Cher Public

‘Mawrdew,’ he wrote

“Gods are hard for mortals to see”—Homer (trans. Gregory Nagy), Hymn to Demeter 

In his book Literature and the Gods, Roberto Calasso bemoans a dearth of the divine in modernity. “There was a time,” he sighs, “when the gods were not just a literary cliché, but an event, a sudden apparition…” It’s worth unpacking this claim for its presupposed nostalgia for the ancient past, where magic and mortality apparently coexisted within the material world. But are things really quite so different today? What have we lost in these end times?

Personally, Calasso’s statement resonates with me; I feel anemic, yet inundated with information—text, sound, image. One rarely has a chance to linger over beauty, to champion it, to surrender to a god, to enter the cult. Calasso cites reading as our touchstone to the divine. Nevertheless, he (somewhat condescendingly) suggests that this activity is, in fact, not an invocation of the gods at all, but a parody of them. That being said, a part of me still identifies with Calasso; I understand his search for the divine. It is heaven (literally!) to brush up against a god, to enter into its cult, to worship.

However, it’s also worth looking further (and perhaps beyond) Calasso’s assertion in order to break it down, to refuse his claim for its bleak, modernist notion that the gods have long been consigned to the pages of literature. Are the gods located truly and solely on paper, as flattened imitations of themselves, acting out in parody? Or, are there other channels through which one might encounter the divine. My hope is that Calasso is being a bit shortsighted. My hope is that there are ways to bear witness to gods and goddesses outside acts of reading, beyond parody. Which is to say: let us put our faith in a different liturgy. Words and music still bring the congregation together in ceaseless adoration.

Published in 1975, James McCourt’s novel Mawrdew Czgowchwz is engaged with a similar longing for the divine. And it is, perhaps, a welcomed antidote (or complication) to Calasso’s claim that the gods have retreated solely to the modalities of literature. A rambunctious, difficult book, the novel charts the apotheosis of an opera singer known as Mawrdew Czgowchwz, an artist in possession of a voluminous talent. With a threadbare plot, the narrative traces her rise, fall, and resurrection as both an artist and persona, all the while cataloguing the praise, condemnations, and exhortations hurled at the diva by her public. Overflowing with language—argots and slang—the novel offers one a vision into the sub-culture of opera fandom. As Wayne Koestenbaum writes in an introduction for the novel,

“The weird drag persona of Mawrdew Czgowchwz, like Myra Breckinridge, gives voice—and, almost a body—to artistic preoccupation, or to the sensibility of men, and women, too, who, in the 1960s and earlier, put their considerable mental resources into connoisseurship, aesthetic partisanship, and standing on the line [at the old Metropolitan Opera]”

This is the language of a highly coded and highly ritualized milieu. It is hyperbolic, fraught, magical—hexes even appear within the novel, a plot point that both suggests the power of faith and language, within the verbal ecologies of fandom, and hearkens back to the supernaturalism of Calasso’s antiquity.

Verbose, linguistically dilated, and rooted in pre-Stonewall aesthetics, McCourt’s artistic preoccupation, beyond the practice of diva-worship, is primarily language. Sentences unspool as unruly and uncontainable as a virus. Nothing in the novel is particular gay, but the text itself serves as a significant contribution to a strange and alien queer literacy, a lost art in our sanitized queerness (McCourt would take up these concerns again in his later, non-fiction work Queer Street). Certain signifiers, difficult to recount due to the ontology of cruising, reverberate beneath the surface of the text, conjuring a different time, a different age, a different scene; these signs prove legible only to a select few—the elect, as McCourt would undoubtedly put it.

This term—elect—is deployed by McCourt to describe those opera fans pulled into the orbit of the main character, diva Mawrdew Czgowchwz. With its connotations of ritual, theology, and soteriology, the elect is a frustrating notion—especially if one has not been summoned into the cult to practice “Mawrdolatry,” as McCourt articulates it. Ah! To be marked out at some prior vetting, one’s soul determined fit enough for the task at hand! It is a stance that looks from the inside out, from a vantage point of aesthetic privilege.

Superiority attends those who count themselves as members. They smugly consider the unenlightened: the walking dead, mindless as zombies, blind to the glories brandished by their god. In McCourt’s novel this generates a system of camps, allegiances and alliances. For example, the novel opens with a description of the cult of Morgana Neri (I Neriani), a WWII era diva on the decline:

Neri’s opinions on everything and everyone in music were recited in antiphon over tables littered with clippings, reviews, vile coffee, and majestically autographed glossies of the diva, in black and white and in sepia (none of a later vintage than the last year before the war). Neri was considered ageless, her voice deemed eternal. The elders, who could actually speak of the Neri debut, were revered by intimates as prior saints. Wire recordings of Neri broadcast performances passed like transcripts of the Orphic mysteries from fool to fool.

But, as the novel details in a filigree of gossip and wit, Neri’s reign will come to an end beneath the shadow of the novel’s eponymous heroine, “whence the Neriad [takes] a turn for the tragic.” Mawrdew will unseat the diva with her art: “She wedded music to mimicry to create ‘musicry.’ She was the definitive diva, she still is.” And so the culture of Neri disintegrates (notwithstanding a few malicious stabs at retribution), and the cult of Czgowchwz ascends.

As Koestenbaum suggests, Mawrdew Czgowchwz is based on a composite of Maria Callas and Victoria de los Ángeles: “Partly Callas, partly de los Ángeles,” Koestenbaum writes, “Ms. Czgowchwz is an amalgam of every great singer.” McCourt’s personal devotion to de los Ángeles colors his writing with a delicious, pink cloud of nostalgia and affection. And the influence of Maria Callas, regarding the character’s elegance and glamour, is undeniable. Mawrdew, like Callas, manages to evince both a public persona, as well as indicate toward a more private, mysterious interiority. For as much as Callas suffered and lived for her art (Vissi d’arte!), her public persona was consumed by it, and so she remained surprisingly private in other ways.

One thinks of the famous photographs of Callas in recital. Dazzling, draped like a Grecian goddess (a Greek-American, resident of Athens—namesake of Pallas Athena), she bewitches through contradiction. She pours out her art, beckoning the spectator (one feels like a moth drawn to the flame), and yet she eschews our approach. She is formidable, yet alluring.

Similarly, much of Mawrdew’s thoughts, within the novel’s promiscuous angles of vision, go unrecorded, serenely opaque. She drifts through Gotham, lovely and withholding—except, perhaps, through the generosity of her voice. Like the gods on Olympus, one wonders: what is going on up there in her head? What does it feel like to possess such earth-shaking talent? Never mind. We don’t need to know; rather, it is better to bask in the delicious, inviolable mystery of her talent, the esoteric practices of the artist’s inner sanctum.

Is there a current correlative? Who is central to our cult these days, or have the gods—as Calasso suggests—slipped into the abyss of history? In these dreadful times, we pursue our devotion. We long to love, to adore, to worship. Where is our goddess? It seems like the very concept is the vestige of a long, lost past. As Alex Ross wrote in The New Yorker last week, regarding the state of fandom at the Met:

The days are over when the crowd [at the Metropolitan Opera] was filled with voice geeks who could identify transpositions, cuts, and optional high notes. Such people still exist, but their numbers have dwindled, not least because rising ticket prices have made habitual attendance harder. You hear less informed buzz around you; you see more people sneaking looks at their phones.

And much of McCourt’s novel circles around the standing line at the old Metropolitan Opera, where hymns of praise and curses abound. The novel is valuable in that it feels like dipping into that long forgotten pool, bathing in a language that dried up through the days of HIV/AIDS and, more recently, the mainstreaming (hetero-washing?) of legalized gay marriage. It’s bittersweet. I am happy gays can get married. But what happened to the notion of being elected? Where is the glitz, the glamour, of Mawrdew?

It’s not just a question of the voice. There are a number of fine singers strutting across the stage. For example, Elina Garanca is a surefooted vocalist. Nina Stemme is an extremely capable musician and singer, especially in light of her repertoire. There are Angela Meade, Sonya Yoncheva, Latonia Moore, Jamie Barton, Marina Rebeka, Nadine Sierra, Anja Harteros, Tamara Wilson, Isabel Leonard, Tamara Mumford, Anita Hartig and etcetera. But each of them lacks an essential element to catapult them into the stratosphere, to bring about their apotheosis, to provoke worship.

Even Renée Fleming, whose instrument is of the highest quality, whose ubiquitous presence is the standard of perfection (though, perhaps, airbrushed within an inch of her life), remains “the people’s diva,” much like her predecessor Bubbles. Nice is fine, but goddesses are not nice. We fear and love the divine. Nobody wants to worship the girl next door.

Which brings me to Anna Netrebko. Who else embodies the super-human, scorching star-wattage of this singular Russian soprano? Talk about (to borrow Calasso’s language) the god as event, a sudden apparition! Who else has the gravitas, the vocal chutzpah, the deranged fashion sense, the will and bravado to sing badly and then sing really well—in short: a willingness to put on a show, on and off the stage? Netrebko, whose vocal prowess has recently surmounted her off-stage persona, is a life-affirming performer (“I heard from someone—I can’t remember his name—that she’s studying with a new teacher in Berlin”).

Generous, indulgent, voluptuous—a contradiction: both heavenly and earthly. The sexiest thing about her is her voice (and I am well aware of her physical beauty). One can imagine her decked in the armor of Athena, blazing across the battlefield. Her weapon is her singing, like a laser, melting the flesh of her adversaries.

So, I think it’s a conversation worth having. What has happened to the elect? Have they dissipated, unbound by the absence of a proper diva? Have our goddesses absconded the stage? Or, am I being a shrill alarmist (a la Calasso), ringing my hands over nothing? As a writer for Parterre, I have thought often of McCourt lately—the work his novel engages with is the work all of us at Parterre engage with. One aches and longs for Mawrdew, or some variant of the diva.

As Calasso writes in his book, “The world…has no intention of abandoning enchantment altogether, because even if it could, it would get bored.” There’s nothing I want more, as a critic and operagoer, than to heap lavish praise on a deserving deity. If I could invoke her, whoever she is, I would. But, alas, I’m not a priest of the elect. I wait and search, longing for the goddess to return, the bright flash of her parousia lighting up the stage at Lincoln Center.

  • Cicciabella

    I won’t pretend I understand even half of this essay, but, blimey, I thought Mawrdew C. was just a very funny, entertaining novel about a diva.


    Have we all grown too complacent in our diva worship? Has the spirit of sorority grown so great amongst mezzos and sopranos that there’s no longer any backbiting and intrigue? I blame the Met intermission features with everyone being so chatty and friendly and actually getting to meet each other and talk. It’s obviously led to almost complete breakdown in rivalry as we know and enjoy it.

    I remember not too long ago when Alagna and Gheroghiu used to be able to work up a little press coverage from bad behavior. The last real diva to diva skirmish (at least between fans) I can recall was on these pages between those pro Debbie Voigt or pro Jane Eaglen (Go Jane!).

    The problem with Anna is that she’s grown so monstrously talented, and was gorgeous to begin with, that she doesn’t have any competition. It’s her and the also rans. She still can’t dress herself if you ask me but the singing is incredible.

    This was a great piece and I’ve always admired the book in question more than enjoyed it. Thank You Mr. James.

    • I agree that Netrebko’s talent is considerable and, to her credit, she hasn’t just coasted on her talent. She has worked hard on her singing to make the most of her talent. In addition to that, she has loads of charisma and glamour. But I disagree that it’s Netrebko and the also-rans. Harteros, for example, is also extremely gifted and accomplished.


        I couldn’t agree with you more except for the fact that Harteros almost completely lacks a public persona or presence. I was just in a long conversation on another site defending her ability to define her own choices. She has chosen family over the international career and it is her prerogative. I’ve heard her recent Aida and just ordered her Ballo on bluray. Still there’s no way I could put her vocalism in the same category as Netrebko. Harteros is very, very, good. Anna is great.

        • Porgy Amor

          I don’t see it that starkly, Patrick. I consider both of them sopranos who are worth listening to in what they do next, and I always give them a clean slate — they don’t get credit in advance for something good in the past or blame for something bad. There are things I would certainly rather hear Harteros sing than Netrebko, and vice versa. I don’t think of either one of them as MY GODDESS!!!!!!!!!!!!! (or whatever).

          • PATRICK MACK

            Ok. Switzerland.

        • Ivy Lin

          Not sure they’re really comparable because they don’t sing many overlapping roles. I wouldn’t want to hear Anna sing Arabella or Sieglinde and I wouldn’t want to hear Harteros sing Lady Macbeth or Manon Lescaut.

          • PATRICK MACK

            I want to hear ALL of those roles from both of them and Harteros would wipe the floor with Lady Macbeth. Anna as Sieglinde? Someone fetch my smelling salts. But, honestly if no one ever sings Arabella or Manon Lescaut again I’m cool.

            • rhinestonecowgirl

              Harteros would be barely audible as Lady M to begin with. No chest, no attitude, no real personality. I heard her Paris recital last month and she sounded really frail. All German programme, of which the Berg Early Songs seemed to suit her best. And no attempt to court the local audience by attempting just one little encore en francais:

            • CCorwinNYC

              The New York Times the other day had an extensive interview/profile of Harteros by Zachary Woolfe. Personally I don’t “get” her.

        • I love both Harteros and Netrebko. If I were going purely on voice, I might give Netrebko the edge. But even then, it depends on the situation. There is no active soprano in the world today who has given me as much pleasure as Harteros’s Elsa in the Jones production with Kaufmann. But on the whole, I’ve gotten more out of Netrebko’s stunning instrument over the years.

          There is some overlap between the two but mostly from Harteros doing Italian rep. I don’t think Netrebko is able to modulate her voice to be as ideally suited to the German rep, but she still does interesting things in it. Hers is not my first choice of VLL but I like some of her choices in those songs. And though she lacked the purity of line in the parts of her Dresden Elsa I heard, she still had moments of pure glory.

          But overlapping of rep isn’t the key driver for me. I judge their singing each on their own terms. And they both bring many strengths. I consider them both equally great.

          As for being goddess-like figures, Netrebko has by far the bigger public persona and presence, so it’s hard to compare. But being elusive can make one just as tantalizing a figure.

  • Magpie

    Interesting.. I tried to read his Silverlake stories, but the book still sits unread.
    Patrick, after Jessye Norman and Caballe faded (those are the only divas where I actually saw a crowd in “frenzy” and “delirium”), I have, like you, wondered why there are no “Divas” that inspire crowds, or me for that matter.
    Compare any soprano to Callas. She sang, according to what I hear on record and what other people has told me: Recklessly, perfectly controlled, excellent technique, troubled technique, sublime, horrendously, gloriously, infinitely nuanced, only Fortissimo, large voice, small voice, etc… Then her looks, not ugly, not beautiful, yet made herself a fashion icon… Great actress, stylized actress, vocal actress, not an actress..Then cancelled performances with the president, screaming like a tigress, rivalries, affair with the wealthiest man…public and private.. Opinions form a 360 circle around her and everyone can find fault and praise in her.
    I guess I want my goddess to be like Callas, to go war with her inadequacies, her detractors, and even her followers. To be intelligent, reckless, glamorous, to fail, to resurrect. I want to see the fragments of her perfection, create a perfect moment. I want to love her and hate her just so I can fall in love with her again. I want her to command her art and her legions.
    The world hasn’t abandoned enchantment, but we are bored, so bored.
    Netrebko can start a fire in my soul with her voice, but her pedestrian frau persona just doesn’t make me want to follow her. And I think she is the only one that could rise…

    • DonCarloFanatic

      Frau persona? When she was nearing forty, she said she had been a “girl” long enough. To knock her for re-imagining herself as a woman, full on, mother and wife, is to miss the connection with how she sings now as a mature performer. Wildness is not a necessary component of art--even if it makes for an entertainingly pulpy movie.

  • fletcher

    Lots to process here, but there’s an interview with von Stade somewhere (Charlie Rose maybe?) where she attributes the Diva Dearth, at least partially, to the fact that many leading singers choose now to raise children, something Callas, Tebaldi, Price, Moffo, & others never did.

    • Yige Li

      But then, it doesn’t explain Divo Dearth, does it?

      • Apulia

        It could. Having children can (and should) divert one’s focus from self to others; goddesses probably shouldn’t have children. Being a diva is hard, self-centered, work. It’s strange how many diva biographies nowadays start with lines like “not your typical diva, she loves digging up vegetables from her own modest garden……”, Divas are never “typical” and do not have time to grow vegetables modestly until after retirement. They are individual in voice (you know who’s singing after just a few words) and personality. That’s part of what draws us to them. Children? Ask Norma or Medea……

        • Ivy Lin

          I think that’s a really narrow view of “diva.” Kirsten Flagstad was a mother, knit between acts, and was a diva. Birgit Nilsson lived on a farm with her husband. And some of the biggest divas of the 19th century had children. Giuditta Pasta was a mother of 5. Maria Malibran also had a child. Giulia Grisi was the mom of 7 (!!!) kids. And Anna Netrebko of course has her son Tiago. I actually find this sort of “diva worship” uncomfortable. Divas are divas because they radiate something special onstage. When they are not onstage we really have no idea what they’re like.

          • Armerjacquino

            And of course, leave it to Scotto to take it that step further: as she explained in her book, she is *More* than a diva, which to her means being a wife and mother.

          • fletcher

            Here’s the clip I mentioned. Von Stade is referring to the offstage persona -- the clothes, the jewels, larger-than-life qualities. You’re right, it’s a narrow definition. If celebrity and glamor don’t matter to you, that’s fine -- probably healthier.


            • Ivy Lin

              Hmm I must be missing something because Leontyne Price could have worn every turban on the planet but if she didn’t have the voice she had she’d just be a woman who wears a lot of fancy turbans.

            • La Cieca

              Taking the argument from the other side, though, Dorothy Maynor and Martina Arroyo both voices comparable in beauty to Price’s (Arroyo’s, I would argue, was greater than Price’s) and yet neither was a diva. They were both superb artists, but not divas in the sense that McCourt and James are writing about: they do not offer access to the divine.

            • JR

              I’m with you, Ivy!

      • grimoaldo2
  • Armerjacquino

    I must be missing an enzyme somewhere but I’ve never really got the diva-worship thing. Obviously I love some of the exciting performers, like Callas and Netrebko, who are given the title, and I certainly have favourite singers whose live performances I try to see and whose recordings I buy- but as for this whole romantic ideal of a singer who is more about personality than performance… well, I couldn’t be less interested. Give me someone who can sing, and act, and who turns up prepared and on time, and who people enjoy working with, and I couldn’t care less whether they spend their downtime wearing gowns on yachts or planting begonias.

    • Porgy Amor

      On the other hand, if someone is wearing a gown while planting begonias, I want it brought to my attention.

      • grimoaldo2

        Werther goes nuts with love for Charlotte because the first time he sees her she is slicing bread and butter for the children while wearing a ball gown.

      • In her gardening pearls.

    • Agreed.

  • Ivy Lin

    Speaking of divas there was several weeks’ worth of diva drama in the ballet world. First Tiler Peck and Robbie Fairchild are divorcing because Robbie has fallen in love with his understudy in An American in Paris. Then Veronika Part was abruptly fired from ABT and danced her last performance today:

    • fletcher

      Wait, it’s hard to keep up. Do offstage personal lives matter or not?

      • Ivy Lin

        No not really, just thought it was interesting that there’s all this talk about opera divas but in the dance world there’s been diva drama for the past month or so.

    • Kenneth Conway

      “First Tiler Peck and Robbie Fairchild are divorcing because Robbie has fallen in love with his understudy in An American in Paris”? Huh? I don’t know how to process this information …

  • Cicciabella

    Whether you’re into diva myth making or not, you might want to watch Castellucci’s fleshy Tannhäuser from Munich today on ARTE ( at 9:45 pm CET. Your diva/divo candidates are Vogt, Harteros, Zeppenfeld, Gerhaher and the incredible Pankratova as Venus. Petrenko conducts.