Do you remember that day when you wanted to change restaurants because the waiter didn’t come back to you? “Don’t be your diva”, you were told. You rolled your eyes at the statement of this comment which you could have taken as a compliment if you had already had the opportunity to see the exhibition “DIVA”, which opens this June 24 at the Victoria & lbert Museum, in London. “DIVA”, all in capital letters therefore, “celebrates the extraordinary power and creativity of emblematic performers, from the 19th century to the present day”, to use the words of the institution. Because of course, a diva is not just a capricious and whimsical megastar – at least not in the eyes of Kate Bailey, the curator of this exhibition which brings together 250 objects and clothes rarely, if ever, shown to the public. . “My fascination with divas began in 2017, when I was working on ‘Opera: Passion, Power and Politics’, another museum exhibition. I was intrigued by female singers, their art, their way of life, and I wanted to set up a project that would focus on female artists and would allow us to question the concept of the diva, which has never ceased to evolve into the rock and pop superstars of today. “The term has, in fact, undergone a slight semantic shift: in Latin and Italian, a diva” is literally a goddess. It was in the 19th century that the word grandiose began to be used to refer to two opera singers in particular: the Italian Adelina Patti and the Swedish Jenny Lind – although Giuseppe Verdi deemed the latter’s personality “insignificant” in comparison. first, but that’s another story. Why these and not the others? “Because they were the first big international stars. Their voice, their talent and their ambition allowed them to tread the great stages of Europe and the United States; they knew how to captivate the public, bring together what we would today call a “fanbase”, and give the figure of the lyrical singer a whole new dimension”, replies Kate Bailey. In France, the diva entered Larousse’s “Grand Dictionnaire Universel” in 1866. And Jacques Offenbach made her, three years later, the main character of an opera-bouffe (“La Diva”, quite simply) which did not did not remain in the annals.
The field of divas extends
Because they seem to have more scope than their sisters, Patti and Lind are at the origin of a long line of star singers, whose most memorable stage costumes appear in the V&A exhibition. We can see a Vivienne Westwood crinoline tailor-made for the recitals of Joyce DiDonato, a chiffon tunic and a turban paved with crystals worn by Jessye Norman in “Ariane at Naxos”, at the Royal Opera House, in 1985, or even the toga worn by Maria Callas in “Norma”, in Covent Garden, in 1952. Maria Callas who, incidentally, appears as the one who gives the definition of the diva authoritarian accents: her real or supposed whims and outbursts of anger feed the myth of the atrociously demanding star. “What I hate is being treated like Maria Callas and being told I’m divine. I know that I am not divine. I know that to get a result, you have to work and constantly question yourself, ”she confides to vocal coach Janine Reiss, however, with appreciable lucidity. As the cultural history of the West progresses, the field of divas expands. You can be a diva and sing something other than opera (Édith Piaf, Joséphine Baker…). You can also be a diva and an actress (like Sarah Bernhardt, followed by a handful of silent stars, then by the great figures of Hollywood cinema, such as Vivien Leigh, Mae West and Marilyn Monroe). In short, are qualified as divas all the performers who have an above-average talent and magnetism – and whose private life arouses the interest of the press and the public, sometimes nourished by the agents and the studios which orchestrate their careers. . The 1990s marked the advent of pop divas: Whitney Houston, Celine Dion and Mariah Carey, the holy trinity of high-pitched vibrato – you have to see soprano Julie Fuchs explain that she can sing “All by Myself” an octave above Celine Dion in a lyrical head voice, but not in a chest voice like the Quebec star in the documentary “Divas des 90s”, by Sophie Peyrard. All three display a smooth image (we will only be entertained later with interviews on Mariah Carey’s bipolarity and Celine Dion’s in vitro fertilization, as well as revelations on Whitney Houston’s addictions and bisexuality). And all three sing about love, a subject on which everyone agrees.
A daily commitment
Conversely, other divas have taken advantage of their status to advance societal struggles. If we start from the beginning, “the success of Adelina Patti and Jenny Lind placed them in a very unusual position, at a time when the rights and freedoms of women were limited, underlines Kate Bailey. By taking control of their careers, they challenged the status quo between men and women. In a way, these independent personalities paved the way for other generations of free-spirited divas. Among the most committed are the American queens of soul, who in their time fought racism and misogyny head-on. One thinks of Billie Holiday, the first black woman in a 100% white orchestra (that of Artie Shaw), who, in the 1940s, persisted in singing “Strange Fruit”, an indictment against lynchings, despite pressure from the government of the UNITED STATES. We can also cite Nina Simone, close to Martin Luther King, who saw her most militant words regularly censored by national television. And let’s not forget Aretha Franklin, who upset the table by covering “Respect” in 1967. This piece performed by Otis Redding two years earlier then became a hymn to emancipation: it was no longer the man providing for her family who demanded respect, but indeed the black woman who imposed herself on her husband and, by extension, on society as a whole. Less political, but nevertheless inclined to question conventions, some have extricated themselves from classic representations of femininity: Annie Lennox and Grace Jones have questioned the codes of the genre before it became a leading subject. For the record, the only two men-divas in the V&A exhibition, Prince and Elton John, are part of this family of personalities freed from shackles.
Objects of worship
And today’s divas in all this? The most mind-blowing are, in a way, the fruit of everything that has just been written: they deliver phenomenal performances, use their stage outfits to appear as unreal icons and multiply militant speeches with a good faith whose evil spirits can doubt. Thus, Beyoncé sees herself as an apostle of Afro-feminism and the Black Lives Matter movement, Lady Gaga spends her time defending the LGBTQIA+ cause, Rihanna leads a charitable foundation and advocates inclusivity (which her fans give back to her by buying the products from her Fenty brand, i.e. panties for all sizes and make-up for all skin types)… Divine, the divas? Not sure. But objects of worship, no doubt.
* “DIVA”, from June 24, 2023 to April 7, 2024 at the Victoria & Albert Museum, Cromwell Road, London, SW7 2RL.
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Maria Callas, Beyoncé, Edith Piaf… the divas in favor at the Victoria & Albert Museum – Elle