Nancy Storace: More than Mozart's muse

Dr Anna Maria Barry tells the story of the enigmatic soprano

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Nancy Storace: More than Mozart's muse
Credit: National Portrait Gallery
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Before the advent of recording technology, a singer’s art died with them. Unlike painters, poets, composers or architects, they could leave nothing of their art to posterity. Their voices were lost to time. Because of this, we have largely forgotten a pantheon of great singers who were once amongst the most celebrated figures of their age.

Last year marked the bicentenary of the death of one such singer; a remarkable soprano called Nancy Storace (1765 – 1817). She was an international celebrity who won acclaim in cities across Europe, and her fan club included many famous individuals – from Lord Nelson to Mozart. But history has been unkind to Storace. She is often remembered for her relationships with men (if at all), instead of being celebrated for her own considerable achievements. Women’s History month presents the perfect opportunity to shine a light on this remarkable woman.

Ann Selina Storace (known as Nancy) was born in London on the 27th of October 1765. Her Neapolitan father was a musician, employed at the Italian Opera in London. He and his wife Elizabeth had two children, Nancy and Stephen, both of whom demonstrated prodigious musical talent from a young age. Storace made her first public appearance when she was only eight years old, and by the time she was a teenager she was touring Italy to great acclaim. In Florence, her success was so great that the famous castrato Marchesi became jealous and ordered the theatre managers to dismiss his rival. Storace later got her own back by doing comic impressions of Marchesi – much to his dismay!

In 1783 Storace was engaged by Emperor Joseph II as a member of his new opera company. In Vienna she found herself in the midst of an exciting musical scene, populated by famous composers including Mozart, Salieri and Paisiello. Mozart particularly admired Storace, and wrote several works for her. Whilst in Vienna she married a musician called John Abraham Fisher, who was abusive. The Emperor intervened, and ordered Fisher to leave Vienna. Storace was pregnant with Fisher’s child, a daughter born in 1785, but who did not survive.

Storace suffered a nervous breakdown, and temporarily withdrew from the stage. Her return was celebrated by Mozart, Salieri and an unknown composer called Cornetti. Together the trio composed a cantata entitled Per la ricuperata salute di Ofelia (For the recovered health of Ophelia.) The score was believed to be lost, but in 2015 it was rediscovered at the Czech Museum of Music in Prague. In 1786 came the highlight of Storace’s career. This was when she famously starred as Susanna in the premiere of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro.

Shortly after this Storace returned to England, joining the company at the King’s Theatre. Over the next few years she appeared in several operas written by her brother, who had become a noted composer. When he died suddenly in 1796, Nancy completed his final opera (Mahmoud) on his behalf. Storace later began a relationship with the famous tenor John Braham. The pair toured Europe together for several years around the turn of the century. This was the period of the Revolutionary Wars, and the two singers often found themselves in the midst of contemporary politics – on both sides of the conflict. In Paris they performed for Napoleon’s circle, whilst in Leghorn (modern day Livorno) they spent much time with their friend Lord Nelson.

Storace and Braham returned to London where they lived together for many years, along with their son Spencer who was born in 1802. The pair never married, which caused gossip in some quarters. Storace retired from the stage in 1808, and moved to her country home in Dulwich. In 1816 she was publicly humiliated when Braham was taken to court for having an affair with a married woman. Storace was heartbroken. The sordid details of the Braham’s court case were widely reported, and she was ridiculed in gossip columns and caricatures. With the assistance of her friend, the architect Sir John Soane, she separated from Braham. Storace died the following year – many believed this was due to her broken heart. She was buried at St. Mary’s in Lambeth, where her final resting place is marked with a plaque that reads:

Ah! What avails the once resistless pow’r
To gladden with thy mirth the public hour!
Ah! What avails that music tun’d thy throat,
And crowds, enraptur’d, hung on ev’ry note!

Although she experienced sadness, Storace also achieved great success. She travelled and performed across Europe during a turbulent period, gaining international acclaim and working with the greatest composers of her day. As a professional woman, she amassed independent wealth and often used this to support musical charities and organisations. She also gained freedom from the constraints often opposed on women in this period, being able to travel freely and conduct relationships outside of wedlock. Her voice may have been lost, but Nancy Storace’s legacy lives on. 

The bicentenary of Nancy Storace’s death will be commemorated by Bampton Classical Opera will perform music associated with her at St John's Smith Square for their ‘Songs for Nancy’ concert on Wednesday 7 March

  • Article Type: | Blog |
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