Joyce DiDonato’s Top 10 Operatic Drama Queens

By Joyce DiDonato,
The Real Housewives of the 17th Century

It's a mystery to me why Opera sometimes gets slapped with the label of being "boring" because on that un-amplified stage we are masterfully dealing with murder, lust, rage, incest, war, passion and political scheming that would destroy any modern political candidate in one fell swoop. The women alone will make your hair stand on end. See why the Snooki's of today have NOTHING on these larger-than-life Drama Queens of the Opera:


An unlucky, long-suffering princess who must offer herself as a human sacrifice to appease those pesky gods. Luckily for her, she narrowly escapes the chopping block, for in a gust of compassion the goddess Artemis sweeps in and substitutes a deer for the ready-to-die-at-the-stake Queen.

9. FARINELLI (1705~1782)

Yes, he was a man, but WHAT a drama queen! One of the last castrati, and certainly the most infamous to grace the London stages (think Michael Jackson in his prime) he sang roles of both women and men on stage (including Cleopatra!), and was rumored to have bedded more women than Don Juan!

8. BERENICE (28 AD ~ ?)

This Biblical princess had a number of failed marriages in her lifetime, including a rumored incestuous affair with her brother, Herod Agrippa II, and power-grab love affair with the future emperor, Titus Flavius Vespasianus. But she was so unpopular with her Roman subjects that Titus was forced to dismiss her once he took the throne. She was banished, and all her sexual maneuvers went for not once her 15 minutes of fame faded away.

7. FAUSTINA BORDONI (1697~1781)

A major prima donna singer of her day, she was the prime rival to Francesca Cuzzoni (see below). The two fierce competitors caused quite a scandal: performing in a high profile premiere together, the show came to a screeching halt as an enormous cat fight erupted, with wigs being ripped off, dresses being shredded and the worst of names being called. Think Jersey Shore in corsets.

(Carriera: "Faustina Bordoni")


A full-fledged sorceress, she uses her magic and cunning wiles to seduce every man who lured to her island. But the drama doesn't end there: the moment she tires of one, she promptly turns them into either a rock, shrub, animal or stoic tree, managing to sculpt a lovely manicured garden while ridding herself of the tiresome boredom of a used-up lover.


A Saracen sorceress, Armida has been charged with stopping Christians from completing their mission and is about to murder an unsuspecting soldier (Rinaldo) fast asleep. But this is opera, and so she falls in love with him uncontrollably. Not unlike her fellow witch Alcina, she creates and enchanted garden where she holds him a lovesick prisoner. But no spell can last forever, and when he flees at the first chance he gets, she reacts the way any reasonable drama queen would – by destroying the world.

(Francesco Hayez: "Rinaldo y Armida")

4. FRANCESCA CUZZONI (1696~1778)

The Lady Gaga of her day, she sailed into fame as Handel's prima donna, but it definitely wasn't love at first sight: she refused to sing a composition of his because she felt was beneath her (not enough flash for her tastes). Infuriated, he held her out of a top story window, threatening her until she meekly agreed to sing it, and consequently launching her into superstardom. (On second thought, perhaps Handel was the real Drama Queen here?)

3. CLEOPATRA (69~30BC)

The fiercely intelligent ruler of Egypt, she remains one of the enigmatic, sensual and powerful women in all of history. Passionate love affairs with the most powerful men of her time, her life culminated in a dramatically staged suicide, enticing a poisonous asp to fatally bite her breast. She's one Drama Queen who knew the importance of a memorable exit!

(Artemesia: "Cleopatra")

2. FREDEGUND (c. 550-597)

This Drama Queen may just take the cake: originally a servant of Chilperic's first wife Audovera, Fredegund won Chilperic's affection (and just imagine, also his wealth and power) and persuaded him to put the rival Audovera in a convent and divorce her. But Chilperic then put Fredegund aside and married Galswintha. What NERVE! Galswintha conveniently died in that same year, with rumor holding out that she was strangled by Fredegund herself, who HAPPENED to then succeed Galswintha as the Queen. Just another day in the kingdom.

1. OCTAVIA (39~62 AD)

Octavia was the bonafide Empress of Rome and long-suffering devoted wife to Nero, the philanderer who banished her to the island of Pandateria on a false charge of adultery. When Octavia complained about this treatment, her maids were tortured to death, and she was then quickly bound and her veins were opened in the traditional Roman suicide ritual, suffocating in an unbearably hot vapor bath. Her head was promptly cut off and sent to Poppea, the scheming mistress. Apparently Nero later suffered from nightmares - the poor thing!

("Octavia and Nero" - unknown)

As outlandish as the Queens are, it gives me, the singer, the chance to dive right into the hottest, most wild emotions of a women's psyche, and it is the most fabulous therapy imaginable! Of course, I can't help but think that reality television back then would have actually been GOOD!

Joyce DiDonato is one of the world’s leading opera singers, and frequently performers in top venues around the world. Her new album Drama Queens is available now, and she will perform it at Carnegie Hall on November 18th. Click here for more info on the album.

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