Opera Studies Forum: "Performing Celebrity" by Margaret Butler

Monday, April 17, 2017 - 5:30pm
2390 University Capitol Centre
200 S. Capitol St.
Iowa City, IA 52240

On Monday, April 17, Margaret Butler (University of Florida) will give a lecture titled "Performing Celebrity: Opera Theaters, Audiences, and the Late Eighteenth-Century Prima Donna."

The image of the prima donna brings to mind the iconic operas of Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, Verdi, and Puccini; or seventeenth-century Venice; or Handel in London; or early 20th-century American entertainment. Eclipsed by the castrato, the prima donna in Italian opera seria between 1750 and 90, by contrast, has yet to receive the attention she merits. These decades witnessed the revitalization of Europe’s leading operatic genre, the expansion of the professional singer’s international network, and sovereignty’s transformation in an increasingly cosmopolitan Europe: all contexts in which the prima donna played a vital role.

Soprano Caterina Gabrielli (1730–96) outshone her contemporaries in the views of critics. Foregrounding her experience in a long view of a group whose history is not yet written prompts basic questions: how was operatic celebrity created and performed in the late eighteenth century? What links this group to similar ones of the past and future?  Finally, how did generic conventions condition the group’s identity and determine its role in the operatic genre’s historiography? To approach these questions, in this paper I examine Gabrielli within the framework of the careers and reception of three contemporaries, Lucrezia Agujari, Luigia Todi, and Brigida Giorgi Banti, all successful prime donne in opera seria. I explore the prima donna’s role in a city and theatrical institution’s cultural memory and in the construction of a public persona. I draw on sources by the era’s leading composers (Traetta, Paisiello, and others), encomia, librettos, and historiographical evidence to examine the creation and performance of celebrity in the late eighteenth century within opera seria culture and the prima donna’s rise to prominence.


Margaret Butler is an associate professor of musicology at the University of Florida. Her research focuses on European opera in the eighteenth century and American musical theater. Her book on French and Italian entertainments in reform-era Parma is under contract with The University of Rochester Press, to be published in the Eastman Studies in Music series. She received a grant from the Delmas Foundation for research in Venice in summer 2017 for her next book, on the prima donna in mid-late century opera seria, the larger project from which today’s paper is drawn. Her article on the castrato Guadagni and the construction of his persona appeared in fall 2015 in the Cambridge Opera Journal. Other articles have appeared in the Journal of the American Musicological Society, Eighteenth-Century Music, Early Music, Music in Art: International Journal for Musical Iconography, and a number of essay collections. She authored the chapter on Italian Opera in The Cambridge History of Eighteenth-Century Music and her first book, Operatic Reform in Turin: Aspects of Production and Stylistic Change in the 1760s, published by Libreria Musicale Italiana, was based on research she conducted in Italy as a Fulbright Fellow. She is a member of the AMS Committee on Career-Related Issues, past member of the AMS Board Nominating and RISM Committees, and is past president of the AMS Southern Chapter.

Opera Studies Forum is presenting an exciting lineup of topics on Opera from the 18th-century divas to the 20th-century operas Rusalka and La Fanciulla del West. The first two talks on Feb. 2 and 23 will take place in the brand new Voxman Music Building on Burlington and Clinton Streets. The lectures on March 9, March 23, and April 20 take place in the usual venue at University Capitol Center 2520D.