Arc of a diva

"The American Opera Singer" celebrates Madonna's pre-feminist forebears.

Published January 23, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

A 1987 Maria Callas collection called "The Unknown Recordings" is one
of the few opera records in my collection. I like it fine. She sings
Wagner, Verdi and Rossini. But I only ever listen to the album if I'm
chopping up pesto or something. Because I didn't buy it for the music -- I
bought "The Unknown Recordings" because of the black-and-white
photograph of Callas on its cover. She wears a black dress before a white
background. She stands like a column. Her chin is raised slightly, her
eyebrows dramatically penciled black. And I don't know if it's the way her
hair is coiffed into a perfect black flip or if it's the defiance in her
eyes, but Callas resembles no one so much as Anne Bancroft in "The
Graduate." Maria Callas is Mrs. Robinson dressed up for a night out,
which is to say that she is a little menacing and a lot glamorous. She's a
star and she knows it.

Nineteenth century audiences needed opera singers the way the 20th
century masses crave movie stars and rock stars. We need inspiration,
beauty, fun. We need an otherworldly face (or voice or dress or hairstyle)
to stand in the this-worldly doorway like Mrs. Robinson and make us nervous,
make us hot. And it is that desire -- and not a devotion to operatic
history -- that makes reading Peter Davis' "The American Opera Singer: The
Lives and Adventures of America's Great Singers in Opera and Concert, From
1825 to the Present" (Doubleday) such a pleasure. If anything, reading
the stories of Jenny Lind and Clara Louise Kellogg and the rest make you feel
a little less sorry for your fellow citizens of the last century: Poor dears
never got Aretha, but at least they had someone to swoon over. And
long before Elvis Presley, there was recording phenomenon Enrico Caruso, and "virtually all
America heard him, and the country adored every note."

Even though they toiled in a painfully European genre, Davis' artists are
the first American stars. It is the beginning of our addiction, and what is
the need for celebrity but the need for the singular, for the new? "Each
promising new generation of singers," he writes, "is invariably hailed as an
unprecedented phenomenon."

As a pop fan, I tend to tune out the old debates surrounding the classical
repertoire. It didn't dawn on me that not so long ago a category like "the
American opera singer" would have been waved away as an oxymoron in the way
that "French rock 'n' roller" is today: Yeah, right. Thanks to the
Metropolitan, the United States has turned into the genre's premier venue,
but that hasn't meant that any meaningful operatic tradition has taken root
here. The history of American opera is never going to be a completely satisfying American story. It's rather depressing that just at the moment when half of Europe dreamed of escaping to the New World, American singers had to cross the pond the other way to learn their craft.
There's far too much transatlantic travel going on here for my taste.

Still, one of the curious delights of Davis' story is the worship of all
things Italian. Just as Italian immigrants were being made to Americanize
their names to fit in, American opera singers were Italianizing their names
to be taken seriously. Davis points out, "When a singer was appearing in
Italy, it facilitated pronunciation for the natives, and back home it gave a
singer the necessary aura of Continental glamour, even if everyone knew that
Signore Giovanni Chiari di Broccolini was really John Clarke" -- from
Brooklyn. I like the way music turns the tables like that -- the way rockabilly made
it hip to be from Tennessee, and rap made Compton chic.

I can't help but read the biographies of these opera singers without
picturing their bodies in the shape of my rock 'n' roll heroes. There's Olive
Fremstad from Minnesota, a kind of Bob Dylan-meets-Jerry Lee Lewis, who goes
to the morgue to hold a severed head so she'll be able to play Salome more
convincingly, and who builds on her past as a preacher's daughter, tossing off
one-liners like, "I consider the whole opera 'Parsifal' to be just a big
elaborate revival meeting." Or you can turn Lillian Nordica into a Tina
Turner -- a "celebrity who looked and acted like one" who at the same time
had very bad taste in husbands. And since you can't encourage ambition and
self-confidence without inspiring a few selfish brats who, thanks to opera,
get to be called "divas," the Lou Reed Award for atrocious behavior goes to
soprano Kathleen Battle. Davis' most delicious anecdote goes: "Riding in her
chauffeured limousine, [Battle] purportedly rang up her New York management
via cellular phone and demanded that someone from the home office call the
driver on his cellular phone and tell him to slow down." And they say
rock stars have no manners ...

Many of the singers Davis discusses -- most, actually -- are women. This is because
women had fewer options and therefore more at stake than men in pursuing musical
careers. Of 19th century American man, Davis writes, "Singing for a
living would probably have struck him as unmanly, if not downright pointless, considering the innumerable opportunities for making fortunes." But becoming an opera singer or an actress was one of the few options for ambitious American girls to get their hands on fame and
fortune. That hasn't changed; becoming a star is still a good idea for women
with dollar signs in their eyes. Forget the cover of Rolling Stone
-- just ask Madonna, who knows that it's a different thrill entirely to grace
the cover of Forbes.

So you read this 600-page ode to mostly female perseverance and success.
And you cheer a little, until a kind of irony seizes you. Namely, that
these pre-feminist overachievers grabbed fame and fortune by playing
operatic heroines. And I don't know that much about opera, but don't all the
women, like, die? That's why the first record I wanted to hear when I finished
reading "The American Opera Singer" wasn't my Maria Callas-as-Mrs. Robinson
album. It was the song "Rock Opera" by San Francisco girl punks Cypher in
the Snow. In funny, operatic hysterics, vocalist Juliana Snapper lists the roles that made Callas and Fremstad rich and famous: Carmen, Tosca, Isolde, etc. Their fate? "Consumption, syphilis, heartbroken, gout, frostbite and dementia." That's entertainment!

By Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell is the author of "Radio On: A Listener's Diary" (St. Martin's Press, 1996) and "Take the Cannoli" (Simon & Schuster, 2000) and is a regular commentator on PRI's "This American Life." Her column appears every other Wednesday in Salon. For more columns by Vowell, visit her column archive.

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