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Neither diva ever married, and, consequently, both were the focus of much speculative gossip--as well as several romans à clef--regarding their sexuality. Fremstad lived for a number of years with her secretary, Mary Watkins Cushing; their relationship is fictionalized--and pathologized--in Marcia Davenport's Of Lena Geyer (1936). A more heroic portrait of Fremstad can be found in The Song of the Lark (1915), written by that consummate lesbian opera fan, Willa Cather. Garden was rumored to have been a lesbian.

The biographical facts about either woman's sexuality remain speculative; what is significant, however, is the role these women played in reaching a vast female audience through their homoerotically-charged artistry.

Lesbian diva-worship has generally focused on certain singers who have specialized in heroic or gender-bending roles, generally mezzo-sopranos or, in some cases, dramatic sopranos. As such, more recent operatic divas who have had significant lesbian cult followings include such mezzo-sopranos as Brigitte Fassbaender (b. 1939) and Tatiana Troyanos (1938-1993) and dramatic soprano Jessye Norman (b. 1945).

Gay Male Diva Worship

It is perhaps too broad a generalization to claim without reservation that while lesbian diva worship is based on desire, gay male diva worship is based on identification. In queer culture, the lines between identification and desire are frequently blurred; critic Stacey DíErasmo, in discussing Dusty Springfield, has observed that the diva almost inevitably raises "that quintessentially queer question: do you want to be her or have her?"

Be that as it may, gay male diva worship, in contrast to the lesbian variety, has traditionally centered on more vulnerable figures, those who might well be described as "tragedy queens." A case in point is the continued gay male adulation paid to the memory of Maria Callas (1923-1977), known to her fans as la Divina.

Surely one of the most exciting singing actresses of the twentieth century, Callas specialized in playing the ill-fated and often emotionally fragile heroines of Italian opera who suffer and die for love. This tragic quality carried over into her turbulent personal life as well, in her well-publicized romantic involvements, her heartbreaks, and, ultimately, her loss of her vocal powers.

As Wayne Koestenbaum has explained, this devotion to Callas involves a highly complex system of psychic associations, arising from the conditions informing gay life, particularly social marginalization. Further, as Richard Dyer suggests, minoritized groups tend to exhibit a particularly intense need for cult icons with whom to identify as a response to and enactment of their exclusion from the mainstream.

Thus, as Callas was associated with presumably elitist high culture (and a controversial figure even within that rarified realm), devotion to her would mark her fans as different from the ordinary (that is, heterosexual) cultural consumer.

A more simple explanation, though, is that gay and lesbian audiences, given their all-too-frequent rejection by society, are drawn to divas because these extraordinary, often larger-than-life figures perform a cathartic function by embodying, whether in their performances or in their own lives, all the heartache, grief, humiliation, and suffering that almost inevitably play a large role in queer life.

Expansion of the Cult of the Diva

Accordingly, the cult of the diva, particularly in post World War II culture, has expanded beyond the realm of opera into popular music as well. Holliday, Garland, and Springfield, for example, all evoked tremendous emotional responses through their performances, suffered publicly from overwhelming personal disaster and substance abuse, and died prematurely--and all had significant gay followings. Springfield, who was herself a lesbian, had a significant lesbian following as well.

As previously suggested, the title diva has lost much of its significance in recent years, thanks in great part to the mass media. Attitude or emotionality rather than virtuosity would seem to be the deciding criteria. Thus numerous young female pop singers appropriate the term for themselves. Indeed, it would seem that one need not even be female or, for that matter, a singer in order to call oneself a diva.

This is not to say that there are no longer divas deserving that distinction. A short list of grand divas among contemporary opera singers would surely include Renée Fleming, Deborah Voight, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Kathleen Battle, Susan Graham, and Jane Eaglen. And there are great living pop divas as well, including Barbra Streissand, Dolly Parton, Bette Midler, Cher, Celine Dion, and Madonna, many of whom have considerable queer followings. For as long as we remain an excluded group, we will need the diva, the cathartic figure who embodies and expresses our joys and sorrows.

Patricia Juliana Smith

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arts >> Overview:  Music: Classical

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arts >> Overview:  Music: Popular

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arts >> Overview:  Opera

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literature >> Cather, Willa

One of America's premier literary artists in the earlier twentieth century, Willa Cather reflected her own lesbianism in the creation of strong women characters and in the exploration of male homosexuality.

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The fragile persona and emotion-packed voice of actress and singer Judy Garland are powerfully linked to gay culture and identity; she appealed especially to gay men, but also to lesbians.

arts >> Springfield, Dusty

Now widely acclaimed as one of the greatest voices of popular music, British rock star of the 1960s Dusty Springfield has long been a lesbian icon.

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Bronski, Michael. Culture Clash: The Making of Gay Sensibility. Boston: South End Press, 1984.

Castle, Terry. "In Praise of Brigitte Fassbaender: Reflections on Diva Worship." En Travesti: Women, Gender Subversion, Opera. Corinne E. Blackmer and Patricia Juliana Smith, eds. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995. 20-58.

DíErasmo, Stacey. "Beginning with Dusty." Village Voice (19 August 1995): 67+.

Dyer, Richard. Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1987.

_____. Stars. London: British Film Institute, 1998.

Gallagher, Lowell. "Jenny Lind and the Voice of America." En Travesti: Women, Gender Subversion, Opera. Corinne E. Blackmer and Patricia Juliana Smith, eds. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995. 190-215.

Koestenbaum, Wayne. The Queen's Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire. New York: Poseidon, 1993.

Leonardi, Susan J., and Rebecca A. Pope. The Diva's Mouth: Body, Voice, Prima Donna Politics. New Brunswick, N. J.: Rutgers University Press, 1996.

Matheopoulos, Helena. Diva: Great Sopranos and Mezzos Discuss Their Art. London: Victor Gollancz, 1991.

_____. Diva: The New Generation: The Sopranos and Mezzos of the Decade Discuss Their Roles. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1998.

Wood, Elizabeth. "Sapphonics." Queering the Pitch: The New Gay and Lesbian Musicology. Philip Brett, Elizabeth Wood, and Gary C. Thomas, eds. New York: Routledge, 1994. 27-66.


    Citation Information
    Author: Smith, Patricia Juliana  
    Entry Title: Divas  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated September 8, 2006  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2002, glbtq, Inc.  


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