Why We Need Divas


Cecilia Bartoli is an Italian-born mezzo-soprano whose album "If You Love Me" became the No. 1 seller on the classical charts in 1992. Last Sunday she was the subject of a flattering article in the New York Times Magazine. She is also one of the personalities profiled in the current issue of Vanity Fair. She is 26 years old.

Ms. Bartoli is "hot" just now. Her success seems exciting because she is relatively young and because hers is a type of voice -- technically called a coloratura mezzo -- that is rarely encountered. "Coloratura" is an Italian word meaning "colored," and it is associated with female voices of wide range and great agility, able to warble rapidly and neatly in the most acrobatic fashion.

Still, that doesn't completely explain Ms. Bartoli's meteoric rise. In the operatic literature, most of the great roles are for sopranos. Mezzos usually are cast in sympathetic supporting roles or secondary leads -- Suzuki in "Madame Butterfly" or Azucena in "Il Trovatore."

Moreover, Ms. Bartoli arrived before the public virtually out of nowhere. Two year ago, her entire American tour netted her barely $1,000. Now she commands fees that start at $30,000. There is a Cinderella-like quality about her career that one usually associates with movie stars or rock performers.

The Times and Vanity Fair both relate the basic biographical facts of Ms. Bartoli's life with a sort of breathless adoration before getting down to the serious business of turning her into a new cultural icon for the 1990s. The normally staid Times avers ed that she is "a perfect miniature: supple, delicate, infinitely fragile." The more exuberant, trendy Vanity Fair proclaims her "one of those creatures kissed by God" in the same issue that featured a bare-breasted cover photo of actress Sharon Stone and articles about serial killers and male menopause.

Such adulation normally would be suspect even if one had never heard Ms. Bartoli sing. Her recorded performances suggest a voice of unusual richness, impressive technical facility and seemingly effortless musicality. Certainly she is a formidable virtuoso, but by itself virtuosity never guaranteed a big career.

One is tempted to think Ms. Bartoli has arrived at the success she presently enjoys as much because of the public's need for a musical figure to revere as for her own indisputable gifts. That, however, begs the question of why popular attachments should exist -- why, in other words, people become "fans" of opera singers in the first place.

Various writers have attempted to place the veneration of singers in the context of broader, non-musical social and psychological needs. Two recent examples are Michel Poizat's "The Angel's Cry: Beyond the Pleasure Principle in Opera" and Wayne Koestenbaum's "The Queen's Throat: Opera, Homosexuality and the Mystery of Desire."

Mr. Poizat, a French psychotherapist, approaches the problem of opera and singing the way Freud approached dreams, as a window into the unconscious drives that are the hidden sources of our most powerful emotions. He identifies the fascination of singers with the inadequacy of language to describe the interior states of the pysche, so that the "angel's cry" of the title becomes a primal scream expressing the discontinuity between experience and an irrevocably lost state of innocence.

Mr. Koestenbaum, who teaches American literature at Yale, writes about opera as a metaphor for the suppressed sexual and social identities of gay men, who like the victimized heroines of Verdi and Puccini, are forever cut off from self-realization in a world dominated by patriarchal institutions and gender definitions. In the psychic economy of opera fandom, the diva becomes the opera queen's alter-ego, permitted to act out impulses and passions forbidden to the gay male fan.

It is difficult to judge to what extent, if any, such mechanisms play in the emergence of singers like Ms. Bartoli. Opera, like all art, surely speaks to the subconscious. But that doesn't explain why some singers become divas. Similarly, Ms. Bartoli may enjoy a following among gays, but probably no more so than many other artists.

On the other hand, stories about her have emphasized her troubled childhood and impoverished background. One is reminded of pop king Michael Jackson's phenomenal comeback after he detailed a similar personal history to Oprah Winfrey. In an age in which the public demands that its idols suffer as well as entertain, perhaps that is the most effective appeal of all.

Glenn McNatt writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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