The cult of celebrity as we know it really began in the 19th century. Blame the industrial revolution. People suddenly had time on their hands and the disposable income to go with it. Religion began to lose its stranglehold on morality; its disapproval of entertainment for entertainment’s sake was no longer so influential.
Who were the Tom Cruises and Nicole Kidmans of their day? Opera singers. They were followed zealously; their lives fodder for the society pages and gossip columns of newspapers and magazines. Upper class matrons vied for the honor of hosting a famous tenor or soprano at their suppers and dances. Singers had photographs called carte de visites made to hand out to fans (the precursors of today’s trading cards).
The devotion lavished on 19th century opera stars gave them a level of freedom and status that had never quite existed before—especially for women. Singers like Adelina Patti and her sister Carlotta, Jenny Lind, Pauline Lucca and Christine Nilsson were forgiven almost anything. Adelina Patti had an affair with a tenor while she was married to someone else, and while women at the highest levels of society condemned her, they still filled the seats whenever she sang at the Academy of Music in New York City, and she remained a much-coveted guest.
Opera stars had a huge amount of power; in much the same way a movie star today can green-light a movie, opera singers could make or break an opera or a composer. Often they changed music to suit themselves—Adelina Patti was famously rumored to have so changed an aria that Rossini, its composer, didn’t recognize it.
The next time you grab People magazine to read about the latest exploits of Brangelina, you’ll be joining a club that dates back over one hundred years.
Megan Chance is the award winning author of Prima Donna. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and two daughters.
IMAGE:prima donna Adelina Patti, c 19th century, N. Sarony, photographer