Commentary Magazine

Diva & Anti-Diva

Despite men's best efforts, the crowning glory of opera and song remains a woman's voice, and classical singing at its highest is preeminently a female preserve. The very best of the best who practice this art are already half on the way to being known as divas—from the Italian, literally meaning goddesses. But it takes more than artistic greatness to make a diva. Accomplishment, self-regard, and provocative display—all in roughly equal proportions, and manifested as exorbitantly off the stage as on it—go into constituting these fabulous creatures.

They are a dying breed. The swooning departures for the land of tabloid romance and the scorching exits from the love nests of shipping magnates are relics of a bygone order. Among serious singers, the very term diva has fallen into disfavor, having caught on instead among rock-‘n’-rollers and certain male opera singers who have started to call themselves divos. That Opera News, the glossy monthly published by the Metropolitan Opera Guild, now runs a “Diva Issue” each year in hopes of reviving past extravagance does not change the fact that, these days, the show stops when the singer leaves the stage. Operatic goddesses now tend to be played by mere women who are content to be mere women.

This past summer, two of the greatest female singers of the past half-century died. One was unmistakably a diva; the other, anything but. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, the German soprano renowned especially for her renditions of German art songs, and of operatic roles by Mozart and Richard Strauss, died in her sleep at the age of ninety. Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, the American mezzo-soprano known particularly for her work in Baroque and contemporary music, died of breast cancer at fifty-two. The way each of these singers approached her art and career was so distinct as to define not only two antithetical temperaments but also contrasting conceptions of the performing artist.


Elisabeth Schwarzkopf was born in 1915 into a Prussian family living in the disputed German-Polish borderlands. Her father taught Latin and Greek at the local school; it was mainly her mother who drove their only child to excel. Elisabeth learned to play piano, organ, guitar, and viola. From her early teens, it was clear she had a voice. At the Berlin Hochschule für Musik, a respected teacher mistakenly identified her as a contralto, the deepest female instrument going. To get Elisabeth a new teacher who could hear she was a born soprano required extensive stage-motherly conniptions.

At the time, though, academic politics already counted less than real politics. As one learns from Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, a 1995 biography by Alan Jefferson, Elisabeth joined the students' association of the Nazi party in 1935, at the age of twenty. Her enthusiasm and intense ambition soon elevated her to the rank of Führerin, an office combining the duties of social director and class snitch.

The new German regime took a keen if twisted interest in the arts, and Schwarzkopf had what it took to thrive under party discipline. Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister, was a big fan of the young singer, who appeared in several films under his imprint. In 1938, she was offered a role by Berlin's Deutsche Opera as one of the flower maidens in Wagner's Parsifal. Bigger things followed in short order.

Inevitably, Schwarzkopf's stunning beauty and irresistible rise provoked rumors that a well-placed Nazi “protector” paid for her favors with favors of his own. For his part, Jefferson writes that Schwarzkopf had a career to make and that nothing was going to stand in her way. Certainly she was consumed by work, learning dozens of roles small and large. But by 1940 she had become a full-fledged Nazi. There is no record of outspoken anti-Semitism on her part, or any other particular love for Hitlerite dogma. She appears instead to have been complicit with evil for the most mercenary and self-serving of motives.

By the end of the war, with the Allies occupying the former territories of the Reich, accounts had to be settled. It took a while to get to the truth, but when it came out, Schwarzkopf was officially unwelcome in Vienna, where she had by then taken up residence. But thanks to the English record producer Walter Legge, she was given a second chance and made into a star.

Legge, who had broken into the music industry as a factotum to the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, spoke fluent German and had an insinuating charm. As the presiding genius of Columbia Records and EMI, he was able, on a postwar recruiting swing, to acquire such eminences as Herbert von Karajan, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Otto Klemperer, Pablo Casals, Artur Schnabel, and Walter Gieseking. When he first contacted Schwarzkopf in 1946, she insisted on a proper audition. It lasted for hours, as Legge forced her to repeat phrase after phrase until she had everything just the way he liked it.

Both singer and producer emerged triumphant. Schwarzkopf had earned Legge's respect, and she in turn respectfully placed her career in his hands. He would mold it with confidence and aplomb, steering her away from the airhead coloratura turns in which she had first made her mark—for instance, playing the lionhearted bubblehead Blondchen in Mozart's The Abduction from the Seraglio and the effervescent slut Zerbinetta in Richard Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos—and toward the substantial lyric roles that would make her world-famous. In 1953 Schwarzkopf married Legge; she would speak of him as her Svengali, but perhaps it is more accurate to say that the marriage served the deepest ambitions of both parties.

What is undeniable is that success built on success, both in the opera house and in recordings. By 1948, she was a fixture at Covent Garden as well as at the Theater an der Wien, and had begun to sing Lieder recitals. The frontal assault on greatness dates to 1951 and 1952, when she sang Eva in Wagner's Die Meistersinger and gave a recital at the first postwar Bayreuth Festival; premiered the role of Anne Trulove in Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress; sang the role of the Marschallin in Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier under Karajan at La Scala; and appeared as the Countess d'Almaviva in Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro at the Salzburg Festival.

Although Schwarzkopf would say, “I am not really an opera singer, I am a Lieder singer,” she was very much both. It is true that, in later years, Lieder absorbed an ever larger portion of her performing life; she would give over 400 song recitals in her career. But by then she had become the gold standard for Mozart heroines, including not only the Countess d'Almaviva but Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni and Fiordiligi in Così fan tutte, as well as for the great Strauss roles of the Marschallin, Ariadne, and the Countess Madeleine in Capriccio. To this day, she owns these parts.


For Schwarzkopf, ambition encompassed the desire both to be a great artist and to enjoy every histrionic perquisite of distinction. This was as true in the early stages of her career as at the end. In 1941, she was actually charged with sabotage by the Nazi authorities when, on “an important state occasion,” she got angry at being demoted from a choice role and kicked off a shoe that went flying through the elaborate and costly backdrop. After her retirement from performing, the master classes she conducted were notoriously harsh and humiliating, as Renée Fleming and others have attested. Schwarzkopf was known for walking out of performances that did not meet her standard, and for savoring the scandal she caused. In the annals of divadom, ceremonious frost and spectacular tantrums go hand in hand, and Schwarzkopf had the emotional as well as the vocal wherewithal for the job.

Onstage, however, what she had above all was a flair for rendering nobility. Until the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when moral squalor became an operatic staple (as in Carmen, Cavalleria rusticana, and I Pagliacci), opera was unabashedly the noblest of the arts. Indeed, the meaning of nobility for democratic times—what it is to be noble by nature rather than by convention—was the theme of the supreme operatic composers: Mozart, Beethoven, Verdi, Wagner. The same is true for Richard Strauss, who filtered his Mozart through a very knowing 20th-century sensibility.

Schwarzkopf, a daughter of the earnest and ambitious middle class, did nobility as though to the manner born, adeptly catching its finely shaded contrasts. Her Countess Madeleine (in Capriccio) is a languorous 18th-century French charmer who seems only momentarily elevated by seriousness; her Donna Elvira (in Don Giovanni) embodies seriousness both in broken love and in the compensatory passion of religious fervor; her Countess d'Almaviva (in The Marriage of Figaro) undergoes a transformation from fearful doormat to pillar of strength, furious both at her husband's roving eye and at her own bleating weakness before him
1; and her Marschallin (in Der Rosenkavalier), another 18th-century noblewoman, this one married straight out of the convent, beginning to lose her beauty at thirty-two, and disciplining herself to relinquish the eighteen-year-old nobleman with whom she has been having an affair, brings home with incomparably haunting sadness the confrontation with the inevitable fading of beauty and the fact of one's own living decay.

And yet her very skill as a singing actress likely abetted her onstage excesses as an overacting singer. Nobility Schwarzkopf handles deftly; it is when she is beset with the difficulties of representing ordinary persons' ordinary feelings that she turns cute beyond all stomaching. Even at her best, moreover, one is always aware of an actress acting, using her voice and her person in accordance with technical prescription.

This may be why the roles at which she most excelled were the ones that demanded a striking degree of stylization, of necessary artificiality. Still, despite her shortcomings, Schwarzkopf was a great artist, and she did the appellation diva proud.


Then there is the anti-diva. As one learns from a 2004 New Yorker profile by Charles Michener, and from assorted memorial tributes, Lorraine Hunt, daughter of California music teachers, was drilled to a high standard on the piano, violin, and viola (much like Elisabeth Schwarzkopf), but she also grew up bopping to Harry Belafonte records. In high school she sang solos in Mozart's Cminor Mass and in Fiddler on the Roof. At San José State University, she was too busy earning tuition money as a freelance violist to continue her vocal studies, but after college she took up singing again as one-half of a lounge act with her jazz-guitarist boyfriend.

Eventually, Hunt left the boyfriend and started to make an outstanding musician of herself, rehearsing with a chamber-music ensemble at seven in the morning and rising to principal violist with the Berkeley Free Symphony. The first serious singing she did in several years was as Hansel in a performance of Engelbert Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel for inmates at San Quentin state prison. (Afterward, she heard a prisoner exclaiming in surprise, “I thought that was a dude with a big ass.”) In 1980, when her new boyfriend took a job with the Boston Symphony, she enrolled in the opera program at the Boston Conservatory as a lyric soprano.

In 1985 Hunt met Peter Sellars, a directorial wonder-boy who was casting a new production of Handel's Julius Caesar, with the action set in the Cairo Hilton. Sellars needed a young soprano to play a fourteen-year-old boy armed to the teeth and burning with blood lust; after an audition that he would later liken to “a raging forest fire,” Hunt had her first big break in hand. By the end of the run, at the Pepsico Summerfare in Purchase, New York—not exactly Salzburg—everyone wanted her.

Over the next several years, she made recordings of the title roles in Handel operas and oratorios. Repeated successful collaborations with Sellars—whose callow politicized stagings nevertheless remain among the most potent to be seen on an operatic stage—highlighted her prowess as an actress as well as a singer. Especially notable are her Donna Elvira in a late 1980's production of Don Giovanni, a role she played as a feral party child struggling with strong impulses toward decency; her 1996 contralto turn as Irene in Handel's Theodora (outshining her earlier recorded performances in the soprano title role); and, in 2001, her portrayal of a terminally ill patient clad in a hospital gown in, of all things, the Bach cantata Ich habe genug.

Of this last performance, Sellars said that it was all about learning to die well. His singer was becoming well versed in the matter, having lost her younger sister to breast cancer less than a year before, and having undergone a double lumpectomy herself only two months before the concert. But in the meantime she had also learned to live well. In 1995, at the age of forty-three, singing in the world premiere of Ashoka's Dream in Santa Fe, she had met and fallen in love with the opera's composer, Peter Lieberson. They were married two years later, embarking on a partnership she would describe as having less to do with music then with romantic giggling but that succeeded in creating a fruitful artistic collaboration as well.


Even as her career discreetly boomed, Hunt Lieberson remained selective about what she would sing and with whom. She steered clear of the big houses, never singing at the Lyric Opera of Chicago or La Scala or Covent Garden or the Vienna Staatsoper, and appearing only twice at the Met (in a lesser role in the 1999 world premiere of John Harbison's The Great Gatsby, and in 2003 to huge acclaim as Didon in Berlioz's Les Troyens). She also stayed away from the roles that opera stars sing to win and then to confirm their stardom. Her only performance as Carmen, the black pearl of the mezzo repertoire, was at the Boston Lyric Opera; those who saw and heard her were reportedly wonder-struck, but they were decidedly few.

Rather than chase the approbation of the multitude, she worked with conductors and directors who shared her vision of opera as a unified field, integrating music, drama, movement. She never had a press agent or an exclusive recording contract, and never became a household name, or for most people even a dimly recognizable one. It was in honor of this intransigence that an enamored blogger titled her the anti-diva. But she lit up the operatic stage like no one else in her time, and it became common even for some of the most stringent and influential critics to declare her the greatest living opera singer.


What, aside from an amazing voice, did it take to have that effect? In the most artificial of the performing arts, the appearance of naturalness is today perhaps the most winning trait of all. By comparison not only with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf but with just about anyone else, Hunt Lieberson's singing sounds as easy and unforced as speaking. Although, like Schwarzkopf, she spent much of her career in the 18th century or earlier, her singing never has Schwarzkopf's factitious quality.

Smoothness of vocal production is the result of a perfected technique, which is based on the natural voice but can hardly be said to come naturally. In Hunt Lieberson, the technique is so secure that she can dare almost any expressive maneuver. She is often likened to Maria Callas, but Callas put her voice on the line every time she bared her soul, and prematurely lost that voice to an undertaking for which she lacked the technical command. In Hunt Lieberson's case, the soul may be stretched to the breaking point, but the voice remains intact.

Besides possessing a transcendently beautiful vocal instrument, Hunt Lieberson was graced with an incandescent stage presence that had nothing stagey about it but appeared to be life itself, only intensified. In looks she was not in Schwarzkopf's league, but her features bespoke a strength of demeanor that did full justice to her talent. Hunt Lieberson lived onstage, without ever becoming the sort of creature of her roles that Schwarzkopf was.

In the 1989 Peter Sellars production of Don Giovanni, the only occasion on which I heard her onstage, Hunt Lieberson carried off the role of Elvira with every bit of Schwarzkopf's address, but the artistic magic was greater, as with tormented voice and precise yet hectic movements she created an Elvira bedeviled by her own supercharged sexuality and her craving for experience. Earlier this year, an Opera News interviewer described this Sellars Don Giovanni (in which the Don is envisioned as a black drug dealer) to Schwarzkopf. She fulminated, “Totally idiotic—not only idiotic but a crime, a crime against Mozart.” One wonders whether, if she had seen it, she might nevertheless have recognized in Lorraine Hunt Lieberson a singer and actress superior to herself.



1 In the celebrated 1959 recording conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini, Schwarzkopf does not merely steal the show from a cast of some of the finest singers ever but creates a character of Shakespearean amplitude and fullness.

2 Lieberson wrote five Rilke Songs for her; they appeared on disk this past summer. Another disk, Neruda Songs, is scheduled for release soon.


About the Author

Algis Valiunas writes on culture and politics for COMMENTARY and other magazines. His "Goethe’s Magnificent Self" appeared in January.

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