26 Singers Who Surmounted All Barriers
Their Genius Made Them Immortal
La Maupin: By day a contralto in Paris Opèra; by night a sword-wielding bisexual lover and protector of women.
Francesca Cuzzoni: Handel threatened to throw her out the window when she balked at singing an aria written for another. Faustina 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.
Zhemchugova: Serf soprano married master; their love story inspired 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 from England; 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. Madame Selika: First African-American to sing at White House; successful European concert tour.
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.
Lillian Nordica: Daughter of Maine farmers is first American to master, under Cosima Wagner, all Wagner’s heroic soprano roles; ardent suffragist.
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.
Sissieretta Jones: Most famous African-American woman of 1900 for leading Black Patti Troubadours in “Operatic Kaleidescope."
Nellie Melba: Crystalline voice enchanted Covent Garden for 40 years; Melba Toast and Peach Melba created for her.
Olive Fremstad: Minnesota pioneer woman; rehearsed for Met "Salome" with a real 12-pound severed head and JP Morgan banned Met 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;” 1908 dress account at Bendel’s reportedly ran to $2 million (in today's dollars).
Text and collage images originally published in 2012 and 2013 by DIVA Museum in carte de visite or 19th-century celebrity postcard format in two 13-diva sets called A Diva's Dozen and A Dazzle of Divas. Republished in 2014 with all 26 divas as A Diva Story-Book. 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