Cher Public

The Quantification of the Diva: Part the Second

caballeLa Cieca continues to apply the Kang Method to the dozen divas of the Classic mode. This time, our five criteria for diva status offer fewer total points, but the difficulty level remains the same. Especially for Renata Scotto.


CD-GRANDEZZA-fuscia“Be not afraid of grandezza: some are born grand, some achieve grandezza and some have grandezza thrust upon them.”  Grandezza reveals itself in singing in breadth of phrasing, generosity of voice and “repose,” the sense that the audience is perfectly willing to wait patiently as the diva wends her way through the aria. A diva can achieve grandezza even without uttering a note, in a leisurely staircase entrance, a statuesque pose, or the increasingly rare ability to manipulate a three-foot velvet train with the insouciant ease of a tigress flicking her tail.

Grandezza can project as an expression of a character’s sense of self-worth. For example, here we have a Tosca without tears, without whimpering, without even any excessive sense of awe for her intended Listener. Observe as the Roman diva drapes her arm across the high-backed chair, her body language intimating that, far from being a supplicant’s prayer, “Vissi d’arte” is the opening sally in a bargaining session between equals.

Strange as it seems, it is indeed possible for Grandezza to go just a little too far.


CD-SCAND-LIMEYou know how when they do the behind-the-scenes interviews on Project Runway, RuPaul’s Drag Race or any of the lesser television “reality” shows, there’s always the one competitor who says, “I didn’t come here to make friends; I came here to win.” La Cieca is of course cognizant of the importance of close personal relationships in this life, but Facebook doesn’t make a diva.  Determination does.– though it may mean your autobiography will include a chapter headed “Sedizioze Voci.”

Hair and Headgear

CD-HAIR-BLACKGerard Butler and his shredded Thermopylae faithful storm the camp of the Persians in a murderous rage. After slaughtering hundreds of mutant Persians, the band reaches a small chamber near the back of the last tent. Beautiful music is heard. Barely visible through a curtain of sparkling blue stones is Jessye Norman with a chenille fan on her head. A bigger fan of a similar style sits atop her shoulders. Her hands are not hands—but lobster claws!  As “When I am Laid in Earth” floods over Gerard Butler, he  is reminded of our shared humanity. Gerard Butler’s look-of-anguish falls over Gerard Butler’s face. He says, “Men, let us not forget why it had to come to this…” (Jay Caspian Kang)

Weight Fluctuations

CD-WEIGHT-TEALAs the chart indicates, more than one diva has been known to practice yo-yo dieting. La Norman and La Scotto are striking examples of divas whose weight fluctuates up and down. But Montserrat Caballé is perhaps unique in that her weight fluctuates up and up.

But wait, there’s a bit more to it than that. The most peculiar thing about Montse’s embonpoint is that it seems to shape-shift from instant to instant. One moment she’s standing full face, not singing, caftan lazily flapping in the breeze, and you’re all like “big as a house!” Then she turns in profile and that voice purls out, and the light falls just right on the warpaint, and, voilà, it’s Elizabeth Taylor circa Boom!


Drag Imitability CD-DRAG-ROYAL BLUE

Yes, it is true that La Jess scores high in this category, as it only right, since a prominent drag performer makes a pretty good living doing an “impression” of the diva that is, if anything, rather more muted than the original. But La Cieca’s nod goes to our Joan, who, with the lifelong assistance of a husband and helpmeet acutely attuned to the gay sensibility, achieved the rare Mae West distinction of being a female female impersonator.

How real is Joan’s drag persona? Let’s go to the tape!

Mr. Kang, who has delighted us so often at Free Darko, also may be heard tweeting at maxpower51.

  • LittleMasterMiles

    I thought you said Cuantofication.

    So, it should now be possible to tally up the scores and announce a winner, no?

    • Note that we still have Contemporary Divas” to analyze.

      • Will we have just the one winner or a winner in each category?

  • This is damn entertaining reading. Caballe’s weight fluctuating “up and up”? LOL Yet, the comparison to Liz Taylor is somehow apt.

    Sutherland is a female, female impersonator? You can’t make this kind of thing up.

    And Renata is SO that contestant on Project Runway who declares that she’s not there to make friends. Love it.

    Price’s entrance in that youtbue clip is the epitome of diva grandeur. That dress is so ridiculous that it is actually perfect. And the audience adoration that accompanies the entrance speaks for itself.

  • tannengrin

    I feel for those candidates that did not score particularly high or low in any category. Mediocrity, particularly amongst Divae (Dives? Divans? Diviel?), must be utterly shameful.

  • Big Q

    Closely reasoned and immensely entertaining. I would only gently protest Scotto’s mid-ranking in “Imitability.” I know she is not his sole inspiration, but where would Ira Siff be without her?

  • Nerva Nelli

    That last clip must be staged by Lotfi M., no?

  • iltenoredigrazia

    A couple of comments: I don’t remember Scotto going up and down in weight. She was not obese by any stretch of the imagination to start with, but being short made her look a bit dumpy. Then she lost quite a bit of weight during the summer of 1977 and I don’r remember her ever gaining it back. I believe she’s been quite slim ever since.

    On the other hand, Marilyn Horne did go up and down. She gained weight progressively as the years went by but in the mid-80’s she lost a lot of it. (See her in the telecast of L’Italiana from the Met in 1986.) Unfortunately she put the weight back on rather rapidly after that.

    Note that Caballe, heavy as she was, was comfortable moving around the stage until mid-career. Youngsters often assume that all overweight singers are like Brewer, Eaglen, Pavarotti, et al, who can barely move and bother little with acting. That has not always been the case. You can be overweight and still do some honest acting onstage.

  • scifisci

    Thank you so much la cieca for these DIVA posts….I cannot tell you how happy they make me!

  • PokeyGascon

    La Cieca, thank you so much for presenting this illuminating and educational discussion, a veritable Music Theory 201: Modern Day Divas.

    OT has there been discussion on Parterre of Sirius’s plans for Sunday? It sounds like they will be playing some of the newly remastered CDs in a tribute to Levine.

    6:00 AM ET Wagner: Lohengrin
    3/21/1998-Levine; Heppner, Voigt, Polaski, Ketelsen, Halfvarson

    12:00 AM ET Harbison: The Great Gatsby (SIRIUS XM PREMIERE!)
    1/1/2000-Levine; Hadley, Upshaw, Croft, Graham, Hunt Lieberson, Baker

    3:00 PM ET Stravinsky: Le Sacre du Printemps / Le Rossignol / Oedipus Rex
    2/25/1984-Levine; Lewis, Quivar, Mazura, Rolandi, Creech

    6:00 PM ET Corigliano: The Ghosts of Versailles (SIRIUS XM PREMIERE!)
    1/4/1992-Levine; Stratas, Hagegård, Quilico, Horne, Clark, Fleming

    9:00 PM ET The Met on Record: Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande (1983) (SIRIUS XM PREMIERE!)
    Levine; Pilou, Duesing, Taillon, van Dam, Hines

    12:00 AM ET Berlioz: Les Troyens
    2/22/2003-Levine; Heppner, Hunt Lieberson, Voigt, Croft, Lloyd

  • iltenoredigrazia, Scotto was quite the chub in the 70s when I first saw her, and also a terrible actress. Something happened c. 1978: she lost forty pounds (est.) and learned how to portray. Amazing. She also began to jump fach to the significant alarm of many. But her claims to diva-hood were already fully established and the over-the-top-ness and flare that followed (even with, to my ears, a marked vocal decline) undercut nothing of her claims.

    As for Great Big Divas who could move -- well, nothing on the opera stage -- certainly no other Lucia -- ever equaled the times our Joan used to run the hundred-yard-dash while singing flawless, hoot-free (unlike here), ideal scene de pazzia. Those who only heard her after 1979 or in the video she made at the Met six years after that have simply no idea how glorious she was.

    • iltenoredigrazia

      Hans, we’ll have to agree to disagree. I saw Scotto years before she lost weight and she was a very good actress, at least by operatic standards. As early as 1965 when she made her Met debut she already owned the role of Butterfly. Check reviews from the 60’s and early 70’s and you’ll find numerous references to her dramatic involvement. Her acting did become more modern, less “operatic,” as the years went by, but she was never one to stand there and just sing.

      • richard

        I’m somewhere in between you guys. I didn’t see Scotto as early as ITDG but I did see her in recital in the 60s and then in losts of staged opera from 1970 on.

        And I wouldn’t call her a terrible actress at all.
        She had an instinctive feel for moving on stage as far as it went. She wasn’t particularly free or extreme in her stage business, but it was always effective, if a bit old-fashioned.

        On the other hand, I was really struck by the difference in her physical appearance on stage after she slimmed down. It was almost as if her changed appearance gave her a new freedom in what she could do on stage.

        I saw her about about a year apart, in early 1977 as Mimi and Musetta

        Here’s the 1977 Met Musetta, you could make an argument that she’s actually less over the top and move effective than she was in her later run in the role when the Zeffirelli production was new, but in any event , I wouldn’t call her ineffective here.

        But when I first saw the new , slimmed down Scotto in Adriana in early 1978, it seemed to me a door had opened up for her and she now felt much freer onstage with many more possibilities for what she could accomplish with the physical components of stage opera. It was a striking transformation.

        And she still sounded very good as Adriana in 1978; actually this was my favorite Scotto appearance of all, in all the performances I saw from 1970-1986.

  • sfmike

    I have always loved Monsterfat Cowbelly for her voice, artistry, and charm, but your “fluctuating up and up” just about slayed me. This entire series so far is one of the most brilliant you’ve produced over the years. The mock-scientific bar charts are the perfect final touch. Thanks for all the work.

    • judycadanna

      Can we please call a world-wide moratorium on that nickname?

      • Jack Jikes

        Yes! Nix that moniker! La Cieca made a similar ‘cri de coeur’ in the earlier days of Parterre.

  • I had to get hold of Scotto’s bio and look for the chapter Le Sediziose voci. I take it the ‘Italian tenor who used to know me until he thought he became too big to know me’, the one who pushed his way into solo curtain calls, always came unprepared, kept demanding that rehearsals be held in his room, was Pavarotti. Hilarious stuff.

  • melisma catatonia

    Any list that thinks Christa Ludwig was a greater Diva than Grace Bumbry has been put together by people with very short memories.

    • I think we all suffered a collective brain fart when the nominating was happening. No one nominated Bumbry despite the fact that she is a great diva all the way, is frequently mentioned on this site, and only last year got the Kennedy Centre Honours distinction (which should have put her more on our radar).

  • Grandezza redux.