“Opera” is a swear word, but as with anything deemed nasty, unwarranted, and unwanted, it’s my unfamiliarity with it—even downright ignorance of it—that prejudices my definition. After reading The Diva’s Mouth: Body, Voice, Prima Donna Politics, a brisk and bubbling historical sociology of the diva published by Rutgers University Press, I can’t say I’ll be buying the entire Maria Callas oeuvre, but I can certainly appreciate the hubris of her art.
Georgetown University’s Rebecca A. Pope and the University of Maryland’s Susan J. Leonardi, both English professors, are opera fans, but when the two “started the book it was going to be purely a literary study” of how the diva has been represented in novels, says Leonardi.
“We originally wanted to start with opera divas. Only when we started thinking of the figure of the diva [did] we start thinking of more contemporary figures,” she explains.
The modern figures include Madonna (natch), Annie Lennox (whose diva-purely-as-persona stance is thoroughly questioned), and AIDS activist and performance artist Diamanda Galas. The authors also investigate the film diva (Judy Garland), Odysseus’ sirens, and the importance of the diva in gay culture (er…Judy Garland).
“We’re interested in people who are larger than life, allowing them to live out their fantasies—and divas certainly do,” says Pope.
Which explains the twosome’s next project: editing a collection of essays on Dennis Rodman.