I took part in the preliminary research for the exhibition Opera: Passion, Power & Politics four years ago at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. I was investigating early opera in seventeenth-century Venice and I was fascinated by a soprano, Anna Renzi, considered by many the first prima donna, as she was the first woman to sing opera for a living, she wasn’t a courtesan. Very little evidence of her life has survived and only one portrait from a book that was dedicated to her.

Anna-Renzi – c. 1600 after 1660

Although I stopped working at the V&A, I continued to investigate the history of prime donne and I spent three years buying all the books I could find as well as going to operas and recitals almost every week. I wanted to understand why these women are so fascinating and why they were (and some still are) so worshipped by audiences. As an avid theatre goer, I was also suffering the impossibility to experience the performances of past prima donnas: the only clues we have are written accounts from the audience and illustrations, and for a few of them surviving letters give a glimpse of their own thoughts and feelings

Giuditta Pasta, 1797-1865, one of four prima donnas I played in the performance-lecture

As a historian, I kept digging for evidence about prime donne to create profiles as complex as I could. As an opera-lover, I was eager to find any hints that could help me get a physical sense of their performances: how they moved, what they wore, how they talked and acted, how they interacted with the audience. Although we do have scores and libretti, some of which were written precisely for certain performers, every new recording is an interpretation that mirrors the intentions of the singer, the conductor and the producer, distancing me even more from past prime donne.

Introducing the performance-lecture in a black catsuit

Earlier this year, when the V&A was programming events in conjunction with the exhibition, I proposed to give a lecture on the history of prime donne that would also include performances, where I would be interpreting the singers myself. I had not a clear idea of what I was going to do; no one did in fact but my academic prowess was a guarantee that I would deliver effective research. My only certainty was that I wanted to become part of their history, to use my body as a channel for these prime donne to come back to life.

Maria-Callas, 1923-1977

I selected four prime donne and four arias and I started to rehearse lip syncing: somehow all my knowledge came together, all the observations – gained through years of attending theatre – on how singers move on stage and how their bodies have to be in specific positions to produce certain notes. My body was almost unconsciously adjusting itself to the role. Then I found an interview of Maria Callas where she says that movements are inscribed in the music, if one listens carefully, one will find all the information there. So that’s what I did: I never watched any video of performances of the selected arias and I only used the intuition of my body, my ears and, obviously, my research.

Francesca Cuzzoni, 1696 -1778

Costume played an essential role in the performance: I was adamant that I would use costume not as a form of drag but as a tool to trigger the audience imagination. When I ‘played’ the lecturer, I wore a black catsuit, on which I wore individual pieces of costume when performing each of the prime donne. For Maria Callas, the ‘costume’ was no more than a chignon, lipstick and a pearl necklace, yet it was extremely effective. I also used different lights for the lecture mode and performances.

Maria-Callas, 1923-1977

Giuditta Pasta, 1797-1865

I not only lip synced to arias associated with each prima donna, but I also enacted them: I wrote short monologues by joining researched facts with my personal understanding of the character of each singer. A combination of fiction and factual: imagination was the only way that I could fill the lacks in the surviving evidence and performing was the way through which I investigated my own imagination. I view this event as a total work of research, where textual and audio-visual sources are managed through physical knowledge.

‘Playing’ the lecturer

The theatre was full, more than 200 people attended, and the response was extremely positive: despite many enquired what the event was – whether a lecture or a performance – everyone after acknowledged the success of the format. The greatest, and most frequent compliment I received was that people learnt a lot and were also entertained. I think this is a very effective way of presenting research on a topic that is entirely performative: when the lecture takes on the same form as the topic, it appears to gain consistency and it becomes more accessible. The next step is to continue to work on this performance and turn it into a fully-fledged theatre show, as well as to apply this format to my other great passion, showgirls and popular music divas.

Find out more about the Art of the prima donna

Read more about Matteo’s research 

Matteo on Fashion Curation