The diva: dramatic, divine She sings of love and death, but for her adoring fans, words don't matter - her voice sends them into ecstasy.

November 22, 1998|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Hasmik Papian's final performance of the title role in Bellini's "Norma" this afternoon, in the Baltimore Opera's current production at the Lyric, is sure to produce pan-demonium. There will be clapping, there will be cheers, and there will even be - perhaps especially from the men in the audience - tears.

The young Armenian soprano will provoke this admiration, rapture and identification not simply because she is a remarkable singer and musician, but because she is much more: She is a diva.

The word - Italian for goddess - means more than just a famous female opera singer. Papian, in fact, is not yet famous, though she undoubtedly will become so. And 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 nonmusician 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. And it is the celebrated women 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 inspire fans to cross the country to hear a favorite singer in a role or 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 show 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 beginning 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. This is true of almost all the earlyoperas, including the first masterpiece, Monteverdi's "Orfeo," 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 reason is that the opera house is one of the few places in which a man can cry with impunity.

The diva crystallizes many of the ambivalent attitudes men have about women: She is imperious, capricious and authoritative (the all-powerful mother); she is an icy princess (the unattainable love object); and she's vulnerable, loving and willing to sacrifice all for love (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 this century.

Opera is about ecstasy. It is an ecstasy for which women are largely responsible, and adoration of a diva can turn quickly to hatred. When Callas failed, as she increasingly did after 1958, she incurred insults and vilification.

Curiously, however, those who continued to worship her loved her even more in her downfall than in her triumph. Great divas like Joan Sutherland and Leontyne Price enjoyed great careers that concluded gracefully, but they never had quite the pull of a fallen type such as Callas, though her great period lasted less than 10 years. The Callas cult is something like the Judy Garland cult; it is based on the rise and fall of a great talent, whose final immolation in self-destruction seems to be one of the central passions of our time.

Physics and passion

The only male voice that offers anything like the emotional catharsis of the soprano's is the tenor's, largely because their roles are typically that of hero and heroine.

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