— At the Festival

Published on June 28 2019

GODDESS, MONSTER OR PHOENIX: THE MYTH OF THE DIVA

Tosca de Puccini - Mise en scène de Christophe Honoré - Festival d'Aix-en-Provence 2019
© Jean-Louis Fernandez
Trying to explain what a diva does seems pointless: the very word (“goddess” in Italian) suggests the realm of religion—i.e., a firm conviction that resists all rational analysis. And yet, a certain consensus has formed around a few extraordinary individuals. In addition, this figure has become so embedded in our collective musical consciousness that it transcends the notions of time and genre: she originated in opera, but has been perpetuated through jazz, soul and pop music. Therefore, let us dare to propose a few hypotheses.

The diva is, first of all, the charismatic union of an extraordinary voice, a consummate technique, and a powerful and original personality, all in the same artist, and all of which enthrall her audience. By the way she conducts and embodies song on stage—combining virtuosity, inventiveness, presence and expressiveness—she invokes such intense pleasure that she herself becomes its symbol while still remaining an unsettling figure. To the myth of miraculous talent—a voice that is a “gift from heaven”—are added more tangible qualities: a relentless work ethic and unremitting will. Although encouraged by a favorable milieu and sometimes aided by her own Pygmalion, the diva is, above all, a self-made woman.

Her male counterpart may provoke similar passion, but the term “divo” has had more difficulty entering the lexicon: the figure of the diva fuels certain ideas and specific representations of femaleness and femininity. She is simultaneously the quintessence of what a hetero-normative society expects of a woman, and the “uber-woman” who goes beyond the limits habitually assigned to her, sometimes to her own peril.
Firstly, in our culture, the diva is the great priestess of emotions, this human mode traditionally seen as feminine: she takes on these emotions for us and gives them their meaning; she accompanies us through our emotional catharsis. Next, this femininity proves to be so inaccessible, and sometimes so ostentatious—with all the glamor and decorum with which she seems to be enshrouded—that she herself becomes a performance. In her exceptional career, one in which she constantly puts herself on display, there is a bit of a monster: half angel, half demon.

The diva thus illustrates the theory of the “scapegoat”: she is extolled by the community, but can fall from her pedestal at any moment and be sacrificed. She embodies both reality and fiction, both the role and the performer: her eccentricities and whims, her jealousy (there can be but one diva!), and the romances and scandals of her private life delineate this fault line. The fans acclaim her generous singing voice and her lifestyle, which is so far removed from their own, while her detractors mock art that is more spectacular than it is sincere, a permanent self-staging that verges on the kitsch.
This perfect creature—who is also largely a media construction—may then crumble, thus revealing her fragility and activating a self-destruction sequence through a mechanism of sublimation. But—o miracle of miracles!—these flaws that humanize her, this complexity that brings her closer to others, rekindle the myth. The diva is a phoenix who always rises from her ashes!

Timothée Picard