Throughout history, music has predominantly been recorded through that of the ‘great man theory’; this theory tells the history of music through the impact of purely male musicians and tends to disregard female input. For as long as there has been a comprehensible, multi-gender inclusive music world, women have routinely been referred to a “Divas”. A diva, by widespread stereotype, is a celebrated female singer who is regarded as temperamental and somewhat conceited, someone who “transgressed gendered boundaries of culturally appropriate behavior”. Divas have become notorious for their demanding attitudes and arrogance. In selective circumstances, divas have even been characterized as “supernatural”, “superhuman” or “non-human”.
Justifications for these categorizations consist of unexplainable vocal ability, race and powerful male seduction. By distinguishing these superhuman accusations, we can analyse the history of women in music and how these paranormal metaphors affect the cultural conceptions of the diva.The expression ‘diva’ was popularised through the musical genre of opera, though the term predates back to ‘The Caesars’ (precisely, England 1883) where it was recognised by its original meaning of “goddess”.
More frequently, within opera, divas were referred to by the late 18th-century term of “Le Prime Donne” (Italian for “first lady”) or “Prima Donna”. A prima donna was generally the leading lady in an operatic performance and was known for her diva-like tendencies and ‘inflated ego’. Susan Rutherford states there are three varieties of the prima donna; the “Demi Mondaine” – a prima donna associated with prostitution and provocativeness, the “Professional Artist” – a well educated, well trained actress with “ability rather than beauty” and the “Exalted diva” – a prima donna linked to an “operatic music” and who possessed a “heavenly” voice. The mystery and allure of the female, soprano voice have been upheld since the birth of opera. The powerful shrill tones, drastic note range and immense vibrato were commonly referred to as “unnatural” and “heavenly”.
The intensity of the soprano voice and the fascination surrounding it lead to the connotation of “superhuman” or “non-human”; with comparisons instead to a “songbird”. The term songbird typically describes a female, soprano opera singer who is believed to sing so beautifully her voice is more comparable to that of a “bird with a musical song” than human vocals. There have even been studies into the science of both operatic singer’s vocal cords and that of the songbird, discovering that both the human and songbird are corresponding in their vocal technique; this further authenticates the comparison. Connotations of a songbird are purity, natural beauty and an enchanting musical tune.
Referring to female opera singers as songbirds further adds to the allure and ‘enchanting’ nature of which they are already famous for possessing. An example of this lies with soprano ‘Jenny Lind’ (1820-1887) who was customarily referred to as the ‘Swedish Nightingale’; “Under the protecting tutelage of Meyerbeer, she was as the unconscious nightingale who sings for the mere sake of singing. When in the guardianship of Lumley, she became the mere peacock of vocalism, airing her many- coloured notes in the midday sun, for the purpose of deafening us to the song of others.” (Max Maretzek on Jenny Lind, 1855). The beautiful and enticing description adds to the imagery of the songbird and helps to further benefit the belief that “Le Prime Donne” or “The Songbird” is an entity beyond human nature, she is superhuman or non-human. This non-human stereotype is physicalized in Act I of Offenbach’s “Les Contes d’Hoffmann.
“, in which songbird ‘Erin Morley’ is characterized as a mechanical doll. This suggests her vocal ability is so inconceivable that she could not possibly be human. During her performance, Erin Morley is repeatedly ‘wound up’ in order to continue singing, her robot-like movements and sharp posture authenticating her doll performance. Comparisons to non-human entities lead people’s conceptions of divas to be above human nature, supernatural, powerful and somewhat haunting with an inconceivable vocal ability. This comparison is somewhat complementary in the way it compares female opera singers to an entity above human nature, this suggests they are too talented to be classed as human and are instead a form of superhuman – it positively affects the conception of divas. For an inherent amount of time, a diva’s voice has been notorious for enchanting and seducing men. This belief pre dates back to Greek mythology, described with the expression of a “Siren”.
A siren is believed to be a half bird half woman, mythological creature who would prey on men and murder them using only her preternatural voice. Sirens are illustrated as “beautiful but dangerous” creatures who were notorious for using their mystic voices to “lure sailors to their dooms”. Prima donnas, in the 19th century, were often described as ‘siren singers’ due to speculation around their so-called provocative voices. The French term ‘Jouissance’ (translates to ‘enjoyment’, with connotations of sexual enjoyment or sexual orgasm) is often associated with the prima donna. Prima donnas who were described as having ‘vocal jouissance’ are those who, supposedly, used their musical talent and vocal ability to seduce and dominate men.
This ideology of a siren or opera singer with vocal jouissance helped to fuel the belief that prima donnas were supernatural and had capabilities above humans. In fact, this ideology was so well known that, within 19th century British theatre, many opera plays were themed around the idea of a siren who captivated men with her powerful voice. An example of this lies with the opera “Alcina” (1753) “…in which the siren Alcina inhabits an island where she seduces men and transforms them into rocks, streams, trees and beasts”. The image of a siren prima donna is embodied by Maïwenn Le Besco within the film “The Fifth Element”, in which Le Besco plays an extraterrestrial diva who captivates a predominantly male audience using her non-human vocals.
During the making of this vocal performance, the singer’s (Inva Mula’s) voice was mutilated using computer technology in order to produce a humanly impossible sound – this greater links the scene to that of the paranormal and superhuman; it is physically impossible for a human to sing like this performer. The diva is visualised as a bright blue alien with large tentacles and webbed hands, this is an over exaggerated visualisation of the supernatural connotations of a diva. This scene relates back to the destructive nature of a siren, as the diva uses her vocal jouissance to distract and manipulate the audience and allow a vicious attack to take place while the onlookers are enchanted. The Fifth Element is a modern example of a siren and helps to further link divas and prima donnas to that of ‘man-eaters’, whose voices were filled with the intent to cause harm.
Another visual example of a prima donna’s voice enchanting men is within the before mentioned Act I of Offenbach’s “Les Contes d’Hoffmann”, in which singer ‘Erin Morley’ is characterized as a mechanical doll. During this performance, an on-looking male is intoxicated by her voice, prying closer and wanting more. It does not take him long to recuperate himself and realise the doll’s intent. This performance feeds the negative connotations of fear and male destruction associated with prima donna/diva. Describing prima donnas as ‘sirens’ contributes to the stereotype of a power hungry, sexually available diva and negatively affects the conception of a diva. Referring to a diva as a mythological creature (the siren) is a more direct way of relating divas to the supernatural in comparison to that of the description of a prima donna or a songbird.
The descriptions of a prima donna or songbird have connotations which can interpreted as being related to that of supernatural beings but are not clearly linked; you would not assume straight away as you would with a siren. It is not only the genre of opera in which the term diva was prominently utilised. Female jazz singers brought about the rebirth of the term diva, as it was again popularised and used within 1920s jazz music. The 1920s was an incredibly racist era, with lynchings, race riots and the ‘Klu Klux Klan’ in uproar. Racism and racial division reflected greatly within jazz music with lyrical topics ranging from discrimination to cold-blooded murder.
For the most part, jazz divas were of Black origin and were subject to racism due to this. The ‘Black voice’ was described as dark, heavy, loud and shrill due to it being audibly and somewhat aesthetically different to that of the conventional ‘White voice’. Jazz singer Billie Holiday was well known for, in terms of her performances and song lyrics, her brutal honesty.
Holiday described herself as a “race woman” a delved into the experiences she had gone through as a woman of colour. Her song “Strange Fruit” alludes to the aftermath of a lynching of innocent Black people. The lyrics were based on a poem written by Abel Meeropol; “Southern trees bear strange fruit, blood on the leaves and blood at the root. Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze, strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees”. Due to jazz divas, in the 1920s, being predominantly of colour the majority of jazz music consisted of the discussion of taboo racial topics. Jazz divas sang about being discriminated against. In the book ‘Uptown Conversation: The New Jazz Studies’ it is quoted “The Black voice is part of the Black body; the Black body was deemed the very antithesis of all that was White and therefore human”. Black voices had a tendency of being labelled “other”; other refers to something that is different or ‘other’ from what society classes as normal.
This expression contributed to the pre-existing racial divide which the music world possessed and continued the non-human connotations of divas. This description negatively affected the conception of the diva due to the suggestion that you are classed as less of a human being due to your ethnicity. Suggestions of this continue to be reflected in today’s music world, with modern divas such as Beyonce being subject to racist comments. In this case, the referral to non-human is extremely offensive and is suggestive of White supremacy and racist beliefs.Continuing with the non-human connotations of being a jazz diva, Black voices were also compared to that of birds. It was a common belief that Black people were closer to nature than white voices due to their “non-humanness”: “Birds are part of the natural world; for many whites black people were thought to be closer to the natural world”. Black voices were seen as mysterious, natural and impossible to place on a vocal scale due to this. This added to the allure of a diva and her vocal abilities while strengthening racial division.
The comparison to birds or songbirds, as before mentioned, is a common description of divas within the music world with the link being made within both jazz and opera. Supernatural connotations of jazz divas greater increase the prominent racial division, present within music. The connotations greater contribute to the discriminatory belief that people of colour are not human and are separate from the remainders of society; they are other. Describing jazz divas as other and birds negatively affects the conceptions of being a diva. To summarise, metaphors of the supernatural, superhuman and non-human further isolate divas from that of conventional society and reflect negatively upon them as performers. The use of these metaphors is seemingly derogatory in the way that they depict a talented performer’s abilities apart and conclude they are not typical of a human being. The very definition of a diva is derogatory and so these metaphors benefit the stereotype.
However, within different contexts the metaphors have very different effects; for example calling a Black jazz singer non-human is suggestive of racism and discrimination, whereas describing a prima donna as superhuman due to her vocal abilities is seemingly complementary. These observations suggest that the effect on the conception of a diva comes down to the context in which this diva is placed. Overall I believe, in the majority of circumstances, the supernatural, superhuman and non-human connotations of the expression diva, are derogatory and help to reduce the achievements of women within music. It is a blanket term which alleviates the successes of women in the music industry and sheds light on a misogynistic, discriminatory side of the music world.