Today’s factismal: The most successful opera singer of all time was Adelina Patti, who was paid $5,000 in gold before each performance.
September is National Classical Music Month, which means it is time to pay some attention to musicians with class, like Adelina Patti. Being an artist is a chancy thing. Your work may never be appreciated or it might be just a passing fad. And even if you do get paid, you rarely make as much as you would have digging ditches. While this can be annoying for a writer or painter, they at least have the solace that their work will endure even after they have gone (indeed, many writers and painters became famous only after they had died). But for actors and even more so for singers, the only time that their work can truly be appreciated is while they are alive because that is the only time that their work can truly be experienced.
So it is always something special when an artist makes good. And nobody made better than Adelina Patti. The child of two opera singers and with three very musical siblings, Patti sang almost before she could talk. But where their careers were the usual, with periods of blissful employment interspersed between long stretches of looking for work, Patti was never unemployed except when she wanted to be. The secret to her success was her voice which was rich, full, and carried well (an important consideration in those pre-amplifier days). She first took to the stage in 1852 and within five years had become the toast of Europe and America, with concert halls vying for her presence and composers such as Verdi and Rossini creating works specifically for her. By 1865 her popularity was such that she could command $5,000 in gold (the equivalent of $110,000 today) each night, payable before she sang a single note. When she sang 200 concerts in a year, she made the equivalent of $20 million!
Though her voice is gone, except for a few recordings made when she was older and her voice had matured out of its previous sweet clarity, the scores written for and about her are still around. However, many of them are only partially cataloged and lack the metadata that is needed to make them truly useful to both the casual music lover and the devoted musical historian. If you’d like to help clear up the backlog, then why not check out What’s the Score At the Bodleian?