Prima Donnas in the Salon

You see her among her colleagues at an artists’ soirée, counterbalancing the sumptuous costumes that she often wears at the theatre with the simplicity of her clothing and hairstyle, seating herself at the piano and singing romances she herself composed that project a pure and distinguished harmony. We are charmed by the faithful, sensitive text setting, with a melody alternately naïve or virtuosic, and an accompaniment as Liszt or Thalberg might write.

– Henri Blanchard, “Mme Damoreau,” La Revue et Gazette musicale de Paris, November 15, 1840.

Singers in nineteenth-century Paris were extraordinarily active: in addition to rehearsals and opera performances, many also sang at the city’s fashionable salons. The salon provided a space for aspiring singers to gain experience before launching their professional careers. In the years prior to her 1848 Opéra Comique début, Delphine Ugalde (1829–1910) sang in countless soirées; they “did not pay much,” she wrote, “but one had to perform a lot to finally obtain an opportunity to earn money.” The salon also became a refuge for opera singers after their retirement from the stage. Laure Cinti-Damoreau (1801–1863) continued performing in the salons long after she retired in 1841, often singing her own compositions and accompanying herself at the piano.

Aside from opera arias and ensembles, singers also performed lighter fare of romances, tyroliennes, and chansonnettes, written by contemporary song composers or even themselves— Maria Malibran (1808–1836), her sister Pauline Viardot (1821–1910), Cinti-Damoreau, and her daughter, Marie (1834–1906), all composed. During the period, composers also published songs identifying specific singers on their title pages, as a form of dedication and for publicity purposes: when launched in the salons under the patronage of a fashionable singer, the romance became a veritable commodity, as Jacques-Auguste Delaire noted in 1845. Music journals, such as Le Ménestrel owned by the Heugel publishing house, even paid singers for promoting the songs they published.

Salon performances also included the participation of amateurs and semi-professionals. Middle-class and aristocratic social codes typically precluded women from performing professionally in public, by exchanging their vocal talent for money. However, several women, such as Mme Iweins-d’Hennin, Mme Lefébure-Wely, and Émilie Gaveaux-Sabatier (1820–1896)—the latter once called the “Patti of the romance”—capitalized on the venue’s semi-public space to carve out a successful and fulfilling existence as salon and concert singers.

Further Reading

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