The operatic diva, a singer of strange songs, and too often a turbulent, unkind girl, haunted the nineteenth-century imagination, as evidenced by the musical tales of E. T. A. Hoffmann and numerous retellings of those tales in theatre, ballet and opera. Each adaptation of Hoffmann's ‘Rat Krespel’, ‘Der Sandmann’ and ‘Don Juan’ reflects an ambivalent attitude towards women performers, whose potent voices make them simultaneously desirable and fearsome. How do these stories about female singers contrive to contain and manage the singing woman’s authority? And how does the prima donna's voice repeatedly make itself heard, eluding and overcoming narrative attempts to shape or contain its turbulent noise?
Let me begin with an excerpt from ‘Rat Krespel’ (1818), which might serve as a parable for relationships between female singers and male music lovers in the Romantic imagination. Krespel, a young German musician, travelled in Italy and was fortunate enough to win the heart of a celebrated diva, Angela, whose name seemed only appropriate to her heavenly voice. Unfortunately, her personality was less than heavenly, and when she was not actually singing he found her violent whims and demands for attention very trying. One day, as he stood playing his violin:
[Angela] embraced her husband, overwhelmed him with sweet and languishing glances, and rested her pretty head on his shoulder. But Krespel, carried away into the world of music, continued to play on until the walls echoed again; thus he chanced to touch the Signora somewhat ungently with his arm and the fiddle bow.