Discussing Divas at Dinner

by Nick Salazar, DMSB '18

On Thursday, January 21st, I had the incredible pleasure of attending former USP Faculty Fellow and current CAMD Associate Dean Hilary Poriss’ fascinating seminar on opera history. The seminar, which focused primarily on Professor Poriss’ research of nineteenth-century diva Pauline Viardot, provided tremendous insight into the life, accomplishments, and challenges of one of opera’s most accomplished and influential women.

Professor Poriss’ historical account of Pauline Viardot’s professional and personal lives brought to life the memory of a woman whose abilities were matched only by her ambition. Detailing Viardots’ ability to blend the operatic styles in any of six languages, Professor Poriss captivated the audience; a deep reverence for this level of genius artistic ability could be felt throughout the room. Descriptions of Viardot’s abilities were accompanied by accounts of her meticulous attention to detail; in her performances, compositions, and costumes, Poriss said, Viardot could only be satisfied by perfection.

With this knowledge, I felt certain that Viardot’s place in history as an equally great performer and composer should be cemented. This is precisely why the concluding statements of Professor Poriss’ presentation came as such a shock. It was then that Professor Poriss revealed that many scholars of opera history, including one of Viardot’s most prominent biographers, maintain the notion that Viardot’s compositions, although great, were inferior to those of her male contemporaries. The language that these scholars, which includes words such as “sporadic” and “light” when describing the compositions of Viardot seems to reflect a bias held, consciously or unconsciously, toward the works of women.

After the seminar, I had the opportunity to attend the dinner with Professor Poriss. On the walk from the seminar to the restaurant, I had the incredible opportunity to discuss with Professor Poriss about the possibilities of changing scholarly opinions of history’s great musicians like Viardot so many years after her life. To hear Professor Poriss’ optimistic outlook on this challenge was both refreshing and admirable. The chance to learn about this topic from someone with such a passion and understanding was incredibly inspirational.