The Diva's Mouth: Body, Voice, Prima Donna Politics

The Diva's Mouth: Body, Voice, Prima Donna Politics

The Diva's Mouth: Body, Voice, Prima Donna Politics

The Diva's Mouth: Body, Voice, Prima Donna Politics


From the Sirens to Madonna, from castrati to Callas, from opera stage to drag shows to TV commercials, from George Eliot to writers of detective fiction, the diva has been worshipped, feared, maligned, parodied, and appropriated. This text examines how and why, from the 18th century to the present, divas have been talked about with so much passion and written about with such ambiguity and contradiction. It explores the myriad roles the diva plays in masculinist, feminist, and queer imaginations - in opera itself and in other fictions, films, and fantasies - including the divas' and authors' own. Finally, it examines how and why pop singers like Madonna and Annie Lennox, in very explicit ways, flirt with, fling off, and fulfil the fantasy of the woman with a voice.


For even though the typical diva is usually perceived to be exotic and larger than life, and even though the nightingale is a small, drab bird, comparisons between the two would seem to be inevitable, given the heavenly quality of the nightingale's voice. Isn't Hans Andersen's story The Nightingale truly, a paean to his love for Jenny Lind? And wasn't Adelina Patti reported to have eaten, every night before retiring, a sandwich containing the tongues of twelve nightingales?

--Kathryn Davis, The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf

For the soundtrack of the film Farinelli, Il Castrato, The Institute for Musical and Acoustic Research in Paris re-created the sound of a castrato by electronically combining the voices of a male countertenor and a female soprano. In a nice historical irony, the castrato sound described by contemporary listeners as ethereal, otherworldly, disembodied, superhuman is now produced quite literally out of body--and electronic "morphing" is, of course, a much less painful way of creating the sound than the original process by which castrati were produced. Lovers and scholars of the voice have long lamented the loss of the castrato voice and expressed curiosity to hear it (even as they point out that they are not advocating a return to castration). Farinelli, Il Castrato may provide the closest approximation to the castrato sound that they will ever hear. We doubt that many of the curious and nostalgic will like it; after all, voice lovers have been arguing over the merits of the technological engineering of voices since the birth of the gramophone.

Castrati, then, with their ethereal and otherworldly voices, were the first operatic "divinities"; they were also the first singers to be abused and stereotyped. If we think of a diva as a star soprano or mezzo given to tantrums, vanities, and all manner of other excesses, then the first divas were castrati. If we think of a diva as a figure who disrupts, through her voice and the freedoms it gives her, the binary oppositions of the traditional sex-

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