1815 – 1854
Breeches role, En travesti
Country of Origin
Birth – Death
1797 – 1856
In 1815, Madame Vestris began her stage career in the Italian opera II ratto di Proserpina by Peter Winter at the King’s Theatre. In 1820, she played her first breeches role playing Don Giovanni by Mozart. She specialized in breeches roles until her retirement in 1854, and she was the first woman to be a lessee of a theater managing The Olympic Theatre from 1831-1838. As an actress, opera singer, theatre producer and manager, Madame Vestris made an indelible mark on theatre as we know it.
Madame Vestris was born Lucia Elizabetta Bartolozzi on January 3, 1797 in London, England to German pianist Theresa Jansen and art dealer Gaetano Stefano Bartolozzi. Her parents separated when she was young, and her mother taught piano lessons to support two young daughters. Lucia was married at the age of 16 to French ballet dancer, Auguste Armand Vestris, and after four years, he ran off with another woman. Despite the short-lived marriage, she retained his name because she had become professionally known as Madame Vestris.
By 1830, Madame Vestris had gained such significant popularity and celebrity for her breeches roles that she had accumulated substantial wealth. She leased the Olympic Theatre in 1831 becoming the first female leaseholder in London. Along with her business partner Maria Foote and her new husband, Charles James Mathews, they produced a series of burletta’s and extravaganzas in her newfound theatre. With her husband, Vestris also managed The Covent Garden from 1839-1842 and The Lyceum Theatre from 1847-1855.
Vestris was a natural and favorite in breeches roles thanks to her low voice, exuberant personality and shapely legs. In conservative circles, it was scandalous for women to wear men’s breeches as they were form fitting and revealed women’s bodies. Vestris ignored the naysayers achieving great success in her career. Her greatest breeches roles were playing Don Giovanni by Mozart, Captain Macheath in The Beggar’s Opera, Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro, Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream among others. By casting herself in the role of Oberon in 1840, she started a tradition of female Oberons that lasted for 70 years.
And Vestris was not only known for her immense acting abilities, she was also known for setting standards in regard to stage costumes and designs. Despite the great expense, she insisted on using real props and historically accurate costumes. Vestris was the first to use the “box set” stage design which is a ceilinged room with one wall removed to create a more realistic setting.
Madame Vestris died on August 8, 1856 in London, England and is buried at Kensal Green Cemetery.
Appleton, Willian Worthen. Madame Vestris and the London Stage. Columbia University Press, 1974
Donohue, Joseph Ed: Jane Milling, Peter Thomson, Baz Kershaw. The Cambridge History of British Theatre, Volume 2, Cambridge University Press, Dec 9, 2004
Gilder, Rosamond. Enter The Actress: The First Woman in the Theatre. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1931
Vestris, Madame Lucia Elizabeth Bartolozzi. Memoirs of the Life, Public and Private Adventures of Madame Vestris, 1839. The University of California, Digitized 8 Apr 2014.