The Diva (Part One)

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One of the tasks I have set for myself in writing this blog is to help readers understand the many components of opera and provide correctives when necessary. You are, of course, welcome to disagree with me and, because opera lovers are an opinionated lot, I know some of you will. All I ask is that we get the terminology and history right so that our opinions and feelings can come forth in the proper context.

As we begin, here is a belief of mine that I would like you to ponder: There is a difference between a persona and a person. Remember that, in all things, “image creation” can mask reality, which is usually much more interesting and palpably human. I think marketing and public relations are fine when the people practicing it honor the truth and essence of the “product,” whether it is a pair of shoes, an opera company or a human being.

But sometimes the inundation of images and the repetition of a term makes people use that word whether or not it accurately describes what is being presented and means what the word really should. A neutral example of this phenomenon is “cookie.” To me, and to most people, pronunciation of this word is an invitation to a little crunchy, buttery, chocolatey, oatmealy pleasure in the form of a baked good we put in our mouths. But in computerese a cookie is a bit of information that comes into your hard drive, lodging itself and enabling you to have ready access to certain Web sites, most of which have something they want you to buy. Again, marketing.

A much more dangerous term that is losing its grip on reality is, in fact, reality. “Reality television” is as much of an oxymoron as “charm offensive.” The unreality of so much that is called “reality” makes people fantasize about things as being truth when they are anything but. Sometimes reality is tough to face when it comes in the form of natural disaster, war or a bad medical diagnosis, but we need to hold fast to what is reality because, like it or not, that is what we have to deal with.

In opera we have what I call emotional truth. This is where we embrace and identify with what a character experiences even if it seems implausible in so-called “real life.” We will often discuss emotional truth in opera in this space, but you can ponder what it means with regards to the behavior of an opera character. Then there is verismo, drawn from the Italian word vero (truth). This was an artistic movement from Italy that began around 1890 and presented characters onstage who were not gods, kings, popes and assorted nobles, but a poor woman who became pregnant by a man who ignores her or a man in a traveling troupe of players who kills his wife when he believes her to be unfaithful. In other words, Marriage Italian Style.

While we are on the subject of reality and veracity, have you noticed a couple of phrases that are now agonizingly overused: “To tell the truth” or “to be honest....” Whenever someone says this before saying something, I always wonder whether everything said up to then was untruthful or dishonest. Pay attention to this in others and then stop yourself before doing it.

Now, I can hear you saying, “how come Fred called this posting ‘The Diva (Part One)’ and he is talking about cookies, reality and truth?”

My answer is that I want to restore two terms to their proper definitions, ones that are anchored in their own kind of reality and truth. There is a diva and there is a prima donna. On some occasions a diva can also be a prima donna and there are a few circumstances in which a prima donna can be a diva.

Achieving Diva Status

Diva is the Italian word for goddess. A divo is a god. The implication is of being a deity rather than the deity.  There can be a constellation of divas and divos in opera as one might find in Greek mythology, Nordic myth, the beliefs of ancient India and pre-Columbian America.

In opera, a diva is that rare female singer whose talents, gifts and essence combine in special ways to transport the listener to sublime emotional states. She does this when she performs a role that suits her voice, temperament, musicianship and character. If a great Wagnerian soprano sings Brünnhilde or Isolde, we experience an ecstasy in the presence of a remarkable artist singing glorious and demanding music while creating a character who goes through extraordinary trials in which she triumphs in one way or another. Artists who achieved diva status in this repertory include Birgit Nilsson, Hildegard Behrens and Waltraud Meier. Extraordinary women and extraordinary artists. All three attempted Italian repertory with mixed results, in part because they were not quite suited to those roles and because they were so exquisite in the German repertory.

I should point out that Meier is still an active artist who will sing Marie in Wozzeck at the Met starting on April 6. I will discuss this opera in an upcoming posting. Meier has sung one Isolde at the Met (December 12, 2008) and, though the opera house has 3,786 seats, many more people claim to have been there for that legendary performance. I, in fact, was, and have also heard her Isolde in Munich and Madrid. There have been other marvelous Isoldes I have seen through the years, most recently Deborah Voigt and Nina Stemme, but there is something particular about how Meier and this character merge. And that, to those who are transported by this performance, makes Waltraud Meier a diva.

A singer achieves diva status in the act of performance and when audiences perceive her as such. Somewhere in the makeup of most divas (though not Nilsson or Joan Sutherland) there is a sense of frailty along with fortitude that makes them even more endearing to their admirers. This stands in direct contrast to the prima donna. The term, of course, means first lady. It does not describe the wife of the president of the United States, but the leading soprano of an opera company. This is usually an artist of abundant gifts, and she knows it. She gets the prime dressing room, the top salary and expects that sort of cosseting that goes with being the star.  A prima donna assoluta is that rare artist who achieves such extraordinary status due to her unmatched combination of skills, ability to sell tickets and create excitement in audiences. Sutherland (in bel canto) and Leontyne Price (in Verdi and Puccini roles) both are examples of the prima donna assoluta as well as being divas.

Many prima donnas are also known for the kind of intemperate behavior that gives opera singers a juicily bad name. I am not telling tales out of school to say that Angela Gheorghiou is a prima donna. Peter Gelb says as much in his Arts & Leisure piece in the March 27 New York Times even if he stops just short of saying her name. Her Web site biography tells us that “Superstar Angela Gheorghiu, [is] the most glamorous and gifted opera singer of our time.”

I would submit that a diva is someone we sense has suffered and a prima donna is someone who might well have caused suffering in others. There are a few genuine divas and many prima donnas in the non-opera world of entertainment. There are also icons, such as Madonna and Cher, who understand their strengths and accentuate them to please their huge and passionate fan bases. But the chief role of an icon is herself.

Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra

I have been thinking about all of this in the past couple of days following the death of Elizabeth Taylor, who was a diva, a prima donna and an icon. The only other movie star who can be described as all three is Sophia Loren. In opera, I think the only singer who was a diva, prima donna and icon was Maria Callas.

People cared deeply about Elizabeth Taylor and she cared deeply about others. She was a famously loyal friend and was way ahead of her time in calling attention to the crisis of AIDS when few others would even mention the disease. And she raised more than $100 million for research and to care for those who were ill. She was strong and frail at once, she had the ability with her art and her person to transport billions of people but also took great pleasure in living. In 1993 she remarked, “I, along with my critics, never took myself very seriously. My craft, yes.” Her legend will endure, but so will her work.

One of Elizabeth Taylor’s most famous roles, though not her best one, was Cleopatra, who is also a character in Handel’s Giulio Cesare. The role has eight arias in this opera -- a real tour-de-force for soprano. Beverly Sills achieved superstardom as Cleopatra at the New York City Opera, where she was the prima donna assoluta. At the Met, Kathleen Battle, Ruth Ann Swenson, Hei-Kyung Hong and Danielle de Niese have all excelled as Cleopatra. 

The Metropolitan Opera House opened in 1966 with Samuel Barber’s Anthony and Cleopatra, which did not have a successful premiere though Leontyne Price as Cleopatra was, according to people I know who attended, spellbinding. The opera was revived in a streamlined production at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in the 1990s and was a personal triumph for Catherine Malfitano. I heard Lauren Flanigan do a great performance in concert with the New York City Opera. An opera ready for its close-up is Massenet’s last, Cléopâtre, which will have its centennial in 2012. There is a wonderful “poisoning” aria; I think it might be a good role for Elina Garança. Yet the iconography of Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra is so strong that even those who have not seen the film think of her when they see an opera version of that Egyptian diva.

In my next posting I will explore more about what it means to be a diva, using the example of Shirley Verrett, who died last November. But I would like to close with a page from the memory book:

In the spring of 1987 Franco Zeffirelli’s mind-boggling production of Puccini’s Turandot opened at the Met. I was the performance manager at the time and dealt with hundreds of people clamoring to get tickets to see this show of shows. James Levine conducted and the star was the formidable Eva Marton (prima donna to some, diva to others), the divo Plácido Domingo as Calaf and the exquisitely talented Leona Mitchell as Liù.

The very last performance, on April 9, had a level of hysteria in and out of the house that I only experienced on one occasion at the Met (that story is for another time). In addition to the production and two leads, the many admirers of Aprile Millo -- still in the early stages of her landmark career -- turned out to hear her first Met Liù. Scalpers on Lincoln Center Plaza were asking for $1000 a ticket.

Among my many duties as performance manager, I was also responsible for seeing to it that special guests were well looked after. There was an amazing collection of VIPs that night, but two stood above all the others. Elizabeth Taylor arrived on the arm of Halston, the fashion designer. She looked gorgeous and smiled at everyone as she went to her seat on the right side of orchestra section. I was honored to meet her and she was thrilled to meet the woman I had on my arm: Birgit Nilsson.

In the great scheme of things that night, I decided that Nilsson would attract more audience attention than even Elizabeth Taylor. The Swedish soprano was probably the greatest Turandot ever and Met audiences with any memory knew that. Many there that night had heard her live and I was concerned that crowds would overwhelm her. As we walked slowly toward the left side of the orchestra, people applauded and touched her left arm. As we entered the auditorium and went down the aisle, the roar that gradually erupted was amazing.

Nilsson turned and waved to the thousands of screaming fans (Elizabeth Taylor among them) when a woman pointed at her and cried, “Oh my God, it’s Joan Sutherland!”  Nilsson, a diva who had great comic timing, said, “Oh my God, where? I love Joan Sutherland!”

Weigh in: Who is your favorite diva? Favorite prima donna? Please share your thoughts in the comments box below: