Kashudo (歌手道): To be a Diva or a Shrinking Violet: A balanced sense of self

In this month’s (October 2009) issue of Opera News, Brian Kellow wonders why the current generation does not like the term “Diva”. He points to Frederica von Stade (one of my favorite Divas)as the anti-Diva. He berates the young lyric soprano who says: “I’m not a diva. That just isn’t how I see myself,” responding in parentheses in his own article: (We can discern as much from her bland reticence on stage)!

This kind of either extreme or the other approach is the very thing that makes opera a stereotype rather than the substantial art form it is! Michael Jordan flying on the basketball court requires a sense of self that is the essence of apotheosis (borrowing a thought from Dan Brown’s new novel, The Lost Symbol), or man’s transformation into god, or the female version, Diva.
Indeed when a human being hones a skill to the unfathomable level of a Michael Jordan, or a Leontyne Price, it is in essence a moment of apotheosis. In those moments we transcend our mortal coil to reach our highest spiritual heights, and with that inner force we bring a crowd of people to a state that they might not be able to reach on their own. A great athlete, a great actor, an inspiring teacher, and yes a great opera singer have magical powers that can transform a moment in time into an experience of mythical proportions that generations will speak of.
In one sense, Mr. Kellow is correct. An opera singer needs to know how to get to that altered state of consciousness that is necessary for the performance of magic. But there is a difference between Frank Sinatra and Michael Jackson, indeed between my former teacher George Shirley and Kathleen Battle or Jessye Norman, or Maria Callas or Angela Ghirghiu or even Renee Fleming.
I am taking a big risk criticizing some of the most beloved artists on the operatic stage, but assuredly not out of irreverence. Quite the opposite.
First, what is the image we have of Sinatra? This is a man who with a golden voice, fine tuned to near perfection, a sense of the weight of words so refined and a human compassion so centered that he is able to transport large crowds of people to a higher plane.
What is the image of Michael Jackson? A singer/dancer/performer with an energy so immense, a sense of timing so exact and a voice of such clarity and simplicity and a human touch so delicate that he is able to transport large crowds of people to a higher plane.
The difference between these two icon that I grew up almost worshiping is that with Sinatra, the show ends on stage. His great charisma is not different when he is offstage. But the show does not follow him. He was a normal human being at an interview. Michael Jackson’s life offstage was as much a circus as it was on. The glove, the skin issues, his transfiguration through surgeries, the hats, the family issues, etc. Did we ever know who the man was? Not many people can say yes to that question. Those who knew Sinatra can talk unequivocally about who the man was offstage.
The problem with operatic Divas and Divos (if that is even a word) is that too often it becomes about the costumes offstage and not about the substance of the artist on stage.
I will never forget Leontyne Price’s performance of “O patria mia” on the occasion of her Met farewell. It is one of those moments of apotheosis.
Yet, even the young singers of my generation often asked why she puts on that crazy accent. In Ms. Price’s defense, she was the first Black woman to reach the level of a superstar opera singer, at a time when diction and a certain specific type of elocution were considered part of the package. She had to walk a very fine line and was charting territory that no one of her race had explored, in a country that was experiencing at the same time its most significant race crisis. Indeed Ms. Price’s regal stance and even taking on that accent (which I have a hard time imagining had anything to do with her upbringing in Laurel, Mississippi or even with her ground-breaking years at the Juilliard School) may have helped her make the way for many singers of African heritage to be themselves. Would it have been wrong for her to speak the way she sang Barber’s “Sure On This Shining Night” or a spiritual? That is a question I will always wonder about.
Leontyne Price is such an icon with as much influence as Callas has. Perhaps their model richly based on substance (both woman with singular vocal gifts and profound musicianship) may have spoiled the word Diva for many who followed them, because rather than following the musical/dramatic standards established by these legends, the next generations of Divas took on the mannerisms.
Even among a divine artist, such as Jessye Norman (who I fell in love with upon meeting her after a concert), it became as much about substantial headgear as it was about substantial music making. Was she following the example of Ms. Price’s signature turban? Is it still an issue for black women to apologize for not having Caucasian hair when it comes to the race issue in Opera? Did Ms. Norman have to take up an accent of her own, or is it how people speak in Augusta, Georgia?
Beyond the circus outfits that operatic divas have felt necessary to parade in offstage, there is the other pejorative that is associated with Divas, namely being demanding to the point of disrespect. The many quotes from Maria Callas that have become part of operatic lore paint a picture of a woman who might have had a God complex, or a Diva complex to use the Italian feminine noun. One must argue that the great Callas was rightfully demanding, because she knew the music she was singing better than most of the directors and conductors that she worked with. An artist of that caliber deserves to have artists of her stature around her or at least close enough not to diminish her performance. But did she take it too far? Indubitably!
Rudolf Bing would not have to fire her if she was not being at least somewhat unreasonable. Whether it was an error on his part is up for debate between Callas’ fans and more objective sources. At any rate, not many would say that Callas was always fairly demanding and that her unreasonable demands were always inspired by artistic requirements.
So when a full generation later, another Met Genaral Manager, Joseph Volpe fires Kathleen Battle, was he within his rights? Most reasonable people would say yes, particularly those who had experienced Ms. Battle at her less than respectful behavior. It would be blindness for one not to notice that Battle took some of her cues from Callas, down to the Audrey Hepburn/Jackie O’ hairdos and ear-studs or teardrop pendants.
Among our modern Divas, the tendency is more tilted on the side of looks and offstage behavior, which end up marring performances as well. Angela Ghiorghiu saying that Callas did not understand the role of Tosca (paraphrasing) is simply disrespectful. Is it necessary for one Diva to slam Callas in order to give worth to her own views about a role? If internet forums make up a reliable pulse of the operatic audience, those commentaries fell quite flat. Renee Fleming has become the fashion plate of opera. As one who has known Fleming’s pre-Diva performances, I must say I prefer the honesty of those incarnations to what I have seen of late. It gets to a point that the superficial aspects that are dictated by the advertisement machines begin to dictate how an otherwise uniquely gifted singer behaves in her performances. I say give me her 1991 Countesses at the little Spoleto theater of Caio Melisso and I will forgo the histrionics of her Thais. This is no slight of Ms. Fleming’s remarkable vocal prowess, but an acknowledgement of what many have seen as modern opera stereotype rather than honest performances.
Being a singer myself and teaching singers, I cannot imagine that the singers themselves begin with such ridiculous conceptions about how an operatic Diva should be. I believe there are many idiots who have influence on the field who makes it imperative that talented people, who have the inner strength to incarnate bigger than life operatic characters, should make a mockery of their true selves by becoming one of their operatic roles in real life.
In response to the slight of Frederica von Stade as the anti-diva who has inspired a generation of insipid performers who show “…bland reticence onstage,”I say to Mr. Kellow that opera needs more singers like Von Stade (whom I playfully proposed marriage to when she visited the University of Michigan during my years there. She is that approachable) and Mirelli Freni (who entered a restaurant where I was lunching after losing a competition she judged, came to my table to console me and ate with me, and told me I was a great artist. Inspires me even today), or Kiri te Kanawa (who invited me and my students at the University of Florida to sit a couple of feet from her while she and Warren Jones rehearsed on the day of her recital there). I am speaking of one of the greatest Cherubinos of all time (who looks nothing like a boy by the way), one of the greatest Mimi’s on recording history and one of the quintessential Countesses to be found anywhere. None of these women are shrinking violets. They wield incredible influence, have the power within them to experience apotheosis on a regular basis, but remain earthbound when it comes to every day life.
I will end with one more wonderful personal story. I was blessed to study voice with George Shirley for six years and consider him my most influential teacher. The actor Robert Guillaume, famous for the TV program, Benson, in the early 1980s was interviewed in the late 90s while performing the role of the Phantom in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera. He was asked about his substantial singing voice, to which he replied by telling the story of his participation in the Metropolitan Opera Competitions in his day. Mr. Guillaume relayed that it had been his dream to be the first black tenor to sing at the Metropolitan Opera, but upon hearing the competitor before him, he realized that he would not have that honor. The competitor before him was George Shirley. Mr. Guillaume heard it right. Anyone who knows George Shirley will tell you that he possesses a quiet strength. He is one of the most balanced human beings I have ever met, and I still aspire to have his quiet strength. When that quiet man gets on stage, he becomes a God instantly. He transforms into something altogether grand. He was in his mid sixties when he came to Florida to sing a modern opera. I was teaching in Florida at the time and went to see him. When he walked out onstage, he gave the impression of being in his twenties and he occupied the stage in a way that stole nothing from his colleagues onstage but drew the audience’s energy straight to himself.
In life, Mr. Shirley remains this mild-mannered, gentleman, that inspires so much warmth and honesty. I took a picture with him backstage at the Aspen Festival one summer when I was still studying with him. We had both performed and were both wearing the classic Aspen white jacket. Unknowingly, or perhaps consciously I had chiseled by beard to mirror his. We are about the same height and I looked like a younger version of him (I wish I had the picture with me). As I reincarnated as a tenor in the last 18 months, nothing gave me greater pleasure than the fact that I am a tenor like him, and in some way I could follow in his footsteps. If I have the opportunity to become a Divo one day, it will be in the model of Frederica von Stade, Mirelli Freni, Kiri Te Kanawa and my beloved teacher, George Shirley.
© 10/20/2009

5 thoughts on “Kashudo (歌手道): To be a Diva or a Shrinking Violet: A balanced sense of self

  1. Interesting. I completely agree that we should be aiming for the artistry and knowledge shown by the greats, rather than their superficial and incidental traits. However I also see why the poor soprano quoted in your first paragraph said what she did. There has been such a backlash against the whole “Diva thing” that it's almost obligatory now to be, or pretend to be, the girl-next-door, down-to-earth type offstage. I try my best not to behave in a Diva-like (in the pejorative sense) way offstage, but I don't see why I shouldn't have a little fun with my clothes too…

  2. Knowing you, my dear Englhishwomanabroad, I would not dare attempt to make you the girl-next-door. There is a difference between having a big personality and putting on something fake. The way you are in real life never makes me think of an opera character. But your natural grand manner certainly makes the transition to your evil mezzo parts a lot easier.

    I have never had the impression you were ever putting on a persona. And that is the difference.

    I often think of a comedian like Martin Short who brings his natural craziness unto the stage. Very different than taking on the attributes of a fictional persona off stage.

    I am glad you posed the question, because it helps me make my thought more complete. It is not everyone who is mild-mannered. I certainly am not in the traditional sense.

    But i am not going to bring out the attributes of Otello in my private life just to let everyone know I am an “Opera Singer”!

  3. Oh, go on… (“EsultTAAAAteeee…. What? Oh yeah, skinny latte please, and an almond croissant”).

    Seriously, I think I was just trying to make a point, and certainly in line with what you were saying, about us being stereotyped on- and off-stage. It used to be that one had to Be a Diva offstage (there must have been so many, not naturally that way inclined, thinking, damn, not the diamonds-and-fur thing AGAIN…). Nowadays one is expected to conform to today's accepted norm, which is jeans'n't-shirt, oh I just like to spend time with my family, I'm just a Normal Person, &c &c.

    We're not yet allowed by the media/public opinion to be humans, in all our myriad hues, opinions and taste, who just happen to be opera singers too.

  4. I will have to order my next almond croissant (delicious by the way) preceded by “EeeesultTAAAAaaateee!” You are a scream.

    But yes I agree and that was the point. Can we be just human beings who happen to so this wild thing called Opera?

    Thanks for the clarification!


  5. This reminds me in a way of my ballet days. Back then, the distinction a lot of the female dancers made was that one should never be a Prima Donna. As I understand the word Diva, that would have been OK.

    Thanks for this post. It is thought-provoking even though I am not familiar with some of the singers you mention here.

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