By any measure, Adelina Patti (1843–1919) must be considered the leading singer, if not the leading musician, of the later nineteenth century. Her sizable body of recordings (twenty-eight) makes her a key witness to late nineteenth-century performance style. Her great celebrity also ensured lavish written documentation of her life, including what she did, what people said about her, and sometimes what she said about herself. In this article I bring together these two types of material to consider a central aspect of Patti's life and artistry: her relationship to contemporary notions of femininity. Like all women who entertained before the public, Patti contended with the taint of immorality. I argue that her response to that taint shaped both her overall conduct and her particular vocalism. For while in truth her way of life fundamentally contradicted the reigning ideals of womanhood, Patti projected in her dress, her makeup, her public statements, her published imagery, and, most importantly, her stage characterizations and vocal styling the most perfect manifestation of femininity available: the virginal ingénue. The consistency of this self-performance encourages the identification of a similar persona in her singing, and indeed through close readings of several recordings I expose what I call her “maidenly mode,” a vocal strategy analogous to her other ingenuous representations. If many, like Verdi, found in Patti a “perfect equilibrium between singer and actress,” her example can begin to suggest to us what it meant to sound like an ingénue in late nineteenth-century Europe.
Singing Herself: Adelina Patti and the Performance of Femininity
ROGER FREITAS is Associate Professor of Musicology at the Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester. He has published articles on the Italian cantata, Luigi Rossi, the castrato, and issues of performance practice in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He is the author of Portrait of a Castrato: Politics, Patronage, and Music in the Life of Atto Melani (Cambridge University Press, 2009), which won the Philip Brett Award. He is currently working on an edition of Rossi's opera Il palazzo incantato.
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Roger Freitas; Singing Herself: Adelina Patti and the Performance of Femininity. Journal of the American Musicological Society 1 August 2018; 71 (2): 287–369. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/jams.2018.71.2.287
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