"Diva" is one of those words that's had a vogue recently. Any tantrum-throwing American Idol reject gets called a diva. Office workers who try to mask their boredom and emptiness with grand-standing or gossip get called divas. (I once had to explain to someone at some job that unless you have a huge amount of talent, being difficult doesn't make you a diva, it makes you a jerk, which seemed to be a revelation.) The common thread is a sense of entitlement to bad behavior, a sense that, as the center of the universe, one is allowed just about anything. But this sort of thing is to real divas as most American Idol rejects are to Maria Callas. The thing about real divas is that their major quality is not arrogance, but humility, and the famous diva antics are done in the service of art and the diva's beloved audience.
Look at the big diva encore arias: I am the humble handmaiden of art. I have lived for art and love. And when the diva announces her encores, it's in a soft voice, so that the pathetically eager audience has to lean forward to catch every word: "Well, since you all have been so very kind, I will trouble you perhaps with one more aria. . . ." I only realized the soft speaking voice was a diva trait when I went to hear Itzhak Perlman and I leaned forward to hear what he was announcing as the encore, only to be greeted by a booming voice that easily filled Symphony Hall in Boston. When she steps out on stage, the diva, who knows perfectly well she can fill any concert hall in the world and that her appearance has been anticipated eagerly for months and months, is always so very pleased and touched at the tumultuous cheers that come before she's even opened her mouth.
The first time I heard Leontyne Price in recital, she walked out on stage and I have rarely seen anyone with so much electricity emanating all around her. I really wanted to see her in opera, in an ensemble, but I never had the chance since she retired from opera around the time I started attending it. She came to Boston just about every other year when I was there to do a recital and then I heard her once in San Francisco shortly after I moved back. Each recital was a special occasion for the whole audience, and I treasured them because her rich warm voice had drawn me into the world of opera. I remember hesitantly buying a cassette tape of highlights from her Madama Butterfly -- that was a long time ago, and one thing led to another, and here I am.
About ten years ago RCA released an 11-disc retrospective and a "live at Carnegie" album. I happened to walk by Borders near Union Square and saw a sign in the window saying that Miss Price would be signing CDs later that week. I will walk out of restaurants if there are three people ahead of me, but I stood in line with everyone else on that rainy night, and when it was my turn I had the chance to say, "Miss Price, you changed my life -- it was your voice that made me love opera." And this distinguished artist, who had risen from a life under American apartheid and surmounted so many social obstacles and artistic challenges so many decades ago to become one of the great singers of a great generation, reacted to my nervous little speech as if I had given her the greatest possible gift, one that humbled and gratified her. She gave, just for me, the greatest diva performance I have ever seen -- so moved, so touched, her hands moving to her heart as if she were unutterably grateful, with a grand gesture that was however perfectly scaled for its audience of one. She graciously signed both her picture on the CD cover and at my request the lyrics inside to one of my favorite arias, Pace Pace Mio Dio. I walked away wishing I were more worthy of her art. And that's a diva.
And a very happy 80th birthday to Leontyne Price, American diva.