Opera's goddesses exquisitely satisfy our yearning for ecstasy


January 24, 1993|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

When Jessye Norman sings Wednesday evening in Meyerhoff Hall, you can expect pandemonium: There will be clapping, there will be cheers and there will be -- even, perhaps most especially, from the men in the audience -- tears. Norman will provoke this admiration, rapture and identification not simply because she is a great artist, but because she is much more: She is a diva.

The word -- Italian for goddess -- means more than just a famous female opera singer. There are great sopranos -- Victoria de los Angeles was one of them -- who are not divas. The word implies a singer who can -- with an inexplicable combination of voice, artistry and presence -- embody the spirit of opera and drive audiences wild.

Sopranos have a peculiar power to engage us that is unmatched by instrumentalists and even -- except perhaps for tenors -- by other singers. The pianist, violinist and cellist all practice a skill with which the non-musician cannot identify. But almost all of us -- whether in the shower or in the automobile, whether we are listening to Giuseppe Verdi or the Beatles -- are secret singers. Thus it is easier to identify with the singer than with any other musician. But it is the celebrated sopranos -- and an occasional ++ mezzo or two -- that we call divas who affect us the most powerfully.

Women are central to opera. Despite the popular success enjoyed by a Caruso or a Pavarotti, divo -- Italian for god -- is never used for male singers. It is the women who are divine, and men much less frequently receive the adulation that women enjoy in the opera house. It's the women who usually make

people cross the country to hear a favorite singer in a special role and to line up for successive evenings in the cold for standing room.

The kiss of death

Operas are songs of love and death that tend to concentrate on the heartbreak, sufferings and exquisite deaths of women. (Statistical studies of representative operas from 1752 to the present calculate that there are three deaths of a heroine for every death of a hero.) This has been particularly so since the beginning of the 19th century, when Romanticism began to place the perfumed kiss of death on operatic stories -- the very time, incidentally, that the word diva first entered popular use. But even in its beginnings at the end of the 16th century in northern Italy, opera -- an experiment in form that tried to resurrect ancient Greek tragedy -- was concerned with death and with woman. Almost all the first operas -- including the first masterpiece, Monteverdi's "Orfeo" -- are about the death of Eurydice, the attempt of Orpheus to reclaim her from the afterlife and his final loss of her to that dark dominion.

But as central as woman is to opera, man is just as important to the audience. Opera is created primarily by men, and as a business, it's run primarily by them for audiences in which men usually constitute the most overtly enthusiastic part: At any performance they're usually the ones doing most of the shouting, and they're also the ones who amass the huge opera record collections. Not the least important of the reasons is that the opera house is one of the few places in which sociocultural prejudices permit a man to cry.

Now the attraction of gay men to opera (and for divas specifically) used to be a subject tactfully ignored. But the "opera queen" has been the subject of an interesting recent American play ("The Lisbon Traviata") and is also the subject of a dazzling new book ("The Queen's Throat: Opera, Homosexuality and the Mystery of Desire") by Wayne Koestenbaum. And the sway of the diva over homosexual opera buffs, while somewhat more complicated, is not unlike the allure she holds for their straight brothers.

The diva crystallizes many of the ambivalent attitudes men have about women: She is imperious, capricious and authoritative (she is the all-powerful mother); she is an icy princess (she's the unattainable love object); and she's vulnerable, loving and willing to sacrifice all for love (she's every woman who's ever been jilted). She is these things on stage, and she may also be them in her personal life -- which explains why Maria Callas (whose personal affairs were as operatic as that of any heroine she ever portrayed) was at once the most celebrated, worshiped and reviled diva of the last 50 years.

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