Historically vilified, the vocalizing woman developed a stereotyped image with the emergence of the prima donna in eighteenth-century opera. By the nineteenth century, the prima donna became the focal point for socio-cultural polemics: women sought financial and social independence through a career on the operatic stage while society attempted to maintain through various means the socio-cultural stability now threatened by women's mobility. The prima donna represented both a positive ideal for women as well as a great threat to western patriarchy. A discourse emerged in which the symbol of female independence and success ”the prima donna" became the site of tactical control and containment. The prima donna stereotype, opera plot and music, and literature all presented the vilified image as a warning of the disaster awaiting women who overstepped the social boundaries established in the patriarchal image of ideal womanhood. Pauline Viardot confronted this attempt at containment by fulfilling society's expectations of her as a woman and simultaneously confounding its presentation of women opera stars. Viardot performed the role of social woman: she married young, she raised a family, she held a salon, and she engaged in other approved social activities. Madame Viardot's acceptance and fulfillment of the roles established for her by her contemporary society provided her a unique freedom within society in which she could maintain a career on the operatic stage without succumbing to the traditional detritus of the popular press, literature or social ostracizing. She crafted her own image rather than allow society to stigmatize or vilify her. Her success was chronicled in contemporary literature written by women who viewed prima donnas as spokespersons for the female plight. Much of this literature explores women's hopelessness and despair in the face of highly restrictive social codes. Prima donnas engaged in a very public career through which they established financial independence, professional success, and an identity literally shaped by their own voices. George Sand briefly explored the artist-woman's search for freedom and independence in her 1833 Lélia, but it was not until Sand met Pauline Viardot that she was able to create a heroine who could gain a respected position in society, enjoy lasting personal happiness, maintain social and financial independence, and who lived to enjoy the fruits of her labor. Consuelo stands as a permanent record of Viardot's impact on her contemporary society. Pauline Viardot successfully revised the image of the prima donna and that of women in the process. Viardot navigated the centuries-old tradition which demonized publicly vocalizing women and created a new image of the woman-artist. An accomplished actress among other things, Viardot successfully performed the roles of social woman, inspiration of a literary heroine, and prima donna. It is her successful negotiation of these roles which allowed her to carve out a unique position in her contemporary society, a position that allowed her to teach at the Paris Conservatory, support the careers of budding male musicians, garner the respect of royalty, publish and perform her own musical compositions, and live a long, fulfilling life. Letters addressed to Viardot, contemporary accounts by male musicians, and her immortalization in Sand's Consuelo all record the new image Viardot created: that of a respected member of society and operatic performer of great artistic and musical genius.
College and Department
Humanities; Humanities, Classics, and Comparative Literature
BYU ScholarsArchive Citation
Fairbank, Rebecca Bennett, "Devastating Diva: Pauline Viardot and Rewriting the Image of Women in Nineteenth-Century French Opera Culture" (2013). Theses and Dissertations. 3788.
Pauline Viardot-García, prima donna, épouse et mère, George Sand, opera, gender, diva, performance, women, Orpheus, women's literature, music, Consuelo, Romanticism, genius