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Handel and The Divas

23/05/2008, By

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A new exhibition revealing the on and offstage lives of the first great musical divas is being held at Handel House Museum, London. Handel and the Divas explores the careers, rivalries, successes, failures and stories of scandalous behind-the-scenes behaviour which made the first divas the talk of 18th century London.

The exhibition concentrates on the female singers who brought Handel’s operas to life, providing a glimpse of a particularly extravagant part of London society, through a collection of objects, portraits and scores gathered from collections in the UK and Europe. Handel and the Divas is also filled with the key music and performances which unite the characters in the exhibition and which secured the reputation of each featured diva.

Although not coined until the 19th-century, the word diva (from the Italian ‘divina’ or ‘divine’) was inspired by the great female opera singers. Originally an entirely complimentary term, the word diva began to inherit notoriety due to the headstrong, arrogant and scandalous behaviour of the performers and is now regularly used to describe the attitudes of the modern prima donna.

The exhibition features Handel’s original divas, including, among others, Margherita Durastanti, Francesca Cuzzoni, Faustina Bordoni, Susannah Cibber and Kitty Clive.

The exhibition reveals tales of opera house riots caused by ‘The Rival Queens’, Cuzzoni and Bordoni, whose always-fractious relationship reached a new low on stage in London, dividing their audience into braying rival factions; the disgraced singer who fled to Dublin after an affair (which became the talk of London) but later gave a show-stopping premier performance of Handel’s Messiah; and the legend of the singer who Handel threatened to dangle from a window after she refused to sing an aria that he had written for someone else.

Among the exhibits are a rare and exquisite chalk and graphite sketch of Margherita Durastanti by Phillipe Mercier, on loan from the British Museum, magnificent oil portraits of Kitty Clive and Susannah Cibber from the Garrick Club, and Willem Verelst’s portrait of Anna Maria Strada del Po from the Gerald Coke Handel Collection. These loans will join Handel House’s own portrait of Faustina Bordoni by Nazari and other significant items from public and private 18th-century collections. Handel and the Divas also draws on brand new research by a group of writers, which will be published as a catalogue to accompany the exhibition.

The divas played an important role in Handel’s choice of subject and the development of his musical style. He sought particular female singers, first in Italy and later in Britain, to embody the female roles in his hugely successful operas and oratorios. The exhibition will cover the singers who created Handel’s most famous roles.

Martin Wyatt, deputy Director, Handel House Museum, said ‘Tales of the great female singers filled the gossip pages of 18th-century London newspapers, as, at that time, opera was the most popular public entertainment. By revealing the characters behind the first performances of Handel’s work, we will show the birth of the female opera singer, who coupled show-stopping performances of Handel’s work, with the demanding behaviour familiar to followers of the modern day diva. And amid the lurid tales and extravagant performances is the sublime music written by Handel, which continues to inspire audiences and divas alike.’

Throughout its run, Handel and the Divas will be complemented by a diverse series of live music events, exploring the repertoire created by the composer and his divas and performed in the very rooms in which Handel worked with the singers celebrated by the exhibition. Handel House Museum is at 25 Brook Street – Handel’s home from 1723 until his death in 1759.

Until November 16th
Handel House Museum
25 Brook Street
Mayfair
London W1K 4HB
+44 (0)20 7495 1685
Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday: 10 am to 6 pm
Thursdat: 10 am to 8 pm
Sunday: 12 noon to 6 pm
Closed Mondays, including Bank Holidays
Admission charges: £5 adults; £4.50 concessions; £2 children

Image 1 - George Friedrich Handel by Thomas Hudson, oil on canvas, eighteenth century. Credit: The Royal Collection © 2008 Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Image 2 - Catherine ‘Kitty’ Clive by Willem Verelst, 1740, oil on canvas. Mrs Clive is shown three-quarter length, seated at a harpsichord, and holding a sheet of music on which occur the words 'Sweet Bird.' She wears a grey silk dress trimmed with lace and pearls. Credit: The Art Archive/Garrick Club

Image 3 - Faustina Bordoni by Bartolomeo Nazari. Oil on canvas, c. 1734. Credit: Handel House Collections Trust

Image 4 - Susannah Cibber by Thomas Hudson, oil on canvas. Mrs Cibber wears a white silk dress with a pink bow at the front and a blue drapery over her left shoulder. Cibber, who had the ability to wring tears from an audience, sang in the first performance of Handel’s Messiah in Dublin on 13 April 1742. Credit: The Art Archive/Garrick Club

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