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'Diva: The New Generation': a villainy deficit


"Diva: The New Generation," by Helena Matheopoulos. Northeastern University Press. 372 pages. $29.95.

There has to be something unusual as well as competent about a diva," says Sir Charles Mackerras. "Something compelling about her personality, whether you like it or not, whether it be charming or repellent - and I can think of some with the latter quality - or both at the same time!"

Helena Matheopoulos includes this quote by the celebrated conductor in the introduction of "Diva: The New Generation," her fourth book of interviews with famous singers and conductors in a decade. Unfortunately, she has yet to make the connection that writers are simply divas of another feather and that competence alone does not a compelling read make.

Matheopoulos has a stodginess that makes her sound like an elderly aunt in a Wodehouse novel: "The frisson of one's first exposure to a great voice is quite unforgettable," she writes of LTC hearing Galina Gorchakova. (Hard to imagine Wagnerian soprano and wrestling fan Jane Eaglen as a great devotee of the frisson.) The '90s singer is as likely to have a house in Nevada with a frog pond (as does dramatic mezzo Dolora Zajick) as the Guccied penthouse of decades ago. Yet Matheopoulos' prose still resonates with mink and bejeweled poodles; not surprisingly, the personalities of the 21 singers she interviewed rarely come into sharp focus.

The format of these profiles wears thin after a few chapters. Each woman discusses her training, her rise to fame, her technique (at such great length that even the most ardent fans will be yawning) and her feelings about particular roles in her repertoire.

A personal tidbit or two will be thrown in, as well as a quote from a conductor or the head of a prominent opera company. Although Renee Fleming emerges sounding recognizably like herself, most of those interviews melt into one endless discussion of "diaphragmatic energy" and the motivations of Mozart heroines.

Monotonous in the extreme is Matheopoulos' unflagging sense of politeness: just as she, herself, never levels criticism at any of her subjects stronger than suggesting that a particular performance of Eaglen's "lacked mystery and awe," so do the singers in her book spout opinions just as uncontroversial.

On such a dull canvas, an outburst, such as Barbara Frittoli's, that a certain song of Scarlatti's is "a sweety-sweety horror I used to loathe and still do!" comes off sounding absolutely scandalous. Even the notorious Kathleen Battle makes a cameo appearance as Good Colleague, offering consolation to Catherine Malfitano after a bad experience in a Mozart production. Does Matheopoulos not recognize that the opera aficionados at whom this book is aimed relish a good villainess?

Nowadays, opera is front-page news, and Manuela Hoelterhoff's excellent book "Cinderella and Company" proves that its coverage can be anything but drab - the party has begun, the booze is flowing and the guests can't wait to tell all. (In the highest tradition of divadom, Hoelterhoff's book is leaving readers delighted or appalled - if not frequently both.)

Reading "Diva: The New Generation," by contrast, is more like meeting each of the women interviewed at high tea - everyone has on shoes that are too tight and no one is having a particularly good time.

Elizabeth Teachout is a New York opera coach who is on the faculty of Mannes College. She currently has singers appearing at the Metropolitan Opera and New York City Opera.

Pub Date: 12/06/98

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