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The term diva was originally an Italian word meaning, quite simply, goddess. Within the culture of Italian opera, the word came to signify a type of mortal female divinity: a soprano (or, in some cases, a mezzo-soprano or contralto) with tremendous musical virtuosity and a flair for the grandiose, a singer who deeply touched her audience's emotions with her performance and thus derived an often fanatic and obsessive admiration from her devotees.

In the twentieth century, particularly in the United States, the concept of the diva has expanded to include popular singers--for example, Judy Garland (1922-1969), Billie Holliday (1915-1959), or Dusty Springfield (1939-1999)--whose emotive qualities and, in many cases, personal sufferings made them objects of admiration and identification for their fans.

More recently, the title of diva has become rather less meaningful, as it seems now to be bestowed on any female singer who displays extreme emotions or a bad attitude, as evinced by the various VH-1 Divas Live television concerts.

Still, regardless of how the title is deployed, the diva has traditionally played a significant role in both gay and lesbian culture as an object of cult worship with whom those who suffer the heartaches of forbidden love and ostracism from an unaccepting society find solace and identification. In this sense, the diva is, for her following, a mortal divinity.

Opera Divas

If opera has long maintained a certain queer appeal, it may well reside in the fact that opera has always provided a space in which, through performance, the boundaries of sex, gender, and sexuality are often blurred.

The castrati--that is, castrated male singers who flourished in the eighteenth century and had cult followings to rival those of female divas--played heroic male roles and also female roles in places where women were banned from the stage.

In their wake, female mezzo-sopranos and contraltos assumed the male leads that were once the sole possession of the castrati and, subsequently, performed male romantic roles in many nineteenth- and early twentieth-century operas. Thus, opera allowed a respectable venue for queer expression without naming it as such.

The cult of the diva, however, was not originally a solely gay or lesbian invention. By the nineteenth-century, numerous prima donnas had devoted followings similar to those now associated with movie stars and rock stars. The image of the diva as flamboyant, extravagant, and temperamental--altogether larger-than-life in her demeanor--began to take hold, much as it had for the castrati.

Maria Malibran (1808-1836), her sister Pauline Viardot (1821-1910), Giulia Grisi (1811-1869), and--perhaps most notably--Jenny Lind (1820-1887) all evoked overwhelming emotions in fans of every sexual persuasion and background. This rather universal appeal, though, was probably the result of opera being, to a great extent, still a popular art form in the nineteenth-century.

As the twentieth-century dawned and other forms of entertainment became more accessible to mainstream audiences, the identification with and admiration of the diva became more clearly identified with gay and lesbian culture, and, indeed, many of the more prominent divas of the period were presumed to be lesbian or bisexual.

Lesbian Diva Worship

Even before the advent of the Hollywood movie star, the operatic prima donna was often the idol of adoring female fans. In the early twentieth century, much of this adulation, which Terry Castle calls "lesbian diva worship," was directed toward two figures in particular, the Swedish-born American soprano Olive Fremstad (1871-1951) and the Scottish soprano Mary Garden (1874-1967). Both were women of ambiguous sexuality who specialized in performing provocative, gender-bending roles.

Fremstad was best known for her Wagnerian heroines and seductresses (Brunnhilde, Kundry, Ortrud, Venus) as well as for playing the roles of Carmen, Tosca, and Salome. After her return to the United States in 1903, Fremstad quickly emerged as one of the biggest stars of the Metropolitan Opera, where, in 1907, she starred in the scandalous first Met production of Richard Strauss's Salome, an opera based on Oscar Wilde's decadent play.

Garden was noted for her forward performance style and was the foremost interpreter of many of the amoral female roles of fin-de-siècle French opera, including the leads in Gustave Charpentier's Louise, Claude Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande, and Jules Massenet's Manon, Thaïs, Sapho, and Cléopâtre.

Garden was celebrated for her trouser roles (that is, male roles sung by a woman). In 1907, she made her American debut (upon which she was hailed as Mary Garden, Superwoman); from 1910 until her retirement in the 1930s, she was the leading soprano of the Chicago Opera.

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Top: Jenny Lind ca 1850.
Center: Mary Garden in 1898.
Above: Dolly Parton at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee in 2005.

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