Saturday, October 19, 2013

Death to the Diva/Divo

I'm slightly fed up.  Fed up with the "Diva."  When did the term diva start to mean self centered, egotistical, bitchy, and overly cocky?  Has it always meant that?  And if so, why the hell is that acceptable in any profession??

 I figured a good definition of Diva would be a good place to start my search.

Diva- an operatic prima donna.

Well, shit.  That was no help.

Prima donna- 1. The principal female singer in an opera or concert organization.
Alright, I'm ok with that entry.  Let's stop at that one.  There's not a second definition is there?

2. A person who thinks they are better than everyone else.  

Poop.  Lets try the etymology. 

Diva- Italian, from Latin diva, meaning goddess. Feminine of divus.  

Ok. This is starting to feel like a research paper.

Divus- 1. Of or beloning to a deity.
2. Godlike. 

Diva Damnit!!!!!!!  Well, that answers my first question.  A "godlike" description does kind of give you permission to act stuck up.  
Thou shalt Vissi d'arte

Ok, well when did this "evil" Italian word worm its way into the operatic world?  Is it new, or has it been around since the Medici got bored?  I decided to ask Google that question.  After the standard Wikipedia entry (which was no help), the next couple entries were for DivaCup, a reusable silicone menstrual cup.  Well, thats absolutely no help, and a little disgusting.  Come on Google!  Don't make me do real research!!  A few more pages deeper into Googles search results, I find a interesting article by Patrick Dillon in OperaNews that explains it pretty well.  Basically, Tosca is to blame.  (First in the play by Sardou, then in Puccini's opera.  First time it was used in an opera.  Interesting Jeopardy fact).  Dillon list a good amount of qualifiers in his article as to how to define a diva in opera terms- Has style, Knows how to work a crowd, Good with fans, and Not a team player.  Wait, what was that last one?  Not a team player? How is that a good thing in the opera business?

Well, crap.  That answers the second question.  It hasn't always been in opera, but since it has, it hasn't been pretty.  WHY IS THIS OK??????  Only in opera could diva be a compliment.  Seriously, can you imagine a postal worker pulling a diva?  A garbage worker?  A Dentist?  Or even a pop singer?
Not a diva.  Just Crazy

In my humble opinion, opera is a team sport.  All people involved working towards a common goal- a great show.  ALL PEOPLE INVOLVED.  From the actors, orchestras, directors, conductors, stage hands, prop crews, make up artists, artistic directors, etc.  ALLLLLLLLLLL PEEEEEOPPPPLLLLEE.  We all bring our expertise and experience to a show to craft a unique experience for the audience to enjoy.  Otherwise, why do we do it?  For the money?  It's not that good. Fame?  Yes, because all the young kids are collecting opera trading cards. We deep down do what we do to put on the best show possible and entertain the audience.  Do we enjoy the money, applause, and the fact that we get to play dress up?  Of course.  We're all human.  But I believe our base intention is to entertain, and to do that, we ALL HAVE TO WORK TOGETHER.

So how does a diva fit into that plan.  Under the definitions of diva above, it doesn't.  At all.  Now, I'm not naive (I probably am, I just don't know it).  I know how operas work.  Composers LOVE sopranos and tenors.  They get the high dramatic arias, the great love duets, and win the audience over with all their high notes.  Thats just the way it is.  Fine.  But Tosca doesn't loose her love if Scarpia doesn't lust after her.  Nedda and Canio's love doesn't end in tragedy is Tonio isn't shunned.  Violetta and Alfredo don't meet if Flora doesn't throw a party.  And no one gives two Hojo-toho's about Brunnhilde and Siegfried if Alberich doesn't lay his curse down on that hunk of gold.  My point?  They need everyone else.  We all do.  Thinking you are better than everyone else around you, does nothing but damage to the creative process.  And of course sopranos and tenors are not the only culprits in the diva/o department.  Mezzos and Baritone/Basses can be just as bad, they just don't get the opportunity to do so as much.  

I'll admit, if I'm working with some one who treats me as an inferior person, I will in turn treat them as an ass.  And I don't care how famous or talented they are.  They won't get my best effort on stage.  And its not because I want them to fail.  Or the show to fail for that matter.  Its because of the energy the diva/o is putting off to their co-workers.  Its happened to me, and I feel bad about my attitude, but its almost a subconscious reaction.  A unnamed diva once told me to get my "fat chorus ass" out of her way.  Yeah, I openly yawned during her aria.  A director once referred to me as a child.  I spent all my time in the chorus running head first into walls.  Were my responses mature, of course not.  But it was my first initial reaction (which might say something about me...) I know I'm not alone either.  I'm we can all sit down and name the names of the worst people in the business to work with (I won't list names, because I feel it only perpetuates the cycle, and because I like my genitals where they are).  We've all seen divas/os demand a different tempo from the conductor, demand to be more center stage from a director, or unknowingly and uncaringly stand in front of a chorus member during their one solo line. 

So why do we encourage this behavior?  If a child displays the same characteristics as a diva, they would be disciplined.  My dad would have spanked my ass, and he probably still would today if I acted like a divo.  Isn't the fact that they usually receive the most applause at the end of the night enough?  Or the fact they usually get paid more than the rest of us?  What is it about their talent that makes them feel "holier than thou?"  I'm pretty sure if a diva craps in the woods, it still smells.  Even if you allow yourself to believe that the diva/o is the most talented person on the stage, in the building, or even in the city, does that make them better people than everyone else?  Does it make them Godlike?  I think not.

Obviously, not all singers are divas/os.   I've worked with a lot of amazingly talented singers, but what always sticks with me the most is not their abilities on stage, it's their personality off it.  Singers like Susanne Mentzer, Debbie Voigt, Brandon Jovanovich, Bryan Hymel, Joyce el-Khoury, Susanna Phillips, Danielle Pastin, David Portillo, Bryn Terfel, Joyce DiDanato, Jamie Barton, and a million others, not only amaze with their voices and acting ability, but blow you away with their humanity and compassion as a co-worker.  Those are the people I want to be like when I grow up.  I have no problem acknowledging their leading status on stage.  They are Divas and Divos in the best possible way in my book.  

So what can we do about the diva dilemma?  I think its simple- don't be a dick.  Treat others as you would like to be treated. Solves everything.  If you come to grips with the fact that we are all the same naked, that we all have the same parts, same insecurities, same passions, same desire to entertain, then it becomes a lot easier to join the process of creating.  And thats why we do what we do.

My standing motto in the business is simple- be a better person than you are a singer.  I really do strive to do that.  I don't always live up to it, but I try.  I thank the guy who hands me my prop.  I make sure to compliment the make up artist on the work they did on me.  I make sure to compliment my fellow singers on their work on stage.  It makes me feel better, hopefully make them feel better, and makes the overall process a better one.  And it cost me nothing.  

I'll applaud talent.  I'll cheer for it.  I'll stand up and yell "Brava."  But I will NOT worship it.  


  1. The only counter argument that makes sense in my head is that the leading lady/gentlemen phenomenon, which let's face it, is what 98 percent of the audience is focused on, deliver's to them what they are looking for. So the people singing those roles have an added pressure of delivering to the elite that pay for the art form, what they want to see and experience, which is that one soars above the rest. It's a phenomenon they pay to see, to perpetuate their lives. It's the history of classical music as a patronage. The concerto celebrates the individual, and the group backs them up. It's deeply engrained in the merchant sponsored arts back to the beginning. Diva/Divo being god like is to allow those that pay to see it to see their reflexion in a mirror. Sorry, wa wa.

  2. Isn't their higher pay and increased level of applause enough compensation for their added pressure?