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From the diva’s mouth into our waiting ears pour seduction, ecstasy, and divinity. Anyone who has ever sat trembling in a darkened opera house, transported by the oversized passions of classical opera and thrilled by the indomitable figure and voice of the diva knows this to be true, and so do Susan J. Leonardi and Rebecca Pope, whose new study of divas and diva-worship, The Diva’s Mouth, finds much to celebrate in these divine women of song. In the bodies and voices of historical, fictional, and contemporary divas, Leonardi and Pope locate a formidable challenge to the strict binarisms of heterosexist codes: “the world of divas and diva worshipers,” they write, “is a world of change and unpredictability, a world of unstable gender relations and chaotic sexualities.” The authors clearly relish this world, and they write about it with joy and style, taking the reader on a chatty backstage tour of [End Page 1051] opera history, diva-lore, and an impressive range of fictions by and about divas.
The Diva’s Mouth is not a traditional history (one gets the sense that Leonardi and Pope find the diva too expansive for any narrative structure), although it does move more or less chronologically from the pre-diva castrati through nineteenth- and twentieth-century divas, to contemporary queens of pop culture. In this episodic and highly personal account of the diva’s power, the authors contest the “masculinist” tradition of representing the diva as either a manipulative, castrating femme fatale who must be punished or a passive, fragile femme whose role is equally, and predictably, fatal. A chapter entitled “Sirens Avenged” traces a different tradition, a feminist one in which divas are neither “man-destroying sirens” nor “devoiced and passive vessels for the voices of men,” but women who work, act, and think for themselves. As Leonardi and Pope have it, “Divas in women’s texts [. . .] tend to redress prima donna stereotypes and revise the representations of female singers we find in many texts by men, to recoup for women themselves the woman who has, in every sense of the word, a ‘voice.’” The pleasures and perils of female voice provide the focus for the chapters that follow, as the authors explore the ways in which real and fictional divas variously negotiate the poles that demarcate the boundaries of this text’s ideological universe: voice/silence, male/female, heterosexual/homosexual. Discussions of diva biography and autobiography, divas in detective fiction, and divas in film demonstrate how the female opera star brings controversies of gender and sexuality to center stage, there to enact some version, or some combination, of the masculinist and/or feminist scripts (“diva dentate” or “domesticated diva” versus “woman with a voice”). Given this emphasis on sex, gender, and controversy, it is perhaps inevitable that Madonna makes an appearance late in the book as the heir to the feminist diva tradition (Annie Lennox takes the role as masculinist, “backlash diva” or anti-Madonna). But the less predictable, and more interesting, chapter is the final one, which focuses on “pomo diva” Diamanda Galas, a performance artist whose work troubles concepts of body and voice in important ways.
Opera lovers and diva fanatics will appreciate the obvious pleasure that Leonardi and Pope take in their subject; it is this pleasure that animates the book’s lively readings and underscores the authors’ focus on the sheer fun of criticism. Some readers, however, will find the [End Page 1052] atmosphere of intellectual frivolity thin and unsatisfying. I am not suggesting that “serious” academic readers don’t know how to have fun, but that the very kind of critical and theoretical rigor that Leonardi and Pope find something of a killjoy is what makes for an exciting, satisfying (and, yes, fun) read. It is hard to say who the ideal reader of The Diva’s Mouth would be: the book is aimed at both the scholarly and the popular markets, but it may be too academic for the casual reader and yet too casual...