Operapedia: Divas
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Operapedia: Divas 

Henry Stewart gets down and dirty with opera’s highest and mightiest.

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© Christie’s/Bridgeman Images 

The Requisites

Operatic divadom usually involves a few shared characteristics. ☑️ Their characters die at the end—and not with a whimper. ☑️ They’ve got serious style. “If [Thaïs is] played by Renée Fleming,” OPERA NEWS once joked, “even her nun’s habit is designed by Christian Lacroix.” ☑️ They probably interact with a staircase, preferably to descend it, Norma Desmond-style. ☑️ No diva ever became one just by singing Mozart, with its emphasis on ensemble. ☑️ Ditto Wagner, who always seems to have top billing in his operas.

▶︎ Second Class, First Rate

Divas were known for their jewels. Adelina Patti once wore 3,700 diamonds onstage, the modern equivalent of $20 million worth. “Many European laws prevented women from … keeping the money they earned. Jewels were portable wealth; you could hide them and use them as … retirement money,” historian Kathleen McDermott told WBGH. “Remember—even the greatest divas still were women and … second-class citizens. They were worshipped onstage but disrespected in the flesh and blood.”
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Remote Access 

Today’s divas are accessible in ways Patti wouldn’t have dreamed of, thanks to social media such as Instagram, where Anna Netrebko’s 370,000 plus followers can see her spooning whipped cream in Vienna and Aida Garifullina’s 636,000 followers (?!) can glimpse her lounging on a windowsill.


The Basics  

Divas are like pornography—easy to identify but difficult to define. “Being a diva is not the same as being a star,” OPERA NEWS explained in 2014. “Stars share the sky with other stars … But a true diva stands alone, as singular as the sun.”

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© Dario Acosta 

Diva Bookshelf

The diva autobiography— a literary subgenre since at least 1926, when Nellie Melba published Melodies and Memories (I’d have gone with Toasted )—is an art unto itself. Jessye Norman writes less about her career and more about her life, including the role that larger forces, such as racism, played. Barbara Hendricks roots her artistry and humanitarian efforts in her Jim Crow upbringing. Deborah Voigt is also frank about her childhood, telling her story in a neat redemptive arc and plainspoken voice clearly intended to appeal to a broad audience. Its title? Call Me Debbie: True Confessions of a Down-to-Earth Diva. 

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© Andy Martin Jr./ZUMA Wire

Everyone's a Diva

The word diva is now applied to anyone who approximates a certain upscale and supercilious majesty. For example, there were the Divas of the WWE, a women’s championship-wrestling title during the Obama era. “The diva is often so ultra-feminine that she inspires parody or drag,” the blog Broadly explains; indeed, contestants on RuPaul’s Drag Race are expected to have a working knowledge of all pop-culture divas.

Behavioral Problems  

“Diva behavior” connotes excessive demands for extraordinary amenities, rooted in charmingly outrageous behaviors of golden-age opera divas. For example, “Olive Fremstad … insisted on being paid in cash before every performance. No cash, no Fremstad,” The New York Times has reported. “A Metropolitan [Opera] official would gravely count the money into her waiting hand. There was talk about paying her off in pennies, but cooler heads prevailed. Madame would not have been amused.” 

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© Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera 

Killer Role  

Divas sometimes play divas, such as the “great actress” Adriana Lecouvreur in the opera of the same name by Cilèa (adapted from a play adapted several other times, though no one remembers those operas). But the uberrole is Puccini’s Tosca, a diva who lives for art and love—and kills and dies for them, too!


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© Roger Stowell/Getty Images

A Toast to Melba

One way chef Georges-Auguste Escoffier made his dishes stand out was by naming them after belle époque superstars. Diva Nellie Melba inspired his Melba toast and Peach Melba, as well as the less-legendary Melba Garniture, a tomato dish stuffed with chicken and mushrooms. Another chef’s chicken-and-mushrooms dish, Chicken Tetrazzini, was inspired by diva Luisa Tetrazzini.

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Kristina Kokhanova/Alamy

In Pop Culture

The word diva—and the concept it describes—crossed over into pop culture; Lyda Borelli, the Italian silent-movie star of the 1910s, was among the first nonopera performers to be called a diva. Later, singers of popular music took up the title, from Dolly Parton, with her rhinestone chic, to Beyoncé, with her regal Spandexuality. What they all share is glamorous style, superstar presence and superior attitude. “The label has long come to mean a woman celebrity of stage or screen; sometimes actresses, but usually singers, of a certain temperament,” the blog Broadly reports. “Being a diva connotes a particular kind of womanly arrogance. Tellingly, much like the word ‘slut’, it has no equally powerful corresponding masculine term.”

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