Crossing borders and octaves: the Polish diva with a (Di)staff difference *.
"Vissi d'arte, vissi d'amore ..." Giacomo Puccini, Tosca
"She's a connoisseur's secret on this side of the Atlantic. She [Podles] should be a household name." The Wall Street journal
The Polish Powerhouse
During the last decade opera aficionados in the West finally have registered the magic of a "once in a lifetime" Polish contralto, the incomparable Ewa Podles (born April 26, 1952), whose sheer vocal power and extraordinary versatility unfailingly evoke responses of enraptured hyperbole among critics: "phenomenal," "remarkable," "riveting," "an epiphanic experience" (Anson); "magnificent abilities," "staggering range and power," "formidable musical imagination" (Cal Performances); "magisterial command, "ravishing singing" (Burwasser); "unique, preternatural powers," "fascinating" (Dobrin); "sovereign" (Kasow); "spectacular," "sensational," "a phenomenon" (So); "magnificent," "astounding," "uniquely gifted" (Shengold); "brilliant," "marvelous," "amazing range and flexibility" (Citron); "electrifying," "the thrilling vocal/focal point of the production" (Hulcoop); (1) and the like. A two-time Grammy nominee and the recipient of such awards as the coveted Grande Prix de L'Academie Francaise du Disque (for her recording of Russian songs) and the Preis der Deutschen Schallplatten Kritik (for her all-Rossini disc), Podles commands a stunning three-octave-plus range, a rare interpretive intelligence, and the capacity to sing lieder and operatic roles that span a dazzling stylistic spectrum. To hear her in the Baroque coloratura repertory that constitutes her calling card is to reconceive the nature of modern operatic vocalism and its potentially transformative affect (see fig. 3-1 following page 92).
Virtually born into opera, Podles made her silent debut at the age of three, as Madama Butterfly's child (Myers), and her fully-voiced adult debut in 1975 as Rosina in a Warsaw version of Rossini s Il Barbiere di Siviglia. After stints in Moscow, Rio de Janeiro, and Toulouse, in the early 1980s Podles embarked on a series of engagements throughout Europe, capped by her successful North American introduction at the Met (1984) in the title role of Handel's Rinaldo as a replacement for Marilyn Horne (see fig. 3-2 following page 92). (2) Thereafter, however, she unexpectedly vanished from the stage' until a Warsaw production of Prince Igor in 1990 and, the following year, Covent Gardens staging of Rossini s Guillaume/William Tell. (4) During the last decade, her career finally took flight; American audiences increasingly flocked to delectate her musico-dramatic pyrotechnics not only at the Met, but also in concert at various university campuses and performance halls in New York, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit, Dallas, San Francisco, Seattle, Pittsburgh, and elsewhere.
After a quarter-century of international vocalizing, Podles cannot help but be aware that "her position in the musical world is only now expanding to find consistency with her magnificent abilities" (Cal Performances). Astute and unburdened by illusions about the primacy of capital and advertising in the media-heavy process of masterminding a famous persona, Podles has faulted operatic entrepreneurs for a musical ignorance that ill-serves her particular gifts. "They have money, they have influence, they can make a new star in a week," she points out, yet they have little inkling of a contralto's uncommon, sensational capacities (Kasow). In short, unlike traditional sopranos, such as Kathleen Battle, Angela Gheorghiu, (5) and Anna Netrebko, or the mezzo Cecilia Bartoli, (6) Podles has not impressed power moguls as ideal material for major promotional campaigns.
Apart from spellbinding listeners with her vocal prowess and the expressiveness of her execution even in the appreciably more circumscribed genre of recitals, Podles functions as Poland's unofficial cultural ambassador, (re)introducing international audiences to rarely performed music of such Eastern European composers as Moniuszko, Szymanowski, Lutoslawski, Karlowicz, Penderecki, and Musorgsky. (7) Yet, her belated fame notwithstanding, Podles's name does not conjure the fabled label of diva, which unaccountably few critics have assigned her, and then only in passing. Why? Doubtless, as for most imponderables, one could adduce a multitude of explanations, but the most cogent, I believe, ascribes this anomaly to the politics of nation and gender-not only to preconceptions about and effects of Poland's international ranking, but also to the status of womanhood and its public enactment within established cultural genres. (8)
Polish Opera and Operations
A sober perusal of the history of world opera ineluctably encourages the conclusion that political factors, which decisively determine cultural clout, militate against Podles's status as diva. These include Poland's tacit marginalization on the map of world importance and its similarly recessive role in opera. Even scholars and experts in music would have difficulty naming a Polish opera regularly mounted outside its country of origin. Who has familiarity with Karol Szymanowski's Hagith (composed in 1913, first produced in 1922) and Krol Roger (King Roger, first performed in 1926), based on the composer's novel, Ephebos, with the collaboration of the writer Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz? Krzysztof Penderecki's Diably z Loudun (The Devils of Loudun, premiered in the Hamburg Staatsoper in 1969), Paradise Lost (commissioned by and first staged at the Chicago Lyric in 1978), Black Mask (introduced in the 1986 Salzburg festival), and Uba Rex (1991) have greater contemporary currency--which, nevertheless, hardly compares with the international popularity, however controversial, of compositions by Benjamin Britten and Philip Glass. Who remembers--or ever knew--the coloratura Ada Sari (1882-1968), the Warsaw Opera soloist Wanda Werminska (1900-88), and the soprano Krystyna Jamroz (1923-86), all sufficiently famous on home territory to have warranted Poland's imprinting their faces on postage stamps? (9) Of Polish singers, only Marcella Sembrich (1858-1935), the coloratura soprano who frequently partnered Caruso and the de Reszke brothers during her heyday at the Met (1898-1909, after debuting there in 1883), (10) surfaces in Rupert Christiansen's insightful, wide-ranging Prima Donna: A History (1984). Even Jozef Kanski's Mistrzowie sceny operowej (1998) hardly abounds in Polish names. (11) Moreover, the majority of those inventoried in Kaxiski s volume (for example, Felicja Kaszowska, Salomea Kruszelnicka, Maria Mokrzycka, Maria Janowska) would elicit no recognition outside Poland, even from specialists. Though such male singers as Jan and Edouard de Reszke, Adam Didur, and Jan Kiepura boasted an ardent following among fans of early Metropolitan Opera performances, Italian, French, German, and American singers of possibly lesser talent eclipse their posthumous reputations. (12) In short, Poland's stature in opera mirrors its perceived political significance in today's Anglophone-dominated world.
Yet historically Poland has enjoyed an unusually long and vibrant opera tradition--the oldest in East Central Europe (Tyrrell 159)--dating from 1613, when an Italian company accepted Prince Stanislaw Lubomirski s invitation to perform at his residence in Wisnicz. Italian works in the original and in Polish translation dominated the country's seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century opera (a translation of the first opera by a woman, Francesca Caccini s La liberazione di Ruggero dall'isola d'Alcina, appeared in Krakow in 1628). And operas marked increase in stage productions was aided by the construction in 1725 of Warsaw's Opera Theater (Operalnia, demolished in 1772), upon which the enlightened Augustus III lavished generous subsidies. Fortunately, the long reign (1764-95) of the last Polish king, Stanislaw August Poniatowski, an energetic promoter of opera and art, witnessed the opening of the first public state theater (the National Theater) in 1765. That institution mounted the first Polish opera, Maciej Kamienski's Nedza Uszczesliwiona (Sorrow Turned to Joy, 1778), (13) succeeded by a series of works sung in Polish, including the intriguingly titled Nie kazdy spi, co chrapi (Not All Who Snore Are Sleeping) by Kajetan Majer. Thanks mainly to the original libretti and numerous translations by the indefatigable actor, producer, and singer Wojciech Boguslawski (1757-1829), (14) Polish texts gradually superseded foreign imports, despite--and because of--the three partitions of Poland at the end of the eighteenth century: not unlike the church, works of Polish authorship were of inestimable value in maintaining national morale and cohesion (Tyrrell 160). Chopin's teacher, Jozef Elsner (1769-1854), and Karol Kurpinski (1785-1857) likewise helped to expand the domestic repertory, and Moniuszko's Halka, which premiered in Wilno (now Lithuanian Vilnius) in 1848, (15) was subsequently hailed as Poland's first great national opera, with homeland audiences interpreting the rejection of the peasant heroine Halka as a "proxy for the rejected Polish nation" (Tyrrell 165). (16) Despite Polish operas heavy indebtedness to foreign models, by 1830 the national repertoire boasted more than 140 original Polish works (Tyrrell 162).
Kaxiski, Poland's foremost commentator on operatic matters, identifies three Golden Ages of Polish Opera--under the Directorships of Kurpinski, Moniuszko, and Emil Mlynarski at Warsaw's Wielki Teatr (Grand Theater), built by Corazzi, which opened in 1833 (Kanski, Teatr Wielki, n.p.). Whereas Szymanowski's compositions dominated the early twentieth century, the steady stream of operas by numerous Polish composers during later decades (Opienski, Jotejko, Maliszewski, Rytel, Rozycki, Szeligowski, Rudzinski, and Twardowski) makes it difficult to single out any "star" other than, perhaps, Penderecki. (17) Ultimately, Poland's operatic fate in world culture illustrates the primacy of stomach over "soul," which nowadays in the United States accounts for the replacement of (elite) foreign cinema with (democratic if dyspeptic) fast food eateries, of Mahler and Marlowe with McDonalds. Though pierogi and kielbasa have entered the international culinary pantheon, (18) the above-listed composers, lionized on native soil, have exerted scant impact on either the development of Western opera or its audiences. Furthermore, Podles in a recent interview has questioned post-Communist Poland's own commitment to operatic recitals, bluntly contrasting half-filled halls in Krakow during her engagement there with sell-out crowds on four consecutive days for a similar concert in Seattle (Duszko). (19)
Unsurprisingly, in light of the musical world's politics, the few contemporary Polish opera singers who have attained international renown did so only after prolonged collaboration with New York's Metropolitan Opera. These include three female performers: Teresa Kubiak, the lyric-dramatic soprano who debuted in Lodz in 1965 and at the Met in 1972 as Liza in Chaikovsky's Queen of Spades; the elegant but vocally unremarkable mezzo-soprano Stefania Toczyska (born 1943), who throughout the 1980s specialized in Verdi (above all, Aida and Un Ballo in Maschera), to mixed reviews, (20) and, notably, the technically accomplished lyric soprano Teresa Zylis-Gara (born 1935?), (21) now retired from the stage and offering Master Classes in Europe and the United States, who during the 1960s and 1970s undertook the major soprano leads in Mozart, Verdi, and Strauss at Glynde-bourne, Salzburg, and the Met, where she debuted in 1969 as Donna Elvira in Mozart's Don Giovanni. While she herself maintains, "Undoubtedly I wasn't a good wife and mother ... but I wanted above all to be a good singer" (Kanski, Mistrzowie, 329), tellingly, the entry for her in a respected dictionary of opera (which altogether excludes her two compatriots) concludes, "Highly gifted and committed artist whose achievements have sometimes been underrated" (Rosenthal and Warrack 561). Indeed, nowadays she, along with her lesser Polish colleagues, never figures in retrospectives about divas, memorable or otherwise. Yet, as Podles noted in an interview, Zylis-Gara was "a fantastic singer. Sang sixteen seasons at the Met" (Davis 14). The chronology of the Met's "major events" printed in Opera News to commemorate "A Century at the Met" (1883-1983) includes, among hundreds of singers, only four Polish names: those of the de Reszke brothers, Sembrich, and Zylis-Gara. Whereas after the Soviet Unions dissolution sundry Russian baritones (notably, Dmitry Khvorostovsky, but also Nikolai Putilin and Vladimir Chernov), tenors (Vladimir Galouzine) (22), mezzos (notably Olga Borodina), and sopranos (Galina Gorchakova) have become regulars at the Met, its current roster boasts no Polish soloists--apart from Podles. And though many Europeans would tout La Scala as the most exacting opera venue, at least as many would nominate the Met as the premier opera house today. Podles herself unhesitatingly avers, "[F]or all singers, the Met should signal the moment you've 'arrived'" (Kasow). (23) In that sense, for Podles, as for the stage actress Helena Modjeska and the painter Olga Boznanska, residence and professional activity abroad have proved vital to international fame, while simultaneously adding luster to "star status" on native soil (see the articles by Beth Holmgren and Bozena Shallcross in this issue).
The Iconography of Divadom or Sirens to Show and Sell
Dictionaries customarily list "prima donna" as a synonym for "diva" (literally "goddess," but perhaps best rendered in modern idiom as "super-star"), a gender-specific term that designates a preeminent female singer whose persona condenses a fascinating complex of "feminine" traits, while, paradoxically, violating the paradigm of conciliatory, nurturing, submissive womanhood epitomized on stage by Bizet's Micaela and Puccini's Madama Butterfly. (24) In the melodramatic world of opera that constitutes the divas natural habitat, audiences expect larger-than-life gestures from divas both on and off stage (on this issue in the theater in general, see Holmgren). (25) If originally Maria Malibran (1808-36; mezzo) and Adelina Patti (1843-1919; soprano) institutionalized those expectations, (26) in the modern age the soprano Maria Callas (1923-77) over-fulfilled them through a glamorous, jet-setting style of life, a maximally publicized and "fatal" romance with the tycoon Onassis, and legendary tantrums and battles with executives, journalists, and colleagues that merely played variations on her thrilling dramatics in performance. The most memorable of these, perhaps, was her portrayal of the eponymous heroines in Medea, Norma, Tosca, and Lucia di Lammermoor--all operas that hinge on death, murder, insanity, and, inter alia, a brutally challenging, stratospheric tessitura that keeps listeners on the edge of their seats, partly because the risk-laden vocal demands of such roles peculiarly mirror, in musical terms, the existential trials faced by the operas' characters. Rampaging across the stage in galvanizing displays of blood-curdling passion, Callas could also "chew up the furniture" in confrontations with journalists and musical directors such as the acerbic, memorably witty Rudolf Bing, who finally banished her from the Met in 1958. (27) For some critics, "Callas is the personification of demented, as singer, actress, and citizen" (Mordden 294). She incarnated the Diva as theater's Divina, a being whom the media presented as always living on the edge of excess, irrationality, and madness, (28) but who in performance "redeemed" or legitimated these traits through her "sublime art."
This wishful scenario posits a continuity of character, whereby the divas scandalous and front-page-making, though ultimately intolerable, real-life histrionics transfer seamlessly and productively to larger-than-life operatic enactments and vice versa--a continuity the writer-stage actress Gabriela Zapolska exploited, but the film star Krystyna Janda vigorously and vociferously contests (see Holmgren and Elzbieta Ostrowska in this volume). (29) In one of his few sensible statements amid an orgy of narcissistic non-sequiturs, Wayne Koestenbaum deconstructs that equation: "Diva iconography erases the distinction between stage and home" (Koestenbaum 123). It is an iconography that desirously posits a demented Lucia in the living-room, a murderous Medea in the nursery, and a suicidal Tosca on a balcony. The conventions of divadom, after all, proscribe on-stage Lucias and Medeas who hurry home to wash the dishes. Revealingly, on November 8, 1958, the Met administrator Francis Robinson wrote with evident apprehension (if inadequate punctuation), "[Callas] is a great artist but I sometimes fear insane" (Lowe 229). (30) Perhaps equally revealingly, Catherine Clement in her quirky study Opera: The Undoing of Women (31) marshals the biographies of Malibran and Callas as irrefutable evidence for her one-note argument that opera "undoes" Woman, inasmuch as it treats the prima donna as the "marionette woman," while its necrophiliac male critics feed off her death. (32) Such a blinkered perspective on female opera singers utterly ignores the empowerment of divas, who, in addition to commanding huge salaries, not only can influence sundry aspects of recordings and stage productions and occasionally dictate conditions, but also can revive neglected compositions and fundamentally alter the criteria and course of their profession--precisely Callas's unassailable achievements in the world of opera.
In the late twentieth century, the designation of diva metastasized beyond its original (operatic) context, encompassing rock and pop singers (Madonna, Annie Lennox, k.d. lang, etc.), entertainers in sleazy joints ("disco divas"), and motley self-proclaimed claimants to that highly profitable appellation. (33) This undifferentiated terminological proliferation, which inevitably leads to devaluation, has prompted a writer for the pop music magazine Spin to lament, "Everyone's a diva these days" (Bernstein 22). By and large, however, the discourse of operatic commentary has preserved the evolving typology of divadom intact. If in the mid-nineteenth century the term prima donna evoked the questionable figure of a wealthy, famous quasi-courtesan, by the twentieth century it was synonymous with "virago, shrew, or bitch," outrageous grande dame, "exacting, torrential, and exasperating ... often lazy, greedy, stupid, conceited, and impossible as well" (Christiansen 9). (34) Frederico Fellini s film E la nave va (And the Ship Sails On) parodies the Callas legend as the epitome of divas' self-absorption (Ashbrook, "Opera Singers," 287). (35)
As various critics have objected, however, gender politics simmering beneath the surface of ostensibly sex-neutral negotiations colored the rhetoric of such image-constructions: In all likelihood prima donnish conduct constituted the sole option for ambitious female singers intent on securing professional recognition in a competitive, male-dominated world of impresarios, theater administrators, and "legitimate" (that is, male) performers. (36) The prima donnas celebrated and satirized "whims" frequently originated in a dedication to artistic standards, a refusal to compromise, and a shrewd awareness of her market value--a value that accrued from her tireless work and discipline (Callas's exhausting perfectionism is legendary), (37) but which the media more titillatingly attributed to the decidedly more flamboyant categories of "charisma, genius, and mystique" (Christiansen 10-11).
Crucial to the prima donnas/divas persona now, as then, are the overly emphasized requisites of the stereotype: passionate, unpredictable temperament, propensity for absolutes, overweening conviction of personal uniqueness, indomitable will, (unrivaled) panache, extravagant style, addiction to affluence and luxury, and a glamorous aura often inseparable from beauty or striking physical appearance. (38) A more jaundiced variation on the paradigm emerges in a discussion about Callas originally published in Radiocorriere TV (November 30, 1969), and reprinted in translation in the Anglophone Opera (September-October 1970), where the musicologist and critic Fedele D'Amico contends, "The public generally imagines a prima donna, especially a great one, to be arrogant, selfish, uninterested in anything not directly concerned with her own personal success, while at the same time intent on sparing herself to the utmost, never giving anything; and would more than ever expect such an attitude from Callas, the most prima donna of prima donnas for decades" (Lowe 219). (39) Where can someone not enslaved to standards of judgment dictated by shrill headlines locate the singer's voice in such a farrago of prickly personal attributes automatically imputed, it seems, to the diva? That the association of divadom and outre spectacle persists to this day may be deduced from such titles as Ethan Mordden s Demented: The World of the Opera Diva (1984) and I Am Diva!: Every Woman's Guide to Outrageous Living (2003) by Carilyn Vaile, Elena Bates et al. In fact, Mordden insists that "demented" is the essence of divas and of "opera at its greatest" (Mordden 10).
Critics attuned to sound rather than sensationalism (Christiansen 10-11) have drawn a perhaps self-evident parallel between divas and the Greek Sirens on the basis of a seductive voice that enchants its listeners--a connection musically authenticated in Puccini s meta-opera, Tosca, when Cavaradossi twice addresses his imperious "celebrated singer"-beloved with the words "mia sirena" (Act I). (40) In a challenging if uneven analysis of the Siren episode in Homer's Odyssey, Renata Salecl, via Lacan, contends that the past the Sirens promise to divulge to the unwary voyager "has not yet been symbolized, it has not become a memory; such an unsymbolized past is traumatic for the listener, since it evokes something primordial, something that is between nature and culture that the subject does not want to remember" (Salecl 18). Unlike this unassimilated past, the divas bewitching sounds, I suggest, are not a corridor between, (41) but a composite of, nature (the voice as such, often referred to by singers as a given, an entity independent of them: The Voice) and culture (vocal training, rehearsals, orchestrated performance). Moreover, those sounds, evoking a complex web of personal associations, stimulate parallel contrary responses in the opera aficionado: ecstasy and terror, the trauma partly transformed into bliss in a profound cathexis that psychologists often associate with maternity and novelists such as Leo Tolstoy equate with the early, uncertain stages of love. (42) In short, the fatal but irresistible allure of the ambiguous, powerful, and feminine Sirens that emanates from pure voice overlaps with the fascination divas exercise over fans.
If political power inheres in the domain of the Symbolic (masculine), sexual magic is culturally coded as Imaginary (feminine--Sirens, Eve, Lilith; Carmen, Lulu, etc.). Whatever the Siren-diva's professional credentials, self-discipline, painstaking attention to detail, and implacable ("masculine") insistence on higher salary and concomitant perquisites, the femininity of her beguiling vocalism ultimately outweighs the ostensibly masculine elements in her persona. Since the Symbolic cedes to the Imaginary without erasing its own traces, however, it enables the perception of the diva as destabilizing gender categories. An interplay of entities, including the singer, her agents, and the media, fashions a diva, and her persona both destabilizes and hyperbolizes gender, for the diva as culturally conceived thrives on the excess, conflict, and polarization integral to melodrama. Against this flamboyant background of media-dependent personality formation, the public image of Poland's superbly gifted Podles presents an anomaly that, paradoxically, illuminates gender disposition and notions of sexiness in the culture of operatic performance.
Not only her Polishness, but also her incompatibility with ready-made gender paradigms accounts for Podles's failure to satisfy the fabled and feminized prerequisites of a diva. As the now retired Met contralto Lili Chookasian quips, "[A]II the ladies want to be divas, and the divas are sopranos. They all want to sing high!" (Myers). During some periods, in fact, "a prima donna was invariably a soprano" (Christiansen 12). After all, a high voice, like smallness and passivity, is "feminine," conceived in opposition to the desiderata of "'masculinity"--deep voice, assertiveness, and large size. (43) This immemorial binary formula partly accounts for Podles's humorous remark, "Maybe we are not divas, we contraltos!" (Myers). As a bona fide contralto, she possesses a voice whose lower range violates gender boundaries, inasmuch as it sounds "masculine," just as the counter-tenor (and, earlier, the castrato) sounds "feminine." Several critics writing about Podles have remarked on the "slightly aggressive quality of her singing" (So), on her "huge voice" as a "powerhouse instrument" (Graham), a "great, big contrabassoon of a voice" (Dobrin), with a "brassy, ringing volume [that stands] as irrefutable proof of the inferiority of countertenor Rinaldos" and of "a peeping male alto" (Anson). Vocally, then, Podles can "outmale" the men. She herself has acknowledged that she likes "strong characters" and has ironically observed, "The important people who decide [careers] don't know the kind of voice I have. What can we offer Mme. Podles? Rosina, perhaps; Dalila, (44) not sure because the voice is so masculine" (Kasow). The first prize Podles won was for "Rare Voices," for, as she rightly states, "A true contralto is almost unknown in the twentieth century' (Kasow), the previous renowned instance being Chookasian, the Met's reigning contralto from the 1960s to the 1980s (Myers). (45)
Podles's voice predicates her specialization-not the familiar romantic operas of star-crossed lovers by Donizetti, Verdi, and Puccini, which overwhelmingly showcase the tenor and soprano, (46) but less familiar works of an earlier era, primarily by Handel, Gluck, and Rossini (see fig. 3-3 following page 92). Moreover, in this repertory Podles almost exclusively assumes "trouser parts"--men's roles that require her to woo other women in male guise, and not infrequently in armor. During the last decade or so, the gender-bending nature of such cross-dressing traditions has provoked a small spate of overly confessional commentary by lesbian, gay, and queer academics qua opera fans on divas and the secret of their mesmerizing fascination. (47) Inevitably, it seems, many of these musings focus on sex (the alleged basis also of "diva" Madonna's popularity with gays and lesbians, homosexuals' passion for female opera stars, etc.). In fact, Margaret Reynolds baldly asserts, "Everyone knows that opera is about sex" (Reynolds 132)
Within this category, an article that stands somewhat apart by virtue of its integrity, logical consistency, and capacity to overcome self-absorption is Terry Castle's "In Praise of Brigitte Fassbaender (A Musical Emanation)." Following in the impressive footsteps of Brigid Brophy, (48) Castle articulates, then boldly embellishes upon, a truism of operatic analysis: "The great divas appeal is intrinsically erotic in nature.... [T]hrough prodigies of breath control and muscular exertion-virtuoso feats easily reinterpreted as 'metaphors of virtuoso performance in bed'--she stimulates repressed sexual memories in her listeners" (Castle 201). (49) With this rather perfunctory nod to Freud's theory of fantasized incest activated through musical performance, Castle wisely speeds ahead to survey "the long tradition of sapphic diva-worship in the world of opera," which she disputably characterizes as "a history of female-to-female 'fan attachments as intense, fantastical, and sentimental as any ever enacted on the fabled isle of Lesbos" (Castle 202). (50) Catalini, Malibran, Mary Garden 51 and especially Geraldine Farrar (whose ardent fans became known as "Gerry-flappers") and Olive Fremstad ("the sapphic 'cult' diva par excellence") (52) ignited passions in their female, as well as male, devotees--passions debatably tinged with homoeroticism (Castle 202, 206, 212).
Tentatively extending that list to contemporary singers (Joan Sutherland, Jessye Norman, Janet Baker, Frederica Von Stade, and the late Tatiana Troyanos), Castle inventories the various objects of her own musical admiration before confronting and explaining, with considerable sensitivity and finesse, her erotic "crush" on Fassbaender. She offers two reasons for her infatuation with a singer solely on the basis of voice: first, the mezzo's low register ("voluptuous command of the reverberant mezzo/contralto register," 224) and her "noble, extroverted, even virile" manner, with "almost a 'butchness' to her singing" (225); second, the roles Fassbaender inhabits, as, en travesti or dressed "in drag" (and here the visual asserts itself), she "homo-vocally" declares love for a woman (a soprano, of course). Fassbaender's "great theme," Castle contends, "is gynophilia.... She is unsurpassed at conveying adoration: of female voices, bodies, and dreams" (230).
One might counter that such tenors as Carlo Bergonzi and Jose Carreras matched or even surpassed Fassbaender in expressing plangent, boundless ardor for women, but that riposte has scant relevance for Castle's argument, which clearly develops in a framework of strong emotional identification. In Castle's analysis cum confession, the "butch" mezzo serves as a stand-in for the woman-loving lesbian, who also can project herself onto the "femme" beloved, and thus have it both ways. This doubling affords the lesbian listener/viewer the psychological luxury of identifying in turn with each partner bonded in love. Selective focus, however, potentially limits the validity of Castle's argument: The music sung by Fassbaender that Castle singles out is "romantic"--the Winterreise song cycle by Franz Schubert, and above all the role of Octavian, the young, impetuous lover in Richard Strauss's lush Der Rosenkavalier (1911). Both libretto and music emphasize Octavian's youthful, idealistic transports, and it is surely no accident that Castle elected to illustrate this section of her article with a still of the musically extravagant and visually lyrical scene from the opera known as "the presentation of the silver rose," which features Fassbaender in a pastel, ornately embroidered male costume that shows off her legs (Castle 235). (54) Moreover, precisely the fact that Fassbaender is recognizably a woman with a mezzo voice that dips transgressively into a low register seems the source of her attraction for Castle. (55) Would/could Podles's voice elicit a similar reaction?
I think not. A contralto, first of all, is not a mezzo-soprano (the middle category of female voice, with a range roughly from low A to B-flat above the staff), (56) for the voice is darker and sounds more "masculine" when it plunges deep down into the lower register. As one perspicacious critic commenting on Podles's rich tones puts it, "This vocal range [of a contralto] has an almost androgynous impact at the bottom end, where it merges with tenor tones, but also conveys great, earthy womanliness at the heart, a kind of thinking mans (or woman's, what the hey) sensuality" (Burwasser). Gender identity here is not donned so as to be easily shed, but seems, rather, to encompass both male and female. The part of Orfeo in Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice (1762, 1774) originally was composed for a male contralto. Only a mezzo like Horne, with a rich lower register (what Podles calls "the natural, beautiful low chest register," Myers), in her heyday approached Podles's execution of the bottom chest tones, though she lacked the Polish contralto's capacity for show-stopping volume--an important facet in the creation of a credible male role; as Podles observes, "It [the female contralto] is like a mans voice, it is not like a female voice" (Myers) (see fig. 3-4 following page 92). (57)
Moreover, the contralto parts in the Baroque repertoire lack the lightness, the quicksilver charm of transvestite roles in Mozart and Strauss. Indeed, Handel's Julius Caesar (Giulio Cesare, 1724) and Rinaldo (Rinaldo, 1711), like Neocle in Rossini s L'Assedio di Corinto, (58) his eponymous Tancredi (1813), and Arsace in his Semiramide (1823)--the last two roles languishing in desuetude until revived in recent times by Marilyn Horne (Ashbrook, "Opera Singers 290)--are heroic figures of military prowess, the costumes appropriate to these parts hardly enabling the female contralto to cut a glamorous, stylish figure.
Indeed, to discount the impact of physical appearance on an audience would be disingenuous, (59) and here Podles is at a disadvantage through no fault of her own: Whereas to varying degrees Von Stade, Fassbaender, and Troyanno (60) possess tall, slender, lithe figures, Podles is rather short and decidedly solid, with pleasant but average features. Ralph Locke's proposition that "[b]eauty and flexibility of voice in opera are ... roughly equivalent to physical beauty in literature and art" (Locke 65) obtains for recordings, but emphatically not in live performance on stage, though gorgeous vocalism doubtless can make some members of the audience oblivious to a singer's unremarkable, unattractive, or grotesque appearance. As Troyanos, the Met's Octavian of choice for a decade, admitted in an interview, "I'm lucky that I look like the roles I do, whether it's Octavian or Carmen ..." (Jacobson, "Getting It Together," 12). The American baritone Sherill Milnes, who vocally and physically projected machismo, a quarter-century ago likewise acknowledged, "'[I]f I were five foot four and bald I wouldn't be so successful. I not only sell the baritone sounds but also the visual thing. People don't buy records with their eyes closed.... If all your photos are retouched and you don't really look like that onstage, well, that affects sales of records and tickets" (Von' Buchau 11). The pertinence of physical appearance to live performance became a point of impassioned controversy in June 2003, when the Royal Opera at Covent Garden dropped Deborah Voigt from its new production of Richard Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos-in the key role of the Prima Donna, for which she has won universal acclaim. The opera critic Anthony Tommasini, deploring the decision to replace her with the slender but vocally weaker Anne Schwanewilms, posed the question, "A Dress or a Voice: What Makes a Diva?", arguing that since "[g]reat music and great voices take you to the core of the drama and the essence of the characters," physical appearance is irrelevant (Tommasini B1). Yet precisely the fact that the Royal Operas preferred a lesser singer who would look more appealing in the "slinky black dress" slated for the part to the vocally lush Voigt suggests otherwise. In performance, grace, beauty, and aura cannot be overestimated, as illustrated all too vividly in the contrasting cases of two premier tenors: Franco Corelli (even Bing comments on his "glorious appearance" [Bing 204]) and Carlo Bergonzi--not Apollo's favorite and in build reminiscent of an over-fed bull. In the contralto repertory, as a performing singer Podles primarily enacts males; as a woman she lacks those physical traits typically deemed the essence of femininity. It seems likely, therefore, that despite the unsurpassed brilliance of her vocalism, in her stage persona the balance between masculine and feminine tips too heavily toward the former to stimulate sustained erotic attraction in lesbian, homosexual, and heterosexual audiences. (61)
That gender destabilization likewise manifests itself in Podles's professional behavior, concert persona, and interviews, where she emerges as logical, commonsensical, and even-tempered--characteristics notoriously misidentified with masculinity and at several continents' remove from divadom. Podles shares Callas's dedicated fidelity to composers' intentions and instructions, as well as the Greek soprano's intolerance of musical ignorance: "For me what's important is that it is well done, well sung, and that the message is important.... Music, for me, should also be adapted for our time" (Myers). Asked about her primary focus in preparation for roles, she cites as her invariable starting point a thorough knowledge of the texts; she needs to understand every word of a libretto so as to grasp the larger concept and create a character (Deszko). Like other singers (e.g., Samuel Ramey), she criticizes directors and conductors who arrive at rehearsals unprepared ("One very famous conductor came to a first rehearsal, and--he asked me about Orfeo by Gluck," Myers). Without fetishizing her own consummate command of the music she sings, Podles outspokenly insists on professional standards without, however, resorting to hyperbole or extravagant phrasing. (62) In short, she does not favor quotable extremes, avoids attracting attention, and, much like the Polish actress Krystyna Janda (see Ostrowska), characterizes herself as "a normal woman in private life ... not a diva, for sure [na pewno nie diva]" (Deszko). Her self-characterization recalls the words of Joan Sutherland, who may have impressed her fans as La Stupenda, but who saw herself as "a very ordinary human being that has been given a really rather wonderful voice" (Mordden 8). As Mordden rightly notes of Sutherland, "Never was a star less the prima donna" (Mordden 62).
Secondly, unlike divas whose liaisons and marriages make headlines and generate fodder for gossip in columns about the glitterati du jour, Podles is quietly married to a fellow Pole, the musician Jerzy Marchwixiski (b. 1935), who, along with his musical daughter from a previous marriage, Ania Marchwinska (a graduate of Julliard, where she is currently a faculty member), has accompanied Podles on piano during her recitals. (63) Not only this domestic configuration, but also Podles's favorite personal pastimes--relaxing at home or at her dacha, taking care of plants and her three dogs, three canaries, and a rabbit (again, shades of Janda, as Ostrowska illustrates)--counter the image of a remote, glamorous diva divorced from the humdrum beat of everyday life. In her own words, her priorities disincline her to create the persona of a "star" ("jak daleka jestem od kreowania siebie na gwiazde") (Deszko). With typical down-to-earthness, she plans to retire "without regrets" as soon as her vocal powers diminish, preferring people to ask, as she phrases it, "[W]hy I'm no longer singing rather than why I'm still singing" (Deszko). In contrast to Callas, whose maximalism found expression in her reformulation of Descartes' maxim, "I work: therefore I am" (Lowe 160), Podleg seems constitutionally incapable of such a categorical profession de foi. Ultimately, she emerges as a personality eminently comfortable with the temperate zone of life, which divas by definition must eschew at all costs.
Finally, the factor of age cannot be discounted in the public's reception of Podles. In 2001, she reminded an interviewer that for her to assume the roles of Cinderella (in Rossini s Cenerentola) and the sixteen-year-old Rosina (in his Il Barbiere di Siviglia) has been increasingly difficult (Deszko). Most divas acquire fame and fortune in their "salad days," as evidenced by the careers of Malibran, Patti, Rosa Ponselle, Callas, and others. Yet, international acclaim came to Podleg at fifty, not a time of life in which women, however talented, inspire passions and paroxysms of enthusiasm for their persona (Malibran died at twenty-eight, Conchita Supervia and Kathleen Ferrier at forty-one, Geraldine Farrar retired at thirty-nine, Ponselle at forty-one, and Callas in her forties, before the ill-judged tour of 1973-74). In fact, Podleg has reached the middle age that Germaine Greer and other feminists have mourned as relegating women "beyond public notice." (64) During an interview Podleg justly pointed out that singers with lower voices seem to enjoy greater professional longevity ("Maybe we don't destroy our voices singing in a high register," Myers), but the history of opera lacks any reports of critics and audiences having hailed a soprano, mezzo, or contralto in her fifties as a diva.
Perhaps the best index of the discrepancy between Podles' inspired singing and not only the opera world's appreciation of it, but also its careless indifference to her cultural values and allegiances, is the entry on her by Elizabeth Forbes in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (Oxford University Press, 2003), which (mis)identifies Podles as an "American [sic] mezzo-soprano of Polish birth" (www. grovemusic.com). Such a gaffe might be particularly startling to a Pole who concludes an interview by citing her husband's pithy maxim in partial explanation for the family's return to Poland after three years in Paris: "Between one's homeland (ojczyznq) and abroad (obczyznq) there's only a one-letter difference, but that difference is a whole world" (Deszko). In sum, complex historical and political factors, as well as cultural imperatives constructing the diva along inflexible gendered lines, have effectively eliminated Podles from acknowledged divadom. Her vocal cords, as Luciano Pavarotti once said of inherently gifted singers, may have been "kissed by God," and she indisputably has spun that kiss out into a prolonged and passionate affair with singing, but, without the necessary machinery of promotion, she has not dwelled on the uneasy pinnacle of acclaim implied by the fraught label of "diva." If, as Ethan Mordden maintains, the essential quality in a diva is voice--what Walter Legge, the English impresario, critic, and author (married to the diva Elisabeth Schwartzkopf) defined as "an immediately recognizable personal timbre" (Mordden 9)--then the Polish Podles may yet go down in musical history as the greatest unacknowledged diva of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.
* My thanks to Bozena Shallcross for the gift of Kanski's Mistrzowie sceny operowej, to Georgette Demes for providing my first, overwhelming encounter with Podles via a CD of her Rossini arias, and to Bozenna Goscilo for her keen-eyed critique of the first draft of this article. A different order of gratitude is due David Lowe, who during our halcyon youth solidified my love of opera, shared countless musical pleasures, and taught me to appreciate his ultimate Div(in)a, Maria Callas. All translations from the Polish are mine.
(1) Hulcoop devotes a third of his enthusiastic review of Bellini's Norma as staged in Seattle on March 8, 2003, to Podles's "unforgettable" singing as Adalgisa.
(2) According to Podles's exacting criteria, she "wasn't great," for she "lacked experience ... [and] was timid." (Kasow).
(3) From 1988 to 1991 she resided with her family in Paris, where her husband founded the Association of Polish Artists-Musicians in France (Deszko). Podles's entire family life has been steeped in music: her mother was an alto, her sister attended the Warsaw Academy of Music, her husband and step-daughter are both musicians.
(4) According to Podles, she encountered problems with agents: her first agent and close friend, Bernard Gregoire, unexpectedly died, a personal blow that caused her to leave Paris for her native Warsaw. Subsequently her agent in the United States proved inept at arranging engagements for her. Since then Matthew Sprizzo has ensured a schedule that challenges both the clock and Podles's stoic stamina (Kasow).
(5) As James Levine's favorite discovery, the American Kathleen Battle benefited from a "no holds barred" promotional campaign and enjoyed public adulation until her indulgence in behavior typically associated with divadom lost her the berth she had occupied at the Met. The Romanian Gheorghiu's media-buttressed appeal rests partly on the "romance" of her marriage to Roberto Alagna, a tenor and youngish widowed father whom she married after the two appeared together on the operatic stage. In the eyes of the impressionable, by tying the proverbial knot Gheorghiu extended opera's romance into real life. The current media-hype that has made Netrebko the most courted soprano in the world and the subject of two German pseudohagiographies focuses at least as much on her physical as on her vocal endowments.
(6) On the marketing of Bartoli, see Price ("Her career has been close to a masterpiece of combining exceptional talent with canny nurturing and expert marketing," 10). For an adulatory appraisal of the singer, see Innaurato, whose article cum interview, not coincidentally, is advertised on the cover of the magazine in which it appears as "Scena di prima donna: Cecilia Bartoli chats with Albert Innaurato."
(7) Polish opera composers receive scant attention in encyclopedias of international opera, with the exception of Krzysztof Penderecki, partly because of the sensation caused by his first opera, Devils of Loudun (1969), and his links with Chicago's Lyric Opera. The fact that Modest Musorgsky was Russian (and not Polish, Czech, or Ukrainian) undoubtedly played a role in the West's integration of his Boris Godunov (1870/1872) into the standard opera repertoire.
(8) In her memoirs, Maria Callas fleetingly adverts to the influence a country's niche in the international political hierarchy exerts on operatic contracts and fame when she says of her arrival in New York, "I hoped, ingenuously, to find some engagements. But who in America knows poor little Greece?" (Lowe 123). American attitudes toward Eastern/Central European composers may be partly gauged by reactions to L6os Janacek's Jenufa, which Maria Jeritza of Brno brought to the Met in 1924, but which was dropped after a few performances and not staged again professionally until 1959. On this issue, see Littlejohn 237.
(9) Without jumping to hasty conclusions, one might speculate whether musical judgment or other hierarchical considerations entered the decision to adorn the 100-zloty stamp with Jamroz's rather severe visage, while featuring the beautiful Wermiriska on the 150-zloty one, and the full-cheeked Sari on the 350-zloty stamp.
(10) Born Prakseda Marcelina Kochanska, for the stage Sembrich adopted her mother's maiden name when, reportedly at Liszt's suggestion, she switched from studying piano and violin to singing. She not only made her operatic career primarily in the United States, but upon retirement taught at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia and at the Julliard School of Music (Rosenthal and Warrack 454-55). Though rarely mentioned in Poland, she had a museum dedicated to her in Bolton Landing, New York, which exists to this day. A measure of Sembrich's position at the Met is her having shared with Christine Nilsson during the Met's first season two-fifths of the Met's total payroll (Christiansen 173).
(11) Christiansen acknowledges that his study slights prima donnas in Eastern Europe and South America, but laconically defends his selectivity on the basis of space restrictions (his study runs to 365 pages). In general, histories of world opera at best tend to allot Polish opera anything from a sentence to a few pages. Peyser and Bower's survey, for instance, presents entire chapters on Russia's "Mighty Five," Stravinsky, and Soviet composers (Prokofiev and Shostakovich), but bypasses Poland, explaining, "Poland, Scandinavia, Finland, Holland, Switzerland, and other European countries are not mentioned in this book at length [sic] only because their operas have had no influence on the development of opera itself, nor have they visited other countries sufficiently to influence the writing of opera elsewhere" (229). The concept of operas traveling abroad all on their own (operatic tourism!) is original, to say the least.
(12) For instance, the popularizing Magic of the Opera: A Picture Memoir of the Metropolitan fleetingly refers to the de Reszke brothers and Didur (their names Gallicized), but omits all mention of Kaszowska et al., and, indeed, lists no Polish female singers.
(13) For the history of this opera's genesis, see Bernacki 2: 14e-14f and the short bibliography he provides.
(14) The cultural discourse of paternity has resulted in his title of "father of Polish opera" (Tyrrell 160).
(15) Warsaw mounted a fuller version a decade later (Robinson 16).
(16) As Tyrrell astutely observes, the polonaise- and mazurka-based arias in Halka and Moniuszko's other operas functioned as patriotic elements (Tyrrell 168). For additional information on the history of Polish opera, see Tyrrell, Rosenthal and Warrack. For a fine summary of, and cultural context for, Moniuszko's operatic career, see Robinson.
(17) In the revised 1976 edition of The New Kobbe's Complete Opera Book, the Earl of Harewood includes two Polish items--Szymanowski's King Roger and Penderecki's Devils of Loudun (Harewood 1594-1606).
(18) The fate of Nellie Melba, a supreme diva who insisted on receiving at least a pound more in salary than her colleagues (including Caruso), vividly demonstrates this principle: Melba toast and peach Melba having become assimilated into standard Anglophone comestibles, though only a tiny minority of the "average" public know their provenance and the renowned Australian soprano (1861-1931) after whom they were named. On Melba's divadom, see Mordden 70-71,148-49.
(19) Hulcoop's rave review speaks of only three days.
(20) For a rare item on Toczyska, see McGovern.
(21) Zylis-Gara made her Polish debut at the Krakow Opera in 1965 as the eponymous heroine of Moniuszko's "national" opera Halka. Reports on the year of her birth vary, sources citing 1930, 1935, and others.
(22) For a brief assessment, cum interview, of Galouzine, see Gurewitsch.
(23) In 1980, David Littlejohn noted, "The United States follows rather than leads in matters operatic, for a variety of good reasons, mostly financial" (Littlejohn 237), but such a stance is more difficult to defend today.
(24) Leonardi and Pope somewhat extravagantly generalize, "Divahood is ever a gender disorder" (Leonardi and Pope 57). My conviction is that nothing human is "ever" or "never." Moreover, gender itself, to an extent discursively constituted, is a more fluid category than critics launching rhetorical attacks on its conventionalization admit.
(25) John Gruen, in a short piece on Shirley Verrett titled "Diva!", declares rather fulsomely: "A diva does not announce herself by the sumptuousness of
her voice, or by the roles that have brought her fame. By definition a diva is a goddess, a creature whose deportment is unique onstage or off. She is a dominant being, a force that pervades and colors everything around her, a presence who [sic] upon entering any room will change it, heightening the responses of others" (Gruen 9). Amid his transports Gruen omits all mention of media and marketing, presumably never entertaining the notion that divas are made, not born.
(26) Patti reportedly traveled to performances in a luxurious private train with family, servants, dogs, and birds. When told by an agent that the exorbitant fee she was demanding exceeded the American president's salary, she retorted, "If the president costs less, then have the president sing" (Kariski, Mistrzowie, 144). Female singers' insistence on high salaries likely sprang at least in part from women's general determination to overcome financial inequities along gender lines in the professional sphere, which remained male territory. Mordden notes Callas's typically self-contradictory assertion, redolent of Melba, "I'm not interested in money, but [my fee] must be more than anyone else gets" (Mordden 295).
(27) Thoughtful commentaries on Callas rightly focus on what constituted her signature traits as a singer: uncompromising professionalism, fanatical dedication, inspired instincts, a profound respect for composers' intentions, and a unified concept of any given role that united musicality with superb acting. For perceptive treatments of her fundamental revision of operatic performance, see Ardoin and Lowe. Whatever their publicized disagreements, Bing never underestimated Callas's talents. See Bing, A Knight at the Opera, 95-118.
In a memorable passage from his first volume of memoirs, Bing confides, "I never fully enjoyed any other artist in one of her roles after she did it.... A few motions of her hand did more to establish a character and an emotion than whole acts of earnest acting by other singers" (Bing, 5000 Nights at the Opera, 246).
(28) On these features, universally construed as marks of "femininity," see Chester, Cixous, and especially C16ment, "The Guilty One," in The Newly Born Woman 1-59.
(29) For an intelligent, balanced assessment of these tirelessly advertised aspects of Callas, see Ardoin and Fitzgerald, and Lowe, especially 1-14. For self-serving, bathetic protestations about Callas's private self, see Jackie Callas and Giovanni Battista Menenghini. And for what one can only call fatuous blather about Callas by Yves Saint-Laurent, see Lowe 183-84. A sample reads: "Diva of divas, empress, queen, goddess, sorceress, hard-working magician, in short, divine" (183). He liked her. On the "obsessive blurring of art and life" in the case of Rosine Stoltz, who reputedly excelled above all as an actress, see Smart.
(30) In a letter to his mother. Previous letters, likewise anticipating Callas's arrival in New York, contain various comments about Callas "the hellcat," to
whom Robinson contrasts Geraldine Farrar as "[a] different type of prima donna" (Lowe 229).
(31) Littlejohn justly calls Clement's observations "rapturous and opaque" (Littlejohn 168).
(32) See especially the over-heated and under-thought chapter on the prima donna (24-42), and above all the brief, arch section on Malibran and Callas (28-32). Clement completely ignores the fact that countless men perish in opera, for "tragic fates" and "fatal passions" are the life-blood of the genre.
(33) Though irritating in its coy self-referentiality, the study by Leonardi and Pope usefully covers divadom in numerous genres: opera, pop and rock, plays, films, fiction, etc. Christiansen accurately notes that modern films like Bertolucci's La Luna and Bendeix's Diva reduce to "highly colored and elaborate melodramas which use opera to suggest a world of abnormal emotional obsession" (Christiansen 207). For a splendid article on the relevance of national needs to the construction of the "unprecedented craze" for the diva Jenny Lind in mid-nineteenth-century America, see Gallagher.
(34) Leonardi and Pope perceptively note that stereotypical traits of the diva-"vanity, luxury, temper, unreasonableness, competitiveness, and licentiousness were common accusations against castrati" (Leonardi and Pope 27).
(35) Ashbrook believes that [d]ivismo, of the female or male variety, seems old-fashioned in some ways ... redolent of a distinctly dumpy Tetrazzini in a plumed, half-acre hat waving from a ship's railing, or of Caruso beaming on the boardwalks at Atlantic City, nattily sporting yellow gloves and green spats." Here Ashbrook reduces divismo (what I call divadom) simply to bad taste in dress, before conceding that the phenomenon "exists in other terms today," such as the Three Tenors concert in 1990, a "triumph of promotion" (Ashbrook, "Opera Singers," 287).
(36) As Ashbrook and others have acknowledged, "the social implications of being an 'opera' singer were once upon a time drastic" for women, whose public appearances on stage were equated with whoredom, lack of moral values, and loose behavior--all those pleasures that men enjoy in private and excoriate in public (Ashbrook, "Opera Singers," 287).
(37) One of countless colleagues to marvel at Callas's unremitting preoccupation with quality, the baritone George London called her "a trouper, a fanatic worker, a stickler for detail" (Lowe 199).
(38) Amazingly, Bing in his first volume of memoirs seems oblivious to his prejudices when he notes that Callas's loss of weight, which produced a "slender and graceful figure" that "moved with ... elegance," "now ... [made it] urgent for the Metropolitan to have her," and he offered her almost double the pay he had formerly proposed to the hefty Callas-when, in fact, her singing reportedly had been at its peak! (Bing 235)
(39) How anyone who worked with Callas could accuse her of sparing herself defies the imagination. On the contrary, her obsession with rehearsing at all costs so as to maintain creditable standards was a byword, even among colleagues who sometimes found her intolerable.
(40) For a keen analysis of the theatrical aspect of Tosca as woman and professional, see Brett and Potter.
(41) It is tempting to locate that voice in the "corridor" between Scylla and Charybdis, where myth places it, but Salecl resists that temptation, probably because she does not interpret the monsters as representing nature and culture.
(42) See, for instance, Konstantin Levin's reaction to Kitty in Anna Karenina.
(43) For a summary of hypotheses about the premium placed on the high voice, see Reynolds 136-37.
(44) Saint-Sans reportedly composed Samson et Dalila with Malibran's sister, the clever, influential Pauline Viardot-Garcia, in mind (he dedicated the score to her). Meyerbeer apparently imagined her as Fides in his Le Prophete, and Berlioz not only wrote the role of Didon in Les Troyens for her, but revised the music of Gluck's Orphee so that she could perform it (Ashbrook 26). Histories of music and other sources refer to Viardot-Garcia as both mezzo and contralto, probably as a consequence of the confusing fact that she called herself a contralto, yet also sang what is essentially a soprano's part in Gounod's Sappho. Marilyn Home, who saw herself as inheriting the nineteenth-century contralto mantle of Viardot and Marietta Alboni, understandably has expressed puzzlement at such a contradiction (Jacobson, "At the Zenith," 14).
(45) More than one critic has deemed Podles a throwback to the Golden Age of opera (Myers, So), or, more rhetorically, "a golden age singer stranded in an age of defensive mediocrity" (Anson).
(46) As Peter Burwasser observes, "The stars of the opera world are the showboat tenors and sopranos" (Burwasser).
(47) The best-known include Terry Castle's ground-breaking chapter on the mezzo Brigitte Fassbaender in The Apparitional Lesbian (1993), Wayne Koestenbaum's self-indulgent musings on divas in The Queer's Throat (1993), the essays by Margaret Reynolds and Patricia Juliana Smith in the volume titled En Travesti (1995), and the at times terminally self-preoccupied study by Susan Leonardi and Rebecca Pope titled The Diva's Mouth (1996). For a list of travesty operatic roles, see Reynolds 134.
(48) Brophy perceptively links both opera and feminism with the psychological emancipation ushered in by the Enlightenment and its receptivity to the female voice (Brophy 37).
(49) Castle then proceeds with the debatable Freudian assertion, "In particular, by evoking a sound-memory of one's mother having sex, the diva reawakens the infantile fantasy of having sex with the mother. For female fans, the implication is obvious: to enthuse over the voice is, if only subliminally, to fancy plumping down in bed with its owner" (Castle 201).
(50) One might note, though the point is moot, that owing to a dearth of adequate information, we can only speculate about what enactments of libidinal same-sex desire transpired on Lesbos.
(51) As Castle is quick to point out, Garden "cultivated an air of sexual ambiguity quite brazenly" by creating the lesbian role of Chrysis in Erlanger's Aphrodite in 1906 and singing the tenor part of the Jongleur in Jules Massenet's Le Jongleur de Notre-Dame in 1908. That ambiguity, no doubt, was reinforced by the suicide of a female fan upon being refused admittance to Garden's hotel room (Castle 210-11).
(52) On Willa Cather's near-obsession with Fremstad see Castle 212-13, and on her preoccupation with female singers, see Leonardi and Pope, passim.
(53) Is it really possible that any fan entertained erotic fantasies about the strapping, placid Aussie, who learned a great deal from Callas but seems of a diametrically contrasting disposition?
(54) The seductiveness of Fassbaender's voice, which initially captivated Castle, according to her testimony, surely prompted her to see whether vocal and physical endowments corresponded with and reinforced each other? Various comments by both singers and critics (especially about Callas, Corelli, Carreras) reveal the incalculable importance of appearance to the impact a singer exerts on the audience during a performance. Mention of Bergonzi's unappealing looks recurs repeatedly in reviews and articles praising his vocal talents.
(55) In contrast to Castle and other commentators, Locke maintains that opera audiences can identify with both genders enacted on stage when the roles feature universal emotions and experiences (74-75).
(56) On the evolution of the mezzo, see Price.
(57) Podles, generous to singers whom she respects, gives full credit to Home for "discover[ing] this music for the world" (Myers). Reviews of Home's Orfeo in Gluck's opera both in the 1972 Met production and the 1991 performance in Los Angeles were at best mixed. See Bashant 221.
(58) Originally titled Maometto II (1820), the opera was revised for Paris as Le Siege de Corinthe (1826). In general, the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries as common practice would write roles for specific singers, transpose keys for subsequent performers, and revise works according to the different demands of national traditions in theatrical performances (e.g., the mandatory interpolation of ballets on the French stage). See Rosenthal and Warrack 29.
(59) When the sizable Liza Pagliughi arrived to play Gilda at Covent Garden one season, Thomas Beecham, famous for his acerbic wit, reportedly told Walter Legge, "My dear boy, we can't let her be seen. She looks like a tea cosy!" (Mordden 28). Podles herself pays meticulous attention to appearance, but in the interests of creating a credible character on stage, as attested by her insistence on assembling her own costume for Ulrica in the Detroit Opera House production of Un Ballo in Maschera. For details, see Davis 10, 12.
(60) During the 1970s and early 1980s the attractive Troyanos was acclaimed as "the world's leading interpreter of trouser roles," while also making an indelible impression in the title role of Carmen. On her experience in the en travesti repertory, see Mayer.
(61) Needless to say, opinions differ, and many opera-goers may, indeed, be so transported by superb singing as to forget a singer's unprepossessing physical endowments.
(62) To my knowledge, she, unlike Callas, Bartoli, Montserrat, Teresa Stratas, and a host of divas, has never withdrawn from or cancelled a performance because of her own or colleagues' inadequate preparation or other circumstances that the singer explains as preservation of standards and the media present as an exhibition of diva temperament. A prime example of such conduct is Bartoli's withdrawal from a performance and recording of Ravel's L'Heure espagnol, about which see "Cecilia!" 14.
(63) According to Podles, her husband is the best authority (najwifkszym autorytetem) as regards her concert and chamber repertory (Deszko).
(64) With characteristic acuity and directness, she has baldly remarked, "I am not twenty years old.... People [usually] finish their career in this age" (Baker 10; italics in original). In 2005 Podleg turned fifty-two.
Anson, Philip. "Ewa Podles Triumphant Again." La Scena Musicale, January 31, 2001.
Ardoin, John. The Callas Legacy. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1977.
Ardoin, John, and Gerald Fitzgerald. Callas. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston,1974.
Ashbrook, William. "The Nineteenth Century: Italy." In Parker 114-37.
--. "Opera Singers." In Parker 286-303.
--. "Saint Sans et Dalila." Opera News, April 16, 1977, 26-27.
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Dept. of Slavic Languages and Literatures
1417 Cathedral of Learning
University of Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh, PA 15260 USA
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|Publication:||Indiana Slavic Studies|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2005|
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