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The Empress of Pleasure

The Empress of Pleasure

by Simon Murphy on February 23, 2014 (February 23, 2014) filed under Classical Music | Comment Now

Preparing for a new run of performances later in the year, I recently revisited Mrs Cornelys and her blindingly bright, underground world of celebrity sex, scandal and display.

In her day, Mrs Cornelys a.k.a. “The Empress of Pleasure”, “Queen of Masquerades” was a star singer, actress and dancer, a celebrity sex goddess and a legendary entertainment industry entrepreneur.

In the heady atmosphere of cosmopolitan 1760's and 1770's London, Mrs Cornelys (1723 – 1797) held her infamous, awe-inspiring, sexually charged, drink and drug fuelled Masques. Staged at her lavish, purpose-built premises – Carlisle House, Soho Square – these were night long, “Eyes Wide Shut” style events featuring music, dancing, theatre, gambling and sexual intrigues. Essentially edgy, exclusive, high class meat markets, “Mrs Cornelys' Entertainments” were enjoyed by the cashed-up 18th century celebrity jet set, with each room of her sumptuous house offering a different activity. Her hand-tailored musical programming featured international superstar performers including JS Bach son, Johann Christian a.k.a. “The London Bach” (1735 – 1782) and JS Bach student and Mozart mentor Carl Friedrich Abel (1723 – 1787).

Mrs Cornelys' was an 18th century “Moulin Rouge”, only way more upmarket and considerably more racy.

High Society, Bling and the Notorious BIG

Attended by very public figures, the pretence of “anonymity” at Mrs Cornelys' masked ball events served only to further fuel the events' magnetic salaciousness and success. Alongside her glamorous set of high society patrons which included half the British aristocracy and parliament, Mrs Cornelys' luminary London social circle included celebrity composers, performers, artists, playwrights and actors, as well as major underworld figures.

In 1770, novelist Frances Burney (daughter of the musical diarist Charles Burney), wrote of Mrs Cornelys' entertainments at Carlisle House that “The magnificence of the rooms, splendour of the illuminations and embellishments, and the brilliant appearance of the company exceeded anything I ever before saw.” Another, published, account of a Masquerade there in February 1770 gives a clear indication of the level of extravagance, out-and-out eroticism and celebrity hotness involved:

“The richness and brilliancy of the dresses were almost beyond imagination; not did any assembly ever exhibit a collection of more elegant and beautiful female figures. … Monday night the principal Nobility and Gentry of this kingdom, to the number of near eight hundred, were present at the masked ball at Mrs Cornely's in Soho-square, … Miss Monckton, daughter to Lord Gallway, appeared in the character of an Indian Sultana, in a robe of cloth of gold, and a rich veil. The seams of her habit were embroidered with precious stones, and she had a magnificent cluster of diamonds on her head; the jewels she wore were valued at 30,000 pounds. Her Grace of Ancaster claimed the attention of all the company in the dress of Mandane. The Countess of Pomfret, in the character of a Greek Sultana, and the two Miss Fredericks, who accompanied her as Greek Slaves, made a complete groupe. The Duchess of Bolton, in the character of Diana, was captivating. ...” Male undress on the evening included “A figure of Adam in flesh-coloured silk, with an apron of fig-leaves”.

Among Mrs Cornelys' most (in)famous patrons was the notorious bigamist, the Duchess of Kingston (1720 – 1788), pictured here in one of her ball costumes, as Iphigenia. One of the more curious attractions of the Masques was the inventor of the roller skate (or inline skates to be more precise, a.k.a. Rollerblades), John–Joseph Merlin (1735 – 1803). He demonstrated his new creation whilst performing on the violin.

Celebrity Fever

Mrs Cornelys was extremely talented in her role as public personality and as a media spin-doctor. She ensured that her events were extremely well documented in the media before and afterwards, gaining her patrons valuable press coverage and whetting the public's appetite for (even) more glamour and scandal next time, as demonstrated by the report above. Despite, or rather because of, the events' raging success, there was considerable moral backlash, which further established the cult status of her events as well as Mrs Cornelys' own infamy. The 18th century historian and social commentator John Northouck said of Mrs Cornelys and Carlise House, in his A New History of London, 1773, that:

“Here the nobility of this kingdom long protected Mrs. Cornelys in entertaining their masquerade and gaming assemblies, in violation of the laws, and to the destruction of all sober principles.”

Well. Yes. Bingo. Mrs Cornelys' Carlisle House events became so popular that the streets around were packed with throngs of almost rabidly hysterical onlookers hoping for a glimpse of celebrities arriving at these sold out events. Think Beatlemania meets the Golden Globes. To avoid total chaos, Mrs Cornelys had the guests' carriages drive around the square in only one direction and is thereby credited with inventing one-way traffic in London. Alongside her own entrepreneurial activities and sexual adventures, Mrs Cornelys also, rather impressively, continued her career on stage as a singer/actress in her own right, even after the glory days of Carlisle House, appearing, for example, in Dublin in early 1781, in a musical theatre piece entitled “The Deceptions”, written by and starring herself.

Sign of the Times

Whilst Mrs Cornelys was certainly daring, innovative, pioneering and trend setting, the atmosphere in mid-18th century London was certainly ripe for the raciness or, as some saw it, “depravity” of her assemblies. In the years preceding Mrs Cornelys' reign at Carlisle House, the orgiastic activities of the “satanic” Hellfire Club founded by Sir Francis Dashwood (1708 – 1781) as well as the “harem” of the Divan Club of John Montagu, Earl of Sandwich (1718 – 1792) had well established that the culture of mid-18th century London was anything but prudish. The city's appetite for erotic entertainment, sexual excitement and titillation, as well as for actual sex itself, was voracious. Legendary London madams Charlotte Hayes (c. 1725 – 1813) and Mrs Goadby were doing a roaring trade and the period saw some of the most wildly desired celebrity British courtesans rise to fame, including Kitty Fisher (d. 1767), Emily Warren (d. 1781) and Fanny Murray (1729 – 1778). Murray was a mistress of Lord Sandwich (of the sandwich) before another, the famous opera singer Martha Ray (1742 – 1779) who was murdered by a jealous lover. The highly controversial Essay on Woman (1763) was dedicated to Murray who was also an inspiration for the outlawed erotic novel Fanny Hill or Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure by John Cleland (1709 – 1789), published in 1748/49, whilst Fisher's story is documented in the 1759 publication Adventures of Miss Kitty F****r.

In the Mood for Love

Illustrating the rather substantial level of the public's sexual appetite, various London publications of the time detail the nicknames and wants of (celebrity) sex-trade clients (both male and female) alongside the services offered by the various houses, including descriptions of the available sexual techniques and positions, role playing with “school girls” and “nuns”, and various forms of lighter and heavier bondage and discipline. The rather comprehensive Nocturnal Revels (published in two volumes in 1779) describes the kinds of services rendered during a typical day's night at madam Charlotte Hayes' establishment and other London houses, detailing their lavish, choreographed sex shows as well as giving intimate, personal information on famous courtesans and their lovers. Other, smaller, mass produced, one-off, sensationalist publications also documented London's night life, feeding a gossip-hungry public tales of adultery and other sexual scandals. One such pamphlet was devoted to the piquant story of composer Frantisek Kotzwara (1730 – 1791) who died of (auto) erotic asphyxiation whilst visiting the courtesan Susannah Hill in Vine Street, Westminster. Kotzwara thereby became the first documented case of the phenomenon. Modern propensities, or, An essay on the art of strangling, &c.: illustrated with several anecdotes: with memoirs of Susannah Hill, and a summary of her trial at the Old-Bailey, on Friday, September 16, 1791, on the charge of hanging Francis Kotzwarra, at her lodgings in Vine Street, on September 2 tells all. Focussing specifically on the London courtesans themselves, Harris's List of Covent Garden Ladies (published annually from 1757 to 1795) gave potential customers the low down on the looks, personalities and specialities of around one hundred “of the most celebrated Ladies now on the Town”.

She was a Showgirl - Mrs Cornelys was her Name

Actress, singer, dancer, entrepreneur, opera impresario, courtesan, madam, and mother of Casanova's daughter, “Mrs Cornelys” was born Anna Maria Teresa Imer in Venice in 1723. Her family was also in the theatre business. Her older sister, Marianna Imer, was also a celebrated singer and actress, and her father worked as an actor/singer in the circle of Carlo Goldoni (1707 – 1793).

In the 1740's and 1750's, Mrs Cornelys (then variously referred to as Teresa / Theresa / Therese Imer, Teresa Pompeati, Mme Pompeati, Madame de Trenti, …) worked as a singer/actress/dancer at various courts and theatres in mainland Europe including in northern Italy, in Vienna and Bayreuth. There, she also became the mistress of the Margrave, Frederick of Brandenburg–Bayreuth (1711 – 1763) in the early 1750's. It was also at this time, during a sojourn back in Italy, that she conceived a child with Giacomo Casanova (1725 – 1798) who she'd also known earlier in her youth.

She performed at the King's Theatre in London in 1745/46 and later in productions in Paris, the Low Countries, Braunschweig, Hamburg and Copenhagen. Her roles as an opera singer, perhaps rather appropriately, included Cleopatra in Giulio Cesare. She personally worked together with composer and opera reformist Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714 – 1787), appearing in several of his operas including Demetrio and La caduta de Giganti. She also worked as a theatre director/entrepreneur, overseeing all of the theatres in the Austrian Netherlands in the mid-1750's.

Afterwards, she lived for a time in the northern Netherlands, where, in the winter of 1758/1759 in Amsterdam, she re-met Casanova and introduced him (according to Casanova's diaries, Volume 3, Chapter IV) to his (and her) daughter Sophia Wilhelmina Frederica (later called Sophie Williams 1754 – 1823), before finally settling in London in October 1759. There, she presented herself as a (respectable) “widow”, Mrs Cornelys, adopting the name of a previous Dutch lover, merchant Jan Cornelis Rijgerboos (or as Casanova refers to him in Volume V Chapter VII of his diaries, Cornelius Rigerboos, and elsewhere as M. Cornelis de Rigerboos). In 1760's and 1770's London, thanks largely to the success of her Masques, Mrs Cornelys became a glittering, scandalous and high-flying society lady, and one of the most talked about socialite figures in mid to late 18th century Europe.

Her illustrious London artistic circle included such eminent figures as composer/performers Johann Christian Bach (1735 – 1782), Carl Friederich Abel (1723 – 1787) and Thomas Augustine Arne (1710 – 1778), the oboist Johann Christian Fischer (1733 – 1800), singer Gaetano Guadagni (1728 – 1792), painter Thomas Gainsborough (1727 – 1788), cabinet–maker and interior designer Thomas Chippendale (1718 – 1779) and the actor and playwright David Garrick (1717 – 1779). Alongside Elizabeth Chudleigh, Duchess of Kingston (1720 – 1788) (pictured above), Mrs Cornelys' key female patrons included Caroline Stanhope, Duchess of Harrington and Elizabeth Percy, Duchess of Northumberland (1716 – 1776) whose visionary stepson, James Smithson (ca. 1765 – 1829), founded the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C.

Mrs Cornelys herself was a whirlwind of vision and energy with a new era, almost new world, can do attitude. Her influence is still far reaching. Amongst her many activities, her efforts in co-creating the legendary Bach Abel Concerts in 1760's London succeeded in creating a blueprint for the modern, worldwide phenomenon of “the classical music concert series”, now the basis for virtually every concert hall's season programming and every modern symphony orchestra's season planning and season brochure.

Baroque Burlesque – Bringing Mrs Cornelys' Masques to Life

I first met the American Baroque ballerina Caroline Copeland in 2005 at the Musikfestspiele Potsdam Sanssouci. She was dancing in one of the festival's stage productions in the original 18th century theatre in Frederick the Great's Neues Palais and I can still vividly remember, when she made her entrance onto the stage, she exuded such radiance that you could physically feel the warmth of her presence glowing on your cheeks. We became friends, and started talking about creating a new Baroque stage production together. The idea of a show celebrating Mrs Cornelys was born.

I already had an idea for the musical repertoire with JC Bach and Abel as head-liners. We finalised the programming after some workshop sessions together and some discussions with the production's other musical soloists, Australian Baroque oboist Amy Power and Canadian soprano Stefanie True. The show includes works by Mrs Cornelys' close musical colleagues, Bach, Abel and Fischer, together with music by Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf (1739 – 1799) whose stage work The Doctor and the Apothecary was particularly popular in 18th century London. Two symphonies by William Boyce (1711 – 1779) completed the programme – works which had in many ways inspired the production and, to me, had always so nicely epitomised the era with their incredible, infectiously positive bustle and drive.

To create the show, Caroline and I took our inspiration from the atmosphere of Mrs Cornelys' Masques, celebrating Mrs Cornelys and her sexual energy, magnetism, exuberance, artistry and vision. Caroline created new choreographies, based on historical dance language of the later 18th century, portraying Mrs Cornelys and her highly colourful character. Virtuoso Baroque dance meets 18th century Burlesque. As Mrs Cornelys was a highly theatrical figure – both on and off the stage – Caroline's choreographies employ the kind of spectacular, virtuoso theatrical dance style practised by Mrs Cornelys and her singing/dancing/acting colleagues on stage, rather than the more conventional ballroom styles of the period.

In the show, Caroline creates an impression of Mrs Cornelys as the “Empress of Pleasure” herself, and then morphs “her” into other strong female characters or personae such as the Goddesses Venus and Diana. I feel that Caroline's choreographies use the 18th century dance language so beautifully, creatively and expressively, and the way she dances them is breathtaking – such virtuosity, poise and eloquence. Watching her dance her own choreographies in the show makes you really feel like you were at one of Mrs Cornelys' Masques, seeing a star 18th century ballerina perform a very virtuoso, intimate and sensual solo. Captivating, very here-and-now, and yet also timeless.

On Stage

The first opportunity to present an initial version of the production came in early 2012 as part of the New Dutch Academy's annual concert series in The Hague. This was a great way to jump start the project – to showcase the production's musical content, Caroline's choreographies, her virtuoso dancing, and the show's costumes created with and for her by American costumer Joy Havens. Now, two years later, I am really looking forward to taking the show, now in its fully developed form, on the road, presenting it in original 18th century theatres and also, with a specially designed stage and light plan, in modern venues.

Party On

As for Mrs Cornelys herself, in terms of her scandal factor and the public's fascination for her, she was the Heidi Fleisch, Mata Hari or Christine Keeler of her time. An embodiment of female sexual power, she was magnetic and mysterious, yet simultaneously a very public figure. As an entrepreneur, she had earned a high impact, household name for herself, but as a business woman she was maybe ultimately more interested in the content, spectacle and party rather than actual pure cash. In any case, Mrs Cornelys, the “Circe of Soho Square”, was an amazing 18th century woman with a glittering circle of luminary friends and colleagues. She was an incredible entrepreneur in the arts and entertainment industry, and a pioneer in many aspects of concert giving and of event conception, organisation, promotion and presentation, as well as being a respected musical artist in her own right. She remains a truly fascinating figure and her 18th century “Rave Parties” would certainly still shock and entertain today.

From its initial presentation in my home town of The Hague (which, I'm happy to say, Casanova and Mrs Cornelys both visited in the 1750's), I would very much like to invite you to enjoy some of the highlights of the show: