26 Epic Lives Amazing Tidbits from DIVA Museum

26 Singers Who Surmounted All Barriers

Their Genius Made Them Immortal

I glory in tales of women who, through beauty or talent, jump lower-class origins and burst as queens upon the glamorous grand world. No historical company of women did so more powerfully than the great opera divas of the past.

Their rich visual and print legacy inspired my collage-based artworks and led me to tell their stories.

DIVA Museum presents twenty-six opera stars through whose voices two centuries of colorful cultural history unfold.

DIVA Museum celebrates their images and brings their life stories into wider circulation. Twenty-six sirens of song summon us across two centuries; join me in experiencing their beguiling magic.

Amazing Tidbits from Epic Lives

La Maupin

By day a contralto in Paris Opèra; by night a sword-wielding bisexual lover and protector of women

Cuzzoni: Handel threatened to throw her out window when she balked at singing an aria written for another. Bordoni: Legendary fistfight onstage with “Rival Queen” Cuzzoni, with two women pulling each others’ “coiffs” and screaming Italian insults.

Sophie Arnould

Paris Opèra star whose intelligence and charm captured foremost Enlightenment minds Rousseau, Beaumarchais, Franklin.


Serf soprano marries master; their love story inspires Russian serf Emancipation.

Elizabeth Billington

Painted by Reynolds and Romney as St. Cecilia, patron saint of music.

Angelica Catalani

Superhuman crescendo across three octaves from mighty blast to just-audible whisper made her international idol.

Isabella Colbran

Created ten Rossini dramatic soprano roles and then married him.

Giuditta Pasta

Flexible voice sang both male and female roles; opera’s first dramatic actress.

Maria Malibran

First American diva; back in Europe, her youth, beauty and desperate intensity drove tens of thousands of fans wild.

Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient

Inserting dramatically powerful spoken words into vocal line made her “Queen of Tears” and Wagner’s muse.

Henriette Sontag

Sang “Queen of the Night” aria on tabletops at 8; later toast of German opera world and ambassador’s wife.

Giulia Grisi

First modern use of word “diva” as hyberbolic superlative applied to her Norma in 1830.

Jenny Lind

Queen Victoria’s friend; 30,000 New Yorkers met “Barnum’s Bird” when her ship arrived; 5,000 attended her first concert.

Pauline Garcia Viardot

Artist of high-minded purpose immortalized as Romantic heroine in George Sand and George Eliot novels.

Elizabeth Greenfield

First African-American concert celebrity in US and abroad; command performance for Queen Victoria.

Adelina Patti

Supported her family from 7 to 15 touring America singing arias from "La Somnambula," "Norma," and "Il Barbiere;" wore special bodice of 3,700 diamonds in "La Traviata" ballroom scenes.

Lilli Lehmann

In first Bayreuth Ring 1876, under Wagner’s direction, played Rhinemaiden Woglinde, Forest Bird, and Valkyrie Helmwige; matchless range and repertoire: 170 roles in 119 different operas.

Marie Selika

First African-American to sing at White House; successful European concert career.

Lillian Nordica

Daughter of Maine farmers is first American to master, under Cosima Wagner, all Wagner’s heroic soprano roles.

Emma Calvé

Sang 4,000 Carmens, including for Sultan of Constantinople and his seraglio; learned secrets of breath control from Hindu monk Swami Vivi Kananda.

Nellie Melba

Crystalline voice enchanted Covent Garden for 40 years; Melba Toast and Peach Melba created for her.

Sissieretta Jones

Most famous African-American woman of 1900 for leading Black Patti Troubadours in “Operatic Kaleidescope."

Olive Fremstad

Minnesota pioneer woman conquers Europe; rehearsed for Met "Salome" with a real 12-pound severed head and JP Morgan banned show after one shocking performance.

Lina Cavalieri

Risqué café singer turned opera star and “Most Beautiful Woman in the World” collected diamonds, Russian princes, and 840 marriage proposals.

Geraldine Farrar

Sang alongside Caruso; adored by young female “Gerryflappers"; her 1908 dress account at Bendel’s reportedly ran to $80,000 per year.

Text and collage images published by DIVA Museum in 2014 in A Diva Story-Book: 26 Singers Who Surmounted All Barriers; Their Genius Made The Immortal. All content republished digitally here in 2018. ©Author and artist Kathleen McDermott, DIVA Museum. Please credit.

About DIVA Museum

Video: My artistic process and how I got started with the Divas.

Video: How Divas Changed the Cultural Dialogue About Women


Original art and text Kathleen McDermott

Report Abuse

If you feel that this video content violates the Adobe Terms of Use, you may report this content by filling out this quick form.

To report a Copyright Violation, please follow Section 17 in the Terms of Use.