominated world, and gained respect in a society where they considered second class. They were successful, independent and wealthy, and not always married or reliant on men. However, their position in society was obscure as they had no position in the class system. These women were bestowed great honours by royalty, yet were not always fit to dwell with ‘high society’. In Downton Abbey, the character of Nellie Melba is excluded from dining with Lord and Lady Grantham as the butler thinks it inappropiate that she dine with aristocracy, yet sees it as below her to dine with servants.   The mysterious role of opera singers in society, to me, is a fascinating subject. 

Opera was established in the 17th century. It is important to remember that women had not long been performing on the stage; as far back as Ancient Greece, women were not allowed to perform on the stage, and this was a trend that carried through to the Elizabethan period. Opera was established as royal entertainment in Italy and France, they were flamboyant productions used to show off wealth and power for political visits. This shows that the role of opera in society has always been something quite elitist, as it still remains today. 

The Downfall of Shakespeare Represented on a Modern Stage. Dawes, William. 1763-65. London. V&A Online Archives. 

 Opera is seen as officially beginning in England began in 1636, when William Davenant secured a patent from King Charles I to build an Opera House. It was after this that it was prominent in England. In the 19th Century, one of the most successful Opera houses in London was the Royal Opera house in Covent Garden. The opera had moved away from being only a political expression of wealth, but was also a social expression. One star of the Royal Opera House I find intriguing is Nellie Melba. (Not only because the peach melba is named after her...)

Nellie Melba. Haviland, Frank. "Twenty Years a Diva: Mme. Melba's 20th Year at Covent Garden" Illustrated London News. June 1908.

Melba is a prominent and successful figure in opera. She exemplifies all the fascination of the Victoria Opera Singer. Born in Australia, she was the child of a builder, and was encouraged to study music from a young age, but was discouraged from having a career as a professional singer.
Like the steroetypical woman of her time, Nellie married and became a mother; she married Charles Nesbitt Frederick Armstrong in 1882. They had one child together, but the marriage did not last. Like women of her time, Nellie was abused by her husband and eventually left him.The fact that she had the confidence to leave her husband, and be an independent woman in Victorian society shows her determination; she would have been judged, and possibly even shunned. Nellie found herself in London where her debut was unsuccessful. It was then she was trained in Paris under Mathilde Marchesi, a prominent figure in opera. Her return to London after her training was still not received well; her performance in 1888 in Lucia di Lammermoor was not given a rave review. It was only with the support of Lady De Gray, who had influence at the Opera house, that she became successful. 

After numerous successful performances in London and in Europe, Nellie was at the height of her career, and was a successful independent woman. Had she become more than just a builders daughter? Or was she still just an opera singer? We can question her position in society by looking at her affair with Prince Phillip, Duke of Orleans. This created gossip and excitement, yet it was only an affair and would be nothing more. She was not suitable marriage material for someone of the aristocracy. This affair prompted Nellie’s estranged husband to file for divorce; a victorian taboo. It is hard to imagine that someone considered respectable in society would be adulterous. This part of Nellie’s life adds further speculation to how opera singers were considered. 

One interesting point about her life, is her role as Violetta in La Traviata, and how this could be a situation where life is imitating art. 

Punch Magazine. John Leech. 1857.

La Traviata by Verdi, makes an interesting comment about the ideas of women at the time, and in turn a comment on the reputation of opera singers. As an allegorical piece, it makes comments on the role of women and how they were expected to behave in the Victorian Era. The plot focuses around Violetta, a courtesan in 19th century Paris. She is a girl who is loved by many, and can be considered a socialite. It follows her story as she runs away with Alfredo, a man from a good family. His father disapproves of their relationship because of Violetta’s reputation and the fact that she is not seen as noble. This idea of her reputation is highlighted when Alfredo 'pays her for her services'.  This could be seen that like an opera singer, her role in society was nothing more than to entertain; going against the tight-laced and proper views of victorian women. 

This plot links back to the reputation of women at the time, and especially opera singers. The picture seen above is from Punch magazine, and can be used as an example of how opera singers were considered at the time. You can see the poster advertising La Traviata in the background, and the woman is clearly a singer, welcoming in another girl. The term ‘gay’ then being used as another word for prostitute. Were opera singers then considered the same social standing as prostitutes? Perhaps opera singers were, they were just entertainment in a different form. 
Crowquill, Alred. H Beard Print Collection (A scene from La Traviata) 1856. London - V&A Online Archives

This is only a glimpse into how opera singers were considered in Victorian society. Where did they fit in the social standing? They were fascinating women because of the power that they commanded, and they were able to be rich and independent without want of a husband. However, in Victorian society, this freedom would not have come without a reputation. They were women that were able to transcend the class system, yet still be part of an upper class world. Their role in this was limited because of the stigma attached to them. If we again look at Nellie Melba as iconic singer of the victorian era, the modern day adaptation of Nellie in Downton Abbey sums up how they were perceived in society. It is easy to argue that these women were not truly respected. They had immense talent, and as someone studying opera, I know how hard and taxing it is. Their voice was their life, and by having a voice, these women were iconic for their generation. 

Works Cited: 

The Early History of Opera - V&A Online Archives 

Opera in the 19th Century - V&A Online Archives 


  1. Your passion for opera certainly shines through your writing here! It also made me think about Margaret from Mary Barton who if I remember correctly becomes a singer, or has the ability to sing? Either way it was really nice reading through your work and educating myself on something I had no clue about properly till now.

  2. I couldn't agree more: opera is amazing! And it's nice to know that I'm not alone in thinking that (in our generation). I found your text to be very entertaining and interesting, and it was fun to learn more about opera in general. Very well written and, of course, an excellent choice of topic!

  3. I'm glad I'm not alone either, it's definitely a niche market you could say for our generation. I was really interested by this because of the women and all of their background stories. There are so many stories that are similar to Nellie Melba's that are fascinating!