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How divas have driven social and political change

BY Kate Bailey

15th Aug 2023 Art & Theatre

How divas have driven social and political change
In a reclaimed feminist celebration of the term "diva", DIVA: The Courageous, The Visionary, The Fabulous explores the term and artists' voices as a driver of social and political change 
Both the book (edited by Kate Bailey), and exhibition, (housed at the V&A in London) explore the term “diva” as a reflection of “divine feminine power” and an “empowered expression of identity in performance—across culture, race and gender”.
As Tristram Hunt writes in the director’s foreword, “from Jenny Ling to Maria Callas, Sarah Bernhardt to Lady Gaga, Josephine Baker to Beyoncé, Dolly Parton to Rihanna, Marlene Dietrich to prince, ‘diva’ celebrates the fabulous, courageous, ingenious art of the performer.”
Read the excerpt below for a glimpse into the extravagant, glamorous and above all, fabulous identity of the “diva”.

The rise of the diva

Portrait of Adelina Patti by Franz Winterhalter ca. 1865-70. Photograph reproduced courtesy of Harewood House Trust
Once a virtuoso has been judged a diva, that is all that needs to be said, at least for the audience that gives her that epithet. The diva becomes divine, she becomes the idol of the stage, the queen of the city, she is a siren, an enchantress, a charmer, someone who magnetises her audience…countless admirers, wildly applauded and acclaimed…who is ultimately the object of a blind, passionate and unrivalled cult.
"The diva becomes divine, she becomes the idol of the stage, the queen of the city, she is a siren, an enchantress, a charmer"
In the 16th century, as the female performer emerged from the all-male actor troupes, so did the diva. An Italian word commonly used since the 14th century to describe goddesses or deities, diva became a fitting description for exceptional female performers whose divine talents made them appear other-worldly.
Isabella Andreini (1562-1604) was an actor and musician whose astounding range and skill helped define the early diva. Described as a multifaceted genius, Andreini transcended her humble origins, was passionate about education and captivated audiences with her divine eloquence.
Her motto, Elevat Ardor (“the flame rises”) reflects her sense of creative power. Her performances seems to create a visceral experience that combined public intimacy and authenticity with a superhuman persona, attracting a cult of worshippers.
By the eighteenth century the diva has found her place on stage and was recognised as a woman of exceptional artistic talent and power in Italian opera.

A star is born

Photograph of Maria Callas taken as Violette in La Traviata photography by Houston Rogers © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Creating and performing the diva requires talent, dedication, endurance and the pursuit of perfection. Whether we gaze up at a huge projected cinematic image, experience a performance at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas or are in the audience at Glastonbury, our diva goddesses require elevation and worship from afar.
We are, as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard (1950) reminds us, “those wonderful people out there in the dark”.
Desmond’s final moments in Sunset Boulevard have entered the annals of cinema history and secured the immortality of one of the greatest characters of the silver screen. The film was set in Hollywood; its theatrical equivalent, New York’s Broadway, was the backdrop for All About Eve released the same year.
Starring Gloria Swanson (1899-1983) and Bette Davis respectively, the films created two larger-than-life characters in Norma Desmond and Margo Channing. They later reached new audiences on stage and endured in popular culture as both were later made into musicals: All About Eve became Applause (1970) and Sunset Boulevard opened under its original title in 1993.
Glenn Close, who won a Tony Award for the Broadway transfer of the latter in 1994, called Norma Desmond “one of the great cinematic characters”.

Reinventing the diva 

Billie Holiday at the Royal Albert Hall, England, 1954. Photo credit: Harry Hammond  © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
A fear of feminine creative and sexual power can be seen in the male perspective throughout the 19th century, which often imagined the female performer as marble statue, detaching the performer from reality, and stripping her of power and agency. 
Before recorded sound, the diva was defined through a variety of media. On stage, pyrotechnic visual effects were often used to amplify her operatic performance, accentuating her complex character and tragic narratives.
Off stage, the diva was captured countless times in photography. This new, experimental art form disseminated her image, ensuring presence, relevance and familiarity to her admirers and initiating a cult of celebrity.
"In the 19th century the Victorian stars of the stage, the divas of the spoken word, played an important role in shifting the cult of the diva"
Towards the end of the 19th century the Victorian stars of the stage, the divas of the spoken word, played an important role in shifting the cult of the diva, as the female performer found her voice and greater individuality and artistic freedom through drama.
Outside the Victorian theatre, in the music halls around Britain, female performers from the working classes were gaining recognition. Marie Lloyd (1870-1922), the most recognised British music-hall star, took advantage of her popularity and public profile when she supported the 1907 music hall strike.
Demonstrating her social consciousness and activism, she asserted that “we [the stars] can dictate our own terms. We are fighting not for ourselves but for the poorer members of the profession."

The modern diva 

Rihanna wearing Maison Margiela at the Met Gala, 2018. Photo Dennis Leupold
By the new millennium the term diva has become widely used to describe all-encompassing powerful singers “with attitude” from a variety of genres. The media often choose to dwell on the diva’s behaviour and to portray their careers and creativity in a negative light, thus reinforcing diva clichés.
Journalists describe global megastars such as Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey and Madonna as “out of control”, “scary” or “outrageous” rather than focussing on their artistry and exceptional talent. As a result, the modern diva must constantly challenge public perceptions and find new ways to own the term.
As well as re-imagining traditional media like film, video and stage, liberated divas of the 21st century also draw on new technologies and media, from Instagram and TikTok to immersive audio and mixed reality. 
"Divas throughout history are a creation and a fantasy...individual, self-made, enduring and creative"
Divas throughout history are a creation and a fantasy, by turns intriguing, complex, exuberant, delicate and political, but always individual, self-made, enduring and creative.
As we redefine the diva today and reassess the performer’s legacy, we must shift the negative to the positive: the unpredictable becomes creative, the aggressive becomes powerful, the self-obsessed is worshipped, the materialist is an entrepreneur, the narcissist is self-aware, the control-freak is a perfectionist, the rebel is a game changer and the exhibitionist is an artist.
V&A DIVA book cover
Excerpts taken from DIVA: The Courageous, The Visionary, The Fabulous, published by V&A Publishing, edited by Kate Bailey, with contributions from Veronica Castro, Sasha Geffen, Keith Lodwick, Lucy O’Brien, Miranda Sawyer and Jacqueline Springer.
DIVA the exhibition is showing at the V&A museum in South Kensington London until April 7, 2024. 
Photo credit: Whitney Houston performing at Wembley Arena, London May 5, 1988. Photograph © David Corio
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