What Makes a “Diva”?

Maria Callas -- She Made "Diva" a Good Thing...

Every now and then, there are words in our lexicon which actually “morph” and change in meaning and significance — nowhere is this more clearly illustrated than in the term “Diva”. 

By definition, the term “Diva” — which was coined around 1883, comes from Italian derivation (from Latin) — divus, meaning “goddess; fine lady; a highly distinguished female singer”. Synonymous with “prima donna”, it has legendarily been used to describe highly-charged, larger-than-life female singers (typically in opera) who embody a presence which takes up the whole room, who stuns everyone with her talent, and leaves trails of admirers in her wake. 

Maria Callas was among the original true opera Divas — in the best sense of the word. While her rivalry with fellow soprano Renata Tribaldi was duly noted (and not at all friendly — Callas once compared her sound to Tribaldi’s as one would compare “Cognac to Coca-Cola”), Callas performed and conducted herself professionally by all accounts, and never allowed her acclaim to get in the way of the amazing job she was gifted to do. Indulged, yes. But she never used her position or status as a weapon or currency. The original Divas were the first to float through airports in Rome with small dogs in their designer bags and carry on trysts with designers named “Oleg”, shipping magnates, and the like. 

The word “diva” has — in recent decades — come to be used negatively; as a pejorative; often describing a celebrity in film or music who is extremely fussy and demanding when it comes to personal privileges. 

Battle? This was All-Out War!

Stories still abound about modern opera star Kathleen Battle’s notorious “Diva Fits” which necessitated her dismissal from virtually every established opera house in the world (including being barred  from the Met in 1994) — her erratic attendance at rehearsals, showing up late when she did grace them, treating other cast members in a hostile and occasionally violent manner, and even going so far as forbidding eye contact from crew members — prompted many of her former work associates from the San Fransisco Opera to have t-shirts made up which bore the testimonial “I Survived The Battle.” 

Up to a certain point, the behavior of the ill-tempered Diva has sometimes been seen as the cost of doing business; the certain amount of  shenanigans that one must tolerate to entice that kind of rare talent to your stage. Obviously, though, there is a point of critical mass where the outbursts and the tantrums are seen as just too great a liability to overlook, and even phenomenal talents like Kathleen Battle can be dismissed if the cost is too high. 

I, personally, loved hearing the story about Patti LuPone (who originated the role of Evita on Broadway) who — when filming a movie in Nova Scotia, found herself in a night scene which involved her to be thrown overboard into the chilly Atlantic take after take. At first tolerant of the freezing cold plunges (and the subsequent drying-off between takes), she let three or four takes happen before she took the assistant director aside and said: “I’m sorry. I’m going to have to have a Diva Fit.” To warn others that a Diva Fit is imminent — and to carefully reserve the “fit” as one would hold back from playing the “Race Card” — until it’s really, truly needed — shows such amazingly  — and refreshingly — UN-Diva-like behavior. 

If You Thought a Nokia to Forehead Hurts -- Try an iPhone...

Just when we think we’ve heard the very last anecdote there can possibly be about Naomi Campbell eviscerating yet another assistant (and capping off the tirade with another cell phone thrown to the forehead) — the tide turns…slowly. Without even knowing when it happened, the term “Diva” has almost come around full circle, and is gradually taking on an almost positive meaning of empowerment, assertiveness, and control (in the words of Beyonce in her song “Diva”” “…..Diva’s just a female version of a hustla..” Did I just quote Beyonce? Did I just use the word “Hustla” in my blog? Gah!) 

It did actually happen to me — at an Astricon a couple of years back (for those uninitiated: Astricon is the yearly convention of developers and fans of the Asterisk Open-Source PBX — for which I’m happy to voice the prompts) — that someone actually *did* refer to me as a “Diva” — I think it came about as a glowing: “Allison, you are the Asterisk Diva!” Meant with the best intentions, I’m sure it was intended by the “gusher” to mean all the good aspects associated with the term — more Callas than Battle — nonetheless, I still felt compelled to explain that I *am* easy to work with; I’m *not* prone to tantrums, and my PDA sits firmly in my handbag as it always does, undercharged, largely ignored, and never, ever  launched at anyone’s forehead. 

In my blog next week, I’ll investigate the world of automated Banking prompts — probably the most-used application for IVR prompts, and sadly, one of the most frustrating for a large majority of users. 

Thanks for reading! 

Allison Smith is a professional voice talent, specializing in the voicing of telephone systems. Her voice can be heard on platforms for Bell Canada, Vonage, Verizon, Qwest, Cingular, Asterisk, and Hawai’ian Telcom. She is an avid yoga practitioner, and lives in Calgary, Alberta. Her website is www.theivrvoice.com.


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