I have long maintained that the best way to ring in a new year is by profiling a female opera pioneer who rubbed shoulders with the great composers, inspired Wagner, and (allegedly) wrote a sexually explicit memoir.
Ladies and gentlemen, meet Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient.
Wilhelmine Schröder was born into a theatrical family in Hamburg, Germany, on December 6th, 1804. Her father Friedrich Schröder was a singer, while her mother Sophie was later dubbed “one of Germany’s greatest tragic actresses, so far as declamation and expression are concerned.” The family moved frequently during the tumultuous Napoleonic era, but eventually they settled in Vienna, where her parents got jobs at the Burgtheater. Wilhelmine followed in their footsteps and appeared onstage for the first time at the age of five.
Her debut as an actress occurred at fifteen, when she appeared as Aricia in Schiller’s translation of Racine’s Phèdre. But even as a teenager she was creatively restless: she had her eye on mastering another art form altogether. On January 20th, 1821, she played Pamina in a Vienna Court Opera production of The Magic Flute. Her operatic debut marked the ignition of a revolutionary and uniquely Romantic career, which occurred adjacent to the greatest male composers of the mid-nineteenth-century.