I went to a small record shop in Highland Park with a substantial classical music section a few days ago. Most music stores only have a sliver of opera and symphonic recordings compared to the surplus of overlooked one-hit wonders of the ’70s and ’80s. I’ve scoured enough record shops to know that the good stuff is usually scooped up moments after it hits the shelves, but it’s different with classical music. Though it is disheartening that it’s not nearly as popular as other genres of music, it does mean that I get my pick of the litter of the best recordings. Among the treasures that I found was a slim vinyl containing highlights from Lucia di Lammermoor for only $4, featuring Maria Callas with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus. It was a tiny gem among morsels, though with my diminishing funds I figured it was better to keep it light.
There is a small list of things that I find more tantalizing than listening to stars of the early- and mid-20th century. Examples include Enrico Caruso, Jussi Björling, Victoria de los Ángeles and (obviously) Maria Callas, just to name a few. The sound quality of these live recordings are obviously not as clear as those created with today’s equipment, but I romanticize the static and imperfections of these antiquated systems. More than that, the reason I love this era of opera is because of how influential the art was in pop culture. Opera singers were true celebrities in those days. Performances with these stars were sold out on a regular basis. They appeared frequently on the radio and late-night talk shows. Decades later, their influence and mastery would be immortalized as the answer to a Jeopardy! question. But things are different now, and the biggest difference is that idea of the diva or divo no longer exists.
The idea of the diva seems to be an antiquated concept. Nowadays, many of the leading ladies of the opera stage present an image that differs from the haughty nature of the traditional prima donna from previous centuries.
On the same note, men in this profession aren’t expected to adhere to the Herculean stereotype of yesteryear. But when did the shift happen? Perhaps it was due to the growing intolerance of difficult behavior. No one wants to work with a grump. And with today’s forums and Reddit threads that leak information as it’s being unfolded, it’s become so easy to expose less-than-desirable behavior. But it’s become more complicated than that. It’s about branding now. I’ve written about this before, but I’ll write it again — in order to make opera more accessible, it needs to be marketable to today’s youth. Ingrain the interest in classical music in them now so they can carry it with them into adulthood. The best way to market is by frequenting the mediums millenials and Gen Z-ers use the most: social media.
When I say the divo or diva no longer exists, I mean it purely from a marketing standpoint. I’m sure many of these stars are real turds out of the rehearsal room. But that doesn’t seem to matter as long as they show up to their job with an agenda to work hard and collaborate cordially. The same goes for their public personas. The biggest difference between the early years of opera and now seems to be that there was no social media, so audiences took what they could get en masse. But now we can follow our favorite opera singers as they go about their daily lives, so we no longer want the big picture — we want the minute details. We want to see what they do on their days off. We want to see what kind of veggies they add to their weeknight stir-fry. We want to know what they’re watching on Netflix. And of course, we want their previews of the rehearsal room. Opera companies have always been smart, but there is a large difference between remaining what’s relevant and thinking ahead. That’s why Instagram and Twitter takeovers are so popular right now among these houses’ social media platforms.
How do we get the public to care about opera and its singers? Market it/them like celebrities or influencers.
It’s not in my nature to be overly optimistic, so I find it very sad that I’ve not only accepted this phenomenon but have also begun to endorse it. For so long I’ve attempted to maintain some semblance of the past, before social media dominated all aspects of our lives, when mystery was more prominent and preferred. But there isn’t any happenstance in the opera industry anymore. This could be true with just about any industry nowadays, but what criteria must the millennial diva follow today in order to be marketable? Every star has an angle. But agents and publicists aren’t necessarily looking for enhanced false personas anymore. They want stars to be “real,” or at least marketed as such.
Though the diva trope will never go away, you won’t see it a lot with today’s opera singers. We’ll have to refer back to de los Ángeles and Callas for a taste of what the industry used to be. That’s why I hold these recordings so close to my heart — they’re my only ticket to the golden age of opera.
Arya Roshanian is a graduate student studying library and information science. His column, “From The Top,” runs Tuesdays.