Cher Public

Prelude to the Quantification of the Diva

diva_quantificationLa Cieca is delighted to announce a week-long series of investigative reports deciding once and for all the question “Who is the greatest opera diva of our generation?”

Starting this afternoon we will determine the answer to this most consuming of all conundrums the only way art can ever properly be judged: scientifically. Specifically we will apply the Kang Method (patent pending) to two divisions of divas from the years 1980-2010.

Starting with a list of over 100 nominees submitted by you, the cher public, La Cieca winnowed the roster down to 25 semi-finalists each in “Classic” and “Contemporary” diva divisions.  Then you, the cher public, voted (early, and in some cases, often) for your favorites, tallying over 15,000  total ballots cast.

“Classic” divas (those who are no longer actively performing opera) include Hildegard Behrens, Montserrat Caballé, Régine Crespin, Mirella Freni, Marilyn Horne, Christa Ludwig, Jessye Norman, Leontyne Price, Leonie Rysanek, Renata Scotto, Joan Sutherland and Tatiana Troyanos. (Because of ties, there are 12 instead of the announced 10 divas in this category.)

“Contemporary” divas (i.e., those still on the boards) who topped the list of nominations are Cecilia Bartoli, Natalie Dessay, Joyce DiDonato, Renée Fleming, Angela Gheorghiu, Edita Gruberova, Karita Mattila, Waltraud Meier, Anna Netrebko and Dolora Zajick.

And now, La Cieca can hear you wondering, just what sort of criteria are to be applied to these divas to define “greatness.”  La Cieca is so happy you asked so intelligent a question. Your doyenne considered applying “four basic qualities that comprise stardom in opera” as defined by Ethan Mordden in his definitive “inside look” Demented, i.e. Voice, Musicianship, Temperament and Commitment (though E.M. himself suggests the addition of yet a fifth quality, Audacity, as so memorably exemplified in the story of Grace Moore‘s step-ins.)

She (La Cieca, not Grace Moore) conferred as well with the expert Mordden invented for the occasion, Lotte Heinotz, the “curiously unpopular singer of minor roles active in Vienna in the early 1900s” who authored the “classic pamphlet Der Weltsopranführer.” Frau Heinotz, you will recall, insisted that “All the world of the diva may be divided into five parts: voice, profile, costume, entrance, and death scene. But if you have the first part, the rest will take care of itself.”

In the end, La Cieca based her criteria on those  devised by Jay Caspian Kang (not coincidentally, inventor of the Kang Method) for his definitive study of pop divadom in The Awl.  Certain qualities were eliminated from the discussion of opera divas as being lost arts: for example, in opera no one does “stank” these days, more’s the pity. Anyway, after great deliberation, La Cieca settled upon 10 “Diva Criteria” to be applied on a weighted basis to determine (definitively, mind you!) the ultimate in diva distinction.

Emotional Journey (200 points possible)

  • Does the singer create the “grand opera buzz?” Briefly, do you leave the theater a different person? And if not, why the hell not?

Stimm (150 points possible)
Kunst (150 points possible)

  • Voice vs. art. “The Stimmdiva’s idea of preparing Gounod’s Marguerite involves learning her music and ordering her outfits. The Kunstdiva reads Goethe.”

Iconic Moment (100 points possible)

  • A phrase, a gesture or a situation so closely associated with the diva as to become her trademark. The Iconic Moment could be Maria Callas snarling at the process server or Meg Ryan‘s “I’ll have what she’s having” scene.

Cult Status (100 points possible)

  • Artistic, financial and popular success is nothing without insanely obsessive fans to share it with.

Grandezza (100 points possible)

  • The grace, confidence and repose only a great lady can wield, toots.

Scandale (100 points possible)

  • Cancellations, feuds, insane demands and other sundry drama. (Note: wig anecdotes are scored both here and in the following category.)

Hair and Headgear (50 points possible)

  • A diva without a turban is like… wait, what were we talking about again?

Weight Fluctuations (50 points possible)

  • “With my avoirdupois and my tra la la la la I would be the chief sensation of the age.”

Drag Imitability (50 points possible)

  • The diva’s persona should be so boldly defined, on the very cusp of mannerism, that an imaginative impersonator need apply only a thin veneer of exaggeration. Or, to put it another way, if she can’t be “done,” then she’s not a diva.

Keep watching beginning this afternoon for the first installment of “Quantification of the Diva!”

  • Quanto Painy Fakor

    • DonCarloFanatic


      Very informative video. Just not sure what it has to do with divas.

  • The comprehensive nature of this study is both laudable and fabulous. Brava, La Cieca. So, am I correct in understanding that the part of the cher public is now over and we can just sit back and enjoy the ride?

    • armerjacquino

      No, Kashania. We have to say things like ‘IT IS A SCANDAL REINHILD RUNKEL IS NOT ON THIS LIST’, remember?

    • The cher public are expected to do peer review for the study; that is, to question and challenge the assertions and conclusions with anecdotes, examples and YouTube clips of their own choosing.

      • OpinionatedNeophyte

        I look forward to finally putting the lessons of academia to real productive use. Now, I must be off to create an arbitrary alternative set of standards meant to manipulate the reader (web browser?) into believing my personal preferences derive from “objective” scientific process. Possible other catagories:
        Bat shit crazy and not shamed to show it (300 points)
        Hacking, slashing, wading, bulldozing through a given role till turning it on for Vissi D’Arte or Un Bel Di or something (250)
        Daring the audience not to laugh at world’s craziest hand and/or facial gestures (250)
        Shuts up the haters by pulling out amazing performance well past her prime (500)

        OK at this point I’m just amusing myself.

      • luvtennis

        I am working on the ultimate Diva movie. The screenplay is adapted from a confab of Valley of the Dolls and Imitation of Life. It’s called “Valley of the Imitation Dolls.”

        Whitney stars as Neely O’Hara Jones (the movie relies HEAVILY on CGI -- it was either that or animation). Sharon Stone stars in the Lana Turner role (though here she is hollywood star, drug dealer, AND madam). David Borenaz stars in the lead male role. Sarah Michelle Gellar stars in the Sandra Dee role (although in this outing the character has a secret life fighting crime -- or at least the sort of crime that happens to rich fabulous people with drug and sex addiction problems!)

        I still need to cast the role of the black servant mother figure. Is Nell Carter still alive? Aretha will appear in a cameo as Mahalia Jackson, although the part has been jazzed up with back-up dancers.

        • Melot's Younger Brother

          Nell Carter is, sadly, no longer with us. But check out her bio on Wikipedia: she LIVED in the Valley of the Dolls.

        • luvtennis

          I am very depressed that La Cieca did not jump all over my reference to Imitation of Life.

          Please don’t tell me you have never seen the Lana Turner version, La Cieca.

          I mean it’s the greatest Diva movie ever, plus it’s all socially aware and stuff.

        • Indiana Loiterer III

          still need to cast the role of the black servant mother figure.

          Alveda King. (See my reply to Dawn Fatale below. Let’s face it, the Beltway, not Broadway, is where it’s at these days.)

        • Harry

          But luvtennis… forgot about all those mawkish droning title theme songs they wrote for those angst filled ladies movies like Portrait in Black , Written the Wind , A Summer Place and Imitation of Life.

          The usual bombshell script lines :
          Daughter: “Mother I’m going to have a baby!”
          Mother: “YOOOOOOU little tramp! I tried … I tried to watch over you and this is how you repay me.”

          (Mother then furiously slaps daughter over the face) The music swells. Daughter flees up to her bedroom.

      • marshiemarkII

        ON, that is really good! I especially like your “Shuts up the haters by pulling out amazing performance well past her prime (500)” which could be tied to the “Emotional Journey” category?
        In the Stimm Diva vs Kunst Diva I’d add an Isolde who reads Schopenhauer, the night before the prima, to find the right word meanings/inflections for the Liebesnacht

  • luvtennis

    La Cieca:

    Thanks so much for the link to article in The Awl. I just knew there was a scientific basis for my unwavering belief that Whitney was the greatest diva (Why, oh why, did they do Valley of the Dolls BEFORE Whitney was old enough to star in it. Why!) ALthough something tells me that Aretha might steal back the crown if she ever gets her own reality show.

    They should have included Chrissy Hynde for the drug abuse angle. Oh wait, Whitney!

    All jokes aside, it’s a shame that her personal problems robbed us of that voice when we needed it (say post 9/11). Sure some (most?) of the music she sang was UNmemorable, but the National Anthem, I’m Every Woman, the Merv Griffin performance those was some good sings. Plus she is a GREAT beauty when made up and crack-free.

    • Who among us has not given a spritied karaoke rendition of “The Greatest Love of All” at some point in his/her life?

      • manou


    • marshiemarkII

      I was at VINYL Labor Day (first time in a bar in maybe a decade), and they were playing Whitney’s videos the whole late afternoon/evening. When they played “I have nothing” a whole bunch of queens jumped in front of the screen and started to do their own routines, arms spread out, you know the works, it was very fierce! Were you there luvtennis?

      • luvtennis

        No. What is Vinyl Labor Day? Also, I never sing or do routines or spread my arms out in public. Nor do I lipsynch to Diva recordings or, truth be told, think of myself as a queen. But other than that it sounds like a reverent joy. :-)

      • marshiemarkII

        OK syntactical problem, touché, it should have read “I was at VINYL on Labor Day”.
        Vinyl is a queeny bar on 8th Avenue and 16th street; you know like in the middle of Chelsea, you are NYC-based, nu? I had not been to a bar in over a decade, but I went to the last day of the Barney’s sale, and voila, my friend drag me in for a beer, and we ended spending the rest of the evening there. It was indeed very reverent joy! It sure brought back memories of youth, ah rimembranza! The queens were very fierce and diva-like, and I had a jolly good time. I thought of that when you mentioned Whitney, that seems to be her current shrine.

        • luvtennis

          I live in Texas. I was born in Manhatten, but grew up in Ohio and went to school in Cambridge. I used to go the US Open every Labor Day (instead of going to Vinyl?) and business takes me to NYC quite often.

  • marshiemarkII

    Cieca, this is truly BRILLIANT, you have surpassed even your own brilliant self. Brava Diva!!!!!

  • Niel Rishoi

    Quite frankly, I was surprised to see Edita Gruberova even placing, given the rank antipathy shown toward her here and elsewhere. I don’t know if it’s because she’s not around here in the U.S.; in Europe her appearances are ovation-ridden sellouts, no matter what her vocal state and she’s known as The Queen in terms of her longevity. She’s been singing since 1968, and her schedule is now going up to 2013, where she will be in her late sixties. And debuting in a new role: Alaide in LA STRANIERA.

    • operadunce

      Actually, considering that this is Parterre, I’m a little surprised that Renee made the cut. I didn’t realize I voted that many times! Dear La Cieca: Are there bonus points for the most sobriquets? If so, it’s a lock for RF.

    • luvtennis

      Okay, Niel.

      Gruberova is a great artist. But Diva? Who outside the world of opera has even heard of Gruberova? And while she may be the toast of Vienna, I don’t think that counts for much. I mean does Lady Gaga even tour there?

      • Niel Rishoi

        It’s a risky business to condescend, especially since you don’t dare give your real name.

        Few outside of opera know who Gruberova is, because she has never had a publicist. All the big Divas today are PR products.

        • luvtennis


          Do you really imagine that my life is sooo empty that I would come onto these message boards and engage in an activity as exhausting as condescension? I was mostly joking -- hence the reference to Lady GaGa.

          Dare to give my real name? If folks on the thread decided to give their real names, I would as well. I have nothing to hide.

          I have always enjoyed reading your criticisms. Something I have posted about in the past. Apparently my praise of your work is meaningless because of my anonymity.

      • tiger1dk

        luvtennis: “Who outside the world of opera has even heard of Gruberova?”

        ….Whereas, of course, the whole world is always all abuzz with the latest news of, for instance, Dolora Zajick…

  • Dawn Fatale

    Where is Biopic worthiness i.e. the Jacqueline Susann factor? A real diva’s requires an offstage life that rivals that of any of the characters she plays for excitement and drama.

    • luvtennis

      Don’t be stealing my shit, Dawn!

      • Dawn Fatale

        Sorry, didn’t mean to rain on your parade. Just wanted to make the point that how can someone be a diva if (a) we’re not arguing over who should play her in the movie about her life story and / or (b) Terrence McNally hasn’t written a play about them? and / or (c) they haven’t appeared as a thinly disguised character in a trashy novel?

        • Indiana Loiterer III

          Applying these criteria should be very interesting when we reach currently active opera singers. I mean, as far as the current celebrity industry is concerned, opera singers have about as much inherent interest as, oh, paleontologists, and considerably less than political commentators (let’s face it, a postmodern-day Valley of the dolls would probably be set among the Christine O’Donnells and Ann Coulters. Arggh.) As I’ve said here before, all operatic divas are cult divas now.

  • Ah, you could’ve just modified the RuPaul rubric:


  • manou

    Prélude à l’après-midi d’un phony.

  • iltenoredigrazia

    lol Well, I know of at least one “diva” who got multiple votes from the same fan.

    • luvtennis

      Are you referring to Hildy and her suspected love child (with Karl Bohm), MarshieMarkII?

      • marshiemarkII


        I just came back from meeting Jimmy, and with a brand new copy of the Elektra. The sound is simply BREATHTAKING!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
        I had a DVD copy from the original, but this new remastering is simply the greatest sounding ever of anything!,of course I am not talking about the performance, we know about that :-) :-) :-)
        Es ist vollbracht!
        now I can sterb ich seliger als ich gelebt

        will never be nasty to anyone, promise……

      • Harry

        Bohm? That decrepit termite Nazi lover that loved giving ‘the salute’. In Wagner, at times you imagined he must have just suddenly shit his pants and couldn’t wait to finish the job to change them.

  • does that mean Stemme gets 150 points. (ok, bad joke.)

    i wonder if there’s a stimm-kunst/kunst-stimm…someone who perfectly straddles both (would that be 300 points, or just half of each…jk!). perhaps didonato, westbroek or baltsa?

  • fidelio101

    Is this a trick question?
    Isn’t LA CIECA the ultimate diva?

  • and, btw, the leaving out of verrett from the final polling was indeed scandalous. (i won’t go so far as to say the same for bumbry.)

    • armerjacquino

      I’d agree, but let me say this for the third and last time:


  • Melot's Younger Brother

    I feel there should have been more categories: Real Divas, Dead Divas, Career-Dead Divas, Wanna-Be Divas, and Never-Gonna-Be Divas.

  • Canadiantenor

    Hmm…La Cieca must be getting old… I was beyond shocked not to see La Radvanovsky, currently the greatest interpreter of Verdi Heroins, in the Top 10.

    Her debut as Aida, at the Canadian Opera Company, this October will surely solidify her position as the reigning Verdi Queen.

    Viva La Radvanovsky!!!

    • armerjacquino

      Do you know what a ‘ballot’ is, canadiantenor?

      • Canadiantenor

        Like Americans know anything about democratic elections, 2000 Bush elctions … hmm… Florida recount ring a bell?

        “Then you, the cher public, voted (early, and in some cases, often) for your favorites, tallying over 15,000 total ballots cast.”

        One Queen could have voted 100 times for their Diva, now is that right????

        • CruzSF

          I think you might be barking up the wrong election, here.

    • Krunoslav

      Do we detect Schade-enfreusde?

    • florezrocks

      I have tickets to her first performance at COC!!! Oct. 2!

      • Canadiantenor

        It will be a night to remember!

  • luvtennis

    Okay, so applying the Cieca Criteria (you must have been a whiz at differential equations, La), I offer the following ANSWERS.

    Classic -- Mezzos are out. So are Crespin and Norman. If you can’t sing a D flat in public you ain’t a Diva in my book (however epic you might otherwise be as a musician, performer and artist).

    Scotto and Behrens are out. You have to score at least 100 points in the voice category to qualify as a Diva. Yes, I know that about the diction and the commitment and the acting, but sorry, if you don’t have a voice that leaves folks clamoring to hear you sing Happy Birthday and the phone book, then you are not a Diva. Sacred Monster, yes. Diva, no. Not surprising though, Scotto scored pretty high in the scandal and drag queen categories. Behrens got high marks in the hair category. Any white woman, other than Cleo Laine and Julia Migenes, with a fro gets the nod on that one.

    Of the 4 remaining contenders, Leonie brings up the rear. Sorry! Leonie scored high in all categories but stimme -- + for the incredible upper register; -- for everything else. Of the remaining contenders, Leonie scored highest in Kunst. Ultimately, Leonie just didn’t have the cross-cultural oomph of the remaining contenders.

    Caballe was next. She scored high on stimme. Unfortunately, she got a negative score on Kunst. You have to actually know the words before you can get credit for interpreting them. She gets super high marks for her complete domination of the Barcelona Olympics and her unforgettable duet with La Mercury. She was pretty much a washout in the hair and weight categories (fluctuation?). In truth, Caballe lost out because she was never even remotely hot. Unlike Sutherland say, who resembled a Reubens whore in the early stages of her career.

    Not Surprisingly, I give Price and Sutherland equal honors. Leontyne has a slight lead in most categories except Stimme (a tie) and scandals (Joan has the husband thing and the potentially anti-asian thing working for her). Both get marks for iconic status. Leontyne has made it a habit to show up at things, look really, really old, and then sing like hell -- the 9/11 performance at the Tucker Gala and the Vissi D’Arte at the Grammies come to mind. Neither Diva get’s super high marks for Kunst, but some of their earliest performances were dramatically riveting (Sutherland’s Lucia, Price’s Scala Aidas) so they get at least a passing grade.

    As for drag potential, I offer the following:

    Giant Green Bow

    Giant Green Maribo(u)thing.

    Up next Contemporary Divas, or Tramps, Tramps everywhere and not a _____ to _____!

    • Mezzos are out. So are Crespin and Norman. If you can’t sing a D flat in public you ain’t a Diva in my book (however epic you might otherwise be as a musician, performer and artist).

      • Oops, I forgot the “pish tosh” that was supposed to follow that.

        • mrmyster

          Oh, that’s alright, Miss Kashania, you can just say
          “bullshit” instead!!!

        • mrmyster

          Miss K: Just to be clear, I meant that “b.s.” as a comment
          on Mr Tennis’s claim about mezzos etc., and not on anything
          you said, for almost always enthusiastically agree with your
          opinions and observations.! C’est ca!

        • MM: Pas de problem. Je comprende. (BTW, I’m a “miss” only in the opera queen context. ;))

        • luvtennis

          In my religion, saying pish tosh to someone is tantamount to spitting in the face of our Lord and Saviour, the divine “Little Baby Jeesus.”

          He didn’t care much for mezzos or high-note challenged sopranos either.

          And by the way, I didn’t mean to imply that Crespin and Jess were also rans in anything other than this contest. My record collection stands as proof of my regard for both artists.

          Norman’s Beim Schlafehgehn and Crespin’s Asie are the two greatest performances of orchestral songs in the history of orchestral songs and recording.

          So there.

        • Well, as long as I’m not spitting in your face, then I’m OK. The lord and saviour I can handle. :)

    • Baltsamic Vinaigrette

      What is a Reubens whore -- don’t tell me Pee Wee is back on the front pages for all the wrong reasons? And if this a reference to the supremely well-connected court painter from Antwerp (Counter-Reformation art and society portraits a speciality), clearly many of his female sitters are voluptuous but you can only guess at their virtue. Rubens did not depict whores (bar perhaps the odd biblical story) the way that some of his distinguished contemporaries did.

      As regards your general argument, I agree entirely with Kashania.

      • luvtennis

        Rubens. Sorry for the typo, Balsamic. And yes, I know the painter and his period fairly well.

  • luvtennis

    I forgot to mention Sutherland’s x factor. She was the subject of a Second City TV parody -- “Battle of the PBS Stars -- a highlight of network TV. If you ask me. . . .

  • luvtennis

    I am OUTRAGED tho that Tizziana Fabbriccini didn’t make either list.

    Also Iano Tamar!!!!!

    [Hope that made somebody feel better!]

    • mrmyster

      Tennis: Did you hear Fabbricini sing Lucia in Houston eons
      ago with the yount Giordani? I did. Two times over a week, and
      she could not sing her way out of a paper bag. In fact, that is
      how she sounded: in a paper bag!

      • luvtennis

        Surely you have at least HEARD of the concept of sarcasm, sir.

  • Famous Quickly

    Iconic Moment (100 points possible)

    * A phrase, a gesture or a situation so closely associated with the diva as to become her trademark.


    “I could sing Sieglinde *tomorrow*, it’s a question of color and tessitura…”