The Diva/Divo of Opera brings drama, electricity and incredible artistry to this wonderful art form. Yet I find myself asking: What is a Diva/Divo?
The definition seems to shift from the sublime to the caricature.
So I headed to Italy. Diva: a female deity. Divo: a male deity. The source is the latin Divus: a “deified mortal”.
So do we transform a great opera singer into a person who becomes divine in our eyes?
In recent times, we have shifted to a more negative interpretation, where the Diva is overly dramatic, spoilt and petulant, and believes everyone is beneath her.
Note the female form.
Why not Divo? Are men not also petulant, spoilt or selfish? There is sexism at play in modern day language.
Secondly, the negative connotation has fundamentally distorted the initial use of the word within Opera.
I then came across a fantastic article written by Fred Plotkin, who stated that we often confuse Diva with Prima Donna:
“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. The prima donna 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.”
Fred Plotkin (source: WQXR)
There are no better examples of the opera singer having near god-like status, than the 18th Century castrati. Farinelli, Senesino, Paccierotti, Cafarelli and other castrati dazzled their audiences with emotional performances (and with their outfits). They were the celebrities of their day. Adored by many female fans, they commanded high fees and amassed extreme wealth. At one performance, one titled lady was so carried away that she famously exclaimed: “One God, one Farinelli!”.
Then we have the great tenors of Opera, from Enrico Caruso & Beniamino Gigli to Luciano Pavarotti. Caruso was a fascinating man who redefined the role of the tenor. The combination of his emotionally charged performances and his recordings meant that more people heard him than any man in history by the time he died in 1922.
And then we come to the the great Divas of operatic history: Angelica Catalani (pictured above), Guiditta Pasta, Renata Tebaldi, Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland, Kirsten Flagstad amongst others.
Callas once compared her great rival Tebaldi to herself as “Coca Cola to Champagne”. However, the two camps of passionate fans fanned most of the flames, not the Divas themselves. Tebaldi, once called the “Goddess of Song”, was renowned to be strong willed. One opera manager commented:
“She has dimples of iron”.
Divas/Divos are not immune to also being Prima Donnas too. Many successful castrati would demand that composers rewrite scores. Yet it is time for us to return to the true meaning of Diva/Divo. It is time to separate the Diva/Divo from the negative modern interpretation and celebrate their ability to transport us through a glorious sensory experience whenever they sing.
Let us celebrate the Diva /Divo.
© Paul Bay