A History of the Diva

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The word „diva“ inevitably brings a series of faces and moments in time to life. It could be Grace Jones‚ backstage rider where she demanded six bottles of Cristal Champagne and 2 Dozen Colchester oysters unopened because Jones does her own shucking. Maybe it’s Beyoncé making sure her daughter Blue Ivy was safe-and-sound during her Super Bowl XLVII performance requesting that the nursery was scented with rose-petal candles and flying in a ,000 handmade cedar cot from New York. Perhaps, the most diva moment of all time was in 2005 when Mariah Carey checked into London’s Baglioni Hotel at two in the morning only to be driven around by her limo until the hotel rolled out a red carpet lined with white candles upon her arrival. From Bette Davis, to Diana Ross, to Liz Taylor, and Cher, the outrageous demands of history’s biggest divas, whether rumored or proven true, typically bring a long list of supreme-females to mind.

In today’s sense of the word, the divas get a pretty bad wrap. The word ‚diva‘ conjures a particular kind of woman, one who is fussy and egotistical. The kind that prefers to cleanse their face with Evian water, or requests a separate room for her wigs. There’s a negative reputation of the word, but it wasn’t always this way.

Derived from the feminine form of the Latin word divus meaning goddess, the diva began as a widely celebrated opera singer, a woman with outstanding talent. The term is closely related to that of prima donna meaning first lady who was the leading female singer in the opera company with all the best roles.

Arguably the first diva in history was Italy’s „divine“ Giuditta Pasta. Regarded as one of the most famous lyricists of the 19th century, Frederick Chopin once said on her voice “I have never heard anything more sublime”. Pasta was born Giuditta Negri in 1719 in a commune town just outside of Milan to an Italian mother and German-Jewish father who translated their name from Scwartz to Negri. She studied music at the Milan Conservatory before making her on-stage debut in 1816 at just 17-years old (marrying lawyer and tenor vocalist Giuseppe Pasta that same year). By the winter of 1821-22, Pasta became a sensation in Paris for her portrayal the role of Desdemona in Gioachino Rossini’s opera Otello.

Pasta became something of an operatic anomaly, to this day, many find it difficult to truly categorize the details of her soprano voice. Her famed range some describe as a mezzo-soprano, others describe as a soprano sfogato, left critics puzzled. She possessed a rare ability to be able to sing contralto (lowest female singing voice) as easily as she was able to sing soprano (highest female singing voice). What really drew in Pasta’s crowd was her powerful sense of passion and expression in her theatrics, there was soul when she sang. Her voice was so unique that composers jumped at the chance to write operas specifically for Pasta’s famous vocals. There were three operas written for her: Domenico Donzetti’s Anna Bolena (considered the composer’s greatest success), the Amina in Vincenzo Bellini’s La Sonnambula, and Bellini’s Norma featuring the song Casta Diva.

Pasta retired in 1835 and went on to teach singing in Italy. She died April 1st, 1865 at the age of 67 at her villa in Blevio on Lake Como. Honoring her life and contribution to Italian music and society, Pasta’s villa was turned into a five-star hotel on the lake appropriately named after Bellini’s score, Casta Diva.

Often compared to Pasta is the biggest diva of 20th century sopranos, Maria Callas. Born to a Greek family in New York City in 1923, Callas‘ mother pushed her to pursue a vocal career due to her impressive range and dramatic flair when performing, similarly to Pasta. Trained in Greece, Callas performed secondary roles at the Greek National Opera during the ’40s before expanding her career. The turning point for Callas wasn’t until 1949 when she was asked to fill in for the prima donna soprano in a performance of Bellini’s I Puritani at the prestigious La Scala Opera House in Milan. With only six days to prepare, Callas triumphed with the press calling it a „miracle“. She was soon nicknamed „La Divina“ performing at all the greatest opera houses around the world, though Callas‘ life was something of a Greek tragedy in itself. Her artistry was often overshadowed by the press focusing on her dramatic life and temperamental attitude calling her „The Tigress“.

Callas was famously fired from the Metropolitan Opera by general manager Rudolph Bing due to a feud. The two later reconciled and Bing explained in a later interview that Callas was so difficult “because she was so much more intelligent. Other artists, you could get around. But Callas you could not get around. She knew exactly what she wanted, and why she wanted it.“ In Callas‘ own perfectly diva-esq words, “Don’t talk to me about rules, dear. Wherever I stay I make the goddamn rules.”

Towards the end of the ’50s, Callas ended her marriage and began an affair with Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis. Though a passionate affair, Onassis soon set his sights on former-First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy who he married in 1968, breaking Callas‘ heart, but it wasn’t weeks later till he was back on Callas‘ doorstep. It’s said that Onassis claimed to love Callas, but needed Kennedy as a way to infiltrate the American shipping market. The famous love-triangle was entertained throughout the course of the marriage finally ending around the mid-’70s.

Towards the end of her career, Callas‘ voice took a large decline due to a weakness in her voice. She spent her last years in Paris living largely in isolation, and in 1977, Callas died at her apartment in Paris.

Over time, the diva in common language has slowly evolved from describing a virtuosic female singer to an insult made to vilify women. In reality, divas are just the women who know what they want and demand to get it. Legendary Italian-French soprano Adelina Patti, at her peak in the late-19th century, commanded 00 (5,269 in 2019 with inflation) a night, paid upfront and in gold. Though these „diva moments“ are deemed temperamental and extravagant, these are the measures women had to take (and still do take) to ensure they would be treated justly when working in an industry of men.

The women throughout history who are deemed worthy of the title of diva are the ones who have become superstars in the truest sense. The original meaning of the word diva was ‚goddess‘, a female deity adored for her talent. Overall, one thing is for sure, love them or hate them, the divas get it done.

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