Thursday, March 27, 2014

Women's History Month - Ann "Nancy" Storace: A Woman Who Made Theater History

Although opera and musical theater were very popular forms of entertainment in the 18th and early 19th centuries, the women who took up the profession of acting were considered little more than common prostitutes. Many, if not most of them were pretty girls who came from lower class poor families and saw a way to get out of poverty by acting on the stage. If they were lucky, they'd capture the attention of some nobleman and become his mistress and he, in turn, would make her a star. Few had any formal education, and most were illiterate. If they landed a wealthy, noble patron, they could be the beneficiary of learning to read, and sometimes they would be sent to "finishing school" where they'd receive lessons in singing and perhaps playing the fortepiano, and sometimes acting.

When Nancy Storace arrived from London in Naples, Italy in 1778 at the age of 13, she already had the benefit of a formal education with studies in several languages, including Latin, Italian, and French as well as extensive training in singing and a formal musical education that included theory and composition, playing the fortepiano, harpsichord, and guitar, as well as study of the popular operatic literature of the time. Her father, Stepfano, was a musician and the director of the theater orchestra at the Marylebone Pleasure Gardens in London. Nancy's mother's family had been the proprietors of the gardens for years and had established themselves as one of the wealthiest and most successful educated working class families in London. When Leopold Mozart brought his wife and two young children, Nannerl and Wolfgang to London in 1764, they met Stefano Storace, who gave young Wolfgang lessons on the bass violin and pointers on composing for theatrical orchestras. Stefano was impressed with the Mozart children and the manner in which they were educated and he was determined to raise his children in the same way. His son, Stephen, was only two years old at the time and Nancy arrived in October of 1765. Like the Mozart children, both Stephen and Nancy displayed prodigious musical abilities.

After a successful performance tour of Italy, Nancy landed a prestigious position as the prima buffa of the newly-formed Italian Opera Company which was housed in the Burgtheater of the court of Emperor Joseph II in Vienna, Austria. Nancy was the highest-paid performer in all of Europe at the age of 17, and was celebrated for her intelligent and informed acting as well as her musical skill and education, which was
virtually unheard of for a woman of the theater in her time. It was there that she captured the attention of Wolfgang Mozart who was interested in composing an Italian comic opera that would showcase the popular singer. It was in 1786 that Nancy premiered the role of Susanna in Mozart's comic opera "Le Nozze di Figaro" (The Marriage of Figaro). Susanna has since been regarded as the quintessential Mozart soprano role. It is no secret that Mozart admired her for her intelligence and her professionalism, and when she returned to London in early 1787, he wanted to go with her.

After her return to London, she starred on the stages of Drury Lane and Covent Garden in her brother's operas, which were all composed especially for her. Her professional stage career ended when she retired in 1803, having been regarded as the first truly professional stage actress who won her acclaim and recognition through her own merits, skill, and efforts. She died a wealthy woman at her country estate in Dulwich on August 24, 1817 and was regarded as one of London's most beloved and respected singers and stage actresses of all time.

© K. Lynette Erwin, 2014


  1. What a very informative post! I love theater and learning about someone who contributed so much in bringing about the modern values of the theater arts really makes me appreciative of their work. I've read in a history book that women were forbidden from performing during the 16th century and it progressed from that point on, as enumerated on your post. It's nice that today, we have come far in realizing an egalitarian atmosphere among gender issues in the performing arts. It amazes me and makes me think of the things we have still yet to achieve. Thank you for sharing your awesome post! All the best!

    Christian Pearson @ League of Women Voters

    1. Dear Christian, I am just now seeing this comment and wanted to thank you for sharing your thoughts. I'm glad you enjoyed reading it. All the best! ~Lynette Erwin