As Penhaligon’s prepares for Love At The Opera, we take a peek at some excitingly eccentric performers of the past.

Famous Opera Singers

As Shakespeare once wrote, all the world’s a stage. And, it seems, there are certain performers who have really taken this to heart over the years. As our very own Portraits Family settle down for a night at Love at the Opera, Penhaligon’s beholds some of opera’s well-known figures and looks at their life beyond the curtain.


Maria Callas: Soprano on a Scented Stage

Cast your mind back a hundred years to Manhattan, New York. Here, Maria Callas was born to Greek immigrants and the journey of one of the most successful sopranos in history began. Her rags-to-riches story has captured many an opera fan, as did her divisive voice, turbulent love life and her sudden death. Callas starred in her first lead role at the tender age of 15, and in fewer than 30 years on the stage, she performed a further 46 roles including Bizet’s Carmen, Puccini’s Tosca, and Bellini’s Norma. Her mother struggled with hardship during wartime Greece and forced Callas to leave the country. She eventually made it to New York, where here stardom began. The drama, however, unfolded as much off-stage as on. Callas had a well-known rivalry with another international soprano, Renata Tebaldi, and her love life was plagued by a gold-digging husband and an abusive lover. Then, at the height of her career in the 1950s, a dramatic loss in weight led to vocal problems. This didn’t deter adoration for her performances, however, which lasted for a further two decades until her early death in 1977. Callas was very near-sighted but was too vain to wear her thick glasses on stage. In fact, so Callas knew where to stand on stage, the sides of the stage were scented with perfume; would you believe it, her scent of choice was Penhaligon’s very own Hammam Bouquet!


Mademoiselle Maupin: Mistress of Disguise

Mademoiselle Maupin, born Julie D’Aubigny in 1673, led a rebellious life (back then, opera wasn’t so sophisticated and was rather frowned upon, you see – but that’s beside the point here). At the ripe old age of 14, D’Aubigny fell in love with an assistant fencing master and they fled to Marseille together – not because of her age, but because Serannes was accused of murder. Of course. Her professional opera career started in Marseilles but Serannes and D’Aubigny parted ways soon after, and the young opera singer found herself falling in love with a woman. The parents of the woman sent her off to a convent, but this didn’t dissuade D’Aubigny, no: she joined the convent in the disguise of a postulant to be with her lover. It would have all been terribly romantic, were it not for their rather outrageous escape plan: D’Aubigny took the body of a dead nun, placed it in her lover’s bed, and set the bed alight to frame her lover’s death so they could run away. The convent burned down as a result, alas, and once again D’Aubigny was a fugitive. Paris was her next destination, where after a spate of affairs (and a sword fight with a Duke’s son), she pursued an envious career in the opera. In her later years, Mademoiselle Maupin was faced with a death sentence but persuaded the king to pardon her in exchange for a performance at the palace. Which, one could argue, is a pretty impressive feat.

Ganna Walska: A Life of Romance

Born Hanna Puacz in 1887 in Poland, Walksa changed her name to pursue a career in professional singing. Her mother died at a young age and after her father remarried, she was sent to live with her uncle and took up musical studies in Russia. Soon after, Walska found herself performing in Paris, then later, to escape World War I, New York. One might call her the Henry VIII of the opera world, as Walska married six times throughout her life (thankfully, there were no beheadings involved). What did her husbands all have in common? Their abundant wealth, of course! A mere coincidence (albeit a happy one), as it was Walka’s undeniable beauty that attracted so many suitors – among them a Czar and the richest bachelor of the world at one time! In fact, one of her husbands (probably the fourth, but it’s hard to keep track), even purchased the Theatre des Champs-Élysées in Paris to keep her somewhat flailing opera career afloat. Luckily, opera was only one of her passions: Walska was a flamboyant spirit with an interest in spirituality, mysticism, astrology and the like, all of which her sixth husband encouraged (an American explorer, who had earned the title of The White Lama in Tibet). Together they moved to California, where ‘people are decidedly more interested in your being than in your pocket’, as she wrote in her autobiography. Her 37-acre estate, now known as Lotusland, became a botanical sanctuary where she collected an incredible variety of rare and tropical plants. We suspect she may have been rather fond of our Potions & Remedies collection if she were still around, but alas, we’ll never know.


Dame Ethel Smyth: The Gifted Composer

Ethel Smyth, born 1858, is another figure in the operatic world that raised an eyebrow or two. A woman who wore many hats (most of them rather masculine, which seemed to shock polite society), she was a composer, conductor, author and suffragette whose music was as vibrant as her spirit. Raised in Kent, Smyth rallied against the conventions of her Victoria-era girlhood and went on to study at Leipzig Conservatory in Germany, where she met Tchaikovsky, Dvořák and Grieg. The early reviews of her music revolved around her gender, yet this did little to deter her from pursuing her dreams. And despite these attitudes, almost everything Smyth composed was performed thanks to a handful of (slightly more) open-minded conductors like Sir Thomas Beecham. As notable as her career was, Smyth’s passionate affairs and spirited activism also became the talk of the town. She had many an entanglement with women including suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, and she was a lifelong friend of Virginia Woolf. Her fashion choices defied convention at the time (tweed suit and trousers, anyone?), and her activism even landed her in prison. After her death in 1944, her music fell out of fashion, however the last decade has seen a resurging interest in her music. The March of the Women was performed in 2018 to mark the centenary of many women winning the right to vote, and a recording of her opera The Prison earned a Grammy award the same year.

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