The Cultural Phenom of the National “Diva”

Thanks (again) to Vinyl Divas, I discovered the singer “Gohar Gasparyan.” I youtubed her, simply because her name was so eccentric, and her mug not exactly the prettiest. I immediately smelled a camp classic discovery. Well, I was both wrong, and right. Turns out, she was very lovingly considered “The Armenian Nightingale.” It struck me that each country or culture seems to have their divathe one considered to be the greatest, and to inspire and somehow embody the spirit of the nation.

Here’s a look at some of the biggies. Some of these names immediately came to mind, but a few took a little more digging. Some are genuine classics, and a couple (ie: Gohar and Yma) have one foot firmly (if unintentionally) in camp. One of the qualifications of a true diva is a title, nickname, or single name (ala Cher), as most all of them prove. Pathos is a requirement, and often a tragic life and/or death the deal maker for that highest rung of fame in posterity. In some cases, an operatic diva reaches this highest level of mainstream public adoration, but only in those cases did I include them here. Of course, the diva phenom and the gay sensibility are inextricably linked, and although that is surely part of my own inspiration, it is not the focus here.


Gohar Gasparyan (’24 – ’07): “The Armenian Nightingale”

“In ’48, she migrated to Soviet Armenia, along with hundreds of thousands of other Armenians from the Middle East.” Upon her death, she was billed “The greatest master of the Armenian Opera Theater, the People’s Artist of the USSR, the hero of the Social Labor, the National Artist of Armenia, the Mesrop Mashtots order-bearer, and the professor of the Yerevan State Konservatory after Komitas.” In her prime, she displayed beautiful control and range:

This video ofO beau pays from Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots shows she had the chops, but no technical or interpretive greatness in western opera to qualify her as a true operatic legend outside of Armenian rep. She delivers priceless camp at 7:05, with a shameless peekaboo that will have you rolling! As with all true divas, she was still worshipped in her later years, when her voice and body were in decline, because her heart and expressivity were at their most potent (the accidental whistle on her “sh” consonants is precious).


This was perhaps the easiest one to derive. Both Nana and La Callas are among the most recognizable and familiar divas of all time.

Ioánna Mouskouri (b. ’34): “Nana”

Nana’s fame has always mystified me. No recording of her has ever drawn me in and made me have to listen. She has always seemed rather plain, and her voice rather small and limited in tonal palette. I do, however, love her quirky signature glasses! And, I am coming to understand her vulnerability and simplicity may just be her greatest charms. She has “sold over 300 million records worldwide in a career spanning over five decades…making her a candidate for the best-selling female recording artist of all time.” And, with Nana, the camp and delectable bad taste is not hard to find: America.”

Maria Callas (’23 – ’77): “La Divina”

What needs to be said? She is the very definition of diva. She may have not made my Diva Totem, but she is arguably the most influential diva of all time, perhaps even more so after her death. She was born in New York City and died in Paris, and although temperamentally Greek to the core, may be the truest Diva of the World. The current opera world is both inspired and haunted by the standard she set. Her mid-career weight-loss and physical transformation into a long-swan-necked, Audrey Hepburn-like visage furthered her diva status. Her tragic vocal decline, love-life, and death sealed the deal. This is my favorite recording.


Yma Sumac (’22 – ’08): “The Queen of Exotic”

She was born Zoila Augusta Emperatriz Chávarri del Castillo! I first heard her on the Disney “Stay Awake” album. A favorite local drag queen Ginger Snap has performed her songs to great effect. She has an otherwordly upper register that could compete with Caballé, Carey or Ripperton. “Stories published in the ’50s claimed that she was an Incan princess, directly descended from Atahualpa.” In ’71, she released a rock album called Miracles, which included the priceless track Remember“. But, this is the classic number she is best known for:


Marlene Dietrich (’01 – ’92)

This is the most controversial selection of this post, as many Germans would prefer not to tout one they would consider a wartime traitor. But, her heritage and early associations are strongly linked to her homeland Germany. Throughout its span, her career was based both in stage cabaret and Hollywood movies. “Dietrich, who was bisexual (and atheist), enjoyed the thriving gay scene of the time and drag balls of ’20s Berlin. (She was) a staunch anti-Nazi who despised antisemitism. (She) was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by the US in ’45, (which she) said…was her proudest accomplishment. She was also awarded the Legion d’Honneur by the French government as recognition for her wartime work.

(Her) return to Germany in ’60 for a concert tour elicited a mixed response. Many Germans felt she had betrayed her homeland by her actions during World War II. During her performances at Berlin’s Titania Palast theatre, protesters chanted, “Marlene Go Home!” On the other hand, Dietrich was warmly welcomed by other Germans, including Berlin Mayor Willy Brandt. In ’96, after some controversy, it was decided not to name a street after Dietrich in Berlin-Schöneberg, her birthplace. However, in ’97, the central Marlene-Dietrich-Platz was unveiled in Berlin to honor Dietrich. (She) was made an honorary citizen of Berlin in ’02. She spent the final 11 years of her life mostly bedridden.

(She) died in Paris. Her body, covered with an American flag, was then returned to Berlin…near her mother’s grave and not far away from the house where she was born.”


Perhaps not surprisingly, both French divas have all others beat (even Callas) for diva-scaled tragedy.

Édith Piaf (’15 – ’63): “The Sparrow”

Thankfully, the ’07 film La Vie en Rose, featuring the amazing Marion Cotillard introduced her life and art to a larger public. It chronicled her tragic tale: “Legend has it that she was born on the pavement of Rue de Belleville 72, but her birth certificate cites the Hôpital Tenon. (Supposedly), she recovered her sight after her grandmother’s prostitutes pooled money to send her on a pilgrimage honoring Sainte Thérèse de Lisieux, resulting in a miraculous healing. The love of Piaf’s life, the married boxer Marcel Cerdan, died in a plane crash in October ’49. In ’51, Piaf was seriously injured in a car crash along with Charles Aznavour, breaking her arm and two ribs, and thereafter had serious difficulties arising from morphine and alcohol addictions.”

Her quivery vibrato wasn’t at first appealing to my 20-something ears, but her utter commitment and singing from the gut ultimately won me over. Although “La Vie en Rose” is her signature song, this is my favorite of her big hits:

Yolanda Christina Gigliotti (’33 – ’87): “Dalida”

“(She) was an Italian Egyptian singer and actress, naturalised French. (She) was born and raised in Egypt, but lived most of her adult life in France. She received 55 gold records and was the first singer to receive a diamond disc. Worldwide sales of her music are estimated at over 130 million, establishing her as one of the most noteworthy multi-lingual recording artists of the twentieth century.

Her first husband, Lucien Morisse, committed suicide several years after her divorce. Two of her lovers, Luigi Tenco and Richard Chanfray also took their own lives…Dalida died as a result of an overdose of barbiturates, leaving a suicide note reading Life has become unbearable…Forgive me.

She has become a cult figure to a new generation of fans, (and has been revealed as one of the personalities) that had the greatest impact on French society.” She has a street corner in Paris named after her, and an accompanying statue.


Galina Vishnevskaya (b. ’26)

She was arguably the greatest russian soprano of the 20th century. (Admittedly, other than lesbian duo t.A.T.u.,” or Johnny Weir’s fav Dima Bilan, I’m not very knowledgable about non-operatic Russian “divas,” so I have to lean on what I know here!) She had a juicy lyric, edging towards a spinto soprano voice. Her recordings of Russian song are classics. Outside of this rep, I’ve always felt she was especially well suited to Liù, in Turandot. Her diction may not be perfectly idiomatic, but her Russian tonality adds an even greater uncultivated passion, ideal for this slave girl.

“Benjamin Britten wrote the soprano role in his War Requiem (completed ’62) specially for her. She was named a People’s Artist of the USSR in 1966. (She) was married to the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich from ’55 until his death in ’07. In ’74, the couple asked the Soviet government for an extended leave and left the Soviet Union. Eventually they settled in the United States and Paris.

Rostropovich fought for art without borders, freedom of speech, and democratic values, resulting in harassment from the Soviet regime. (He) was restricted from foreign touring, as was Galina, and he was sent on a recital tour of small towns in Siberia…His Soviet citizenship was revoked in 1978 because of his public opposition to the Soviet Union’s restriction of cultural freedom. He returned to Russia in 1990. In modern Russia, Rostropovich was welcomed by high officials.


Anna Maria Mazzini (b. ’40): “Mina,” “Queen of Screamers,”
“Tiger of Cremona”

I had never heard, let alone heard of Mina before writing this post, so I’m thankful for this discovery. In the era of the video below she sounds to my ears a bit like an Italian Judy Garland…pressing her tone and vocal limits to the edge to pour out her dramatic songs of love.

“Mina dominated the Italian charts for fifteen years and reached an unsurpassed level of popularity in Italy. She has scored 77 albums and 71 singles in Italian charts. (Her) pregnancy and relationship with a married actor caused her to be banned from the Italian TV and radio channels in ’63 as her lifestyle did not accord with the dominant Catholic and bourgeois morals. After the ban, the Italian broadcasting service RAI continued trying to prohibit her songs which were forthright in dealing with subjects such as religion, smoking, or sex. To her bad girl image, Mina added her sex appeal and her cool act featuring public smoking, dyed blond hair and shaved eyebrows.” She lost both her brother Alfredo Mazzini (in ’65) and her husband Virgilio Crocco (in ’73) to car accidents.

The music critic Gherardo Gentili noted on her interpretive skills: “By Mina, a word became the word, a note became the note.” In ’08 Liza (with a Z) praised her as “the greatest singer I have ever heard…I am her biggest fan. She is to singing what De Niro is to acting. There is only one.”

Renata Tebaldi (’22 – ’04): “Voce d’Angelo(Toscanini), “Miss Sold Out” (Met)

Tonally Tebaldi was THE quintessence of verismatic Italianatá: voluminous, potent, round-toned, (and in her prime capable of gossamer Verdian pianissimi). Here is a very fresh Un bel di, vedremo

“Stricken with polio at the age of three, Tebaldi was unable to take part in strenuous activities and instead became interested in music. Her voice was (notably) used for Sophia Loren’s singing in the film version of Aida (’53).”

She and Callas took part in a fabled rivalry, which was no doubt heightened by the press: “The culmination of this rivalry came in an article in Time magazine where Callas was quoted as saying that comparing herself to Tebaldi was like comparing champagne with Coca-Cola. Some also believe that the entire rivalry was instigated by their respective recording companies in order to boost sales, and that they were instructed to play along. In the end, however, there was a reconciliation. After Tebaldi had inaugurated the ’68 Met season with Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur, Callas, who by that time had given her last opera performance, went backstage to congratulate Tebaldi.”


This is the most difficult to pinpoint, as we have an unsurpassed breadth of musical genres here, proving our only real “national style” is eclecticism. Also, because it is my own culture, I’m much more aware of reigning divas of past and present here. We have Ella Fitzgerald (Queen of Jazz), Etta James (Queen of Blues), Tina Turner (Queen of Rock), Donna Summer (Queen of Disco), Loretta Lynn (Queen of Country), Madonna (Queen of Pop), Mahalia Jackson (Queen of Gospel), Judy Garland (The World’s Greatest Entertainer, and Gay Diva), Beverly Sills (America’s Opera Diva), and so on. So, I’m making my own executive decision here, and have given the crown to:

Aretha Franklin (b. ’42): “Queen of Soul”

“(She has) 18 Grammys to date…has scored a total of 20 No. 1 singles on the Billboard R&B Singles Chart…Since ’61, Franklin has scored a total of 45 “Top 40” hits on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.” Her Obama inauguration hat, complete with oversized, bedazzled bow alone entitles her to this title! One of my favorite albums of all time is her “Aretha Sings the Blues,” which includes some of her lesser known best tracks, and from which this track comes:

Endless More

There are SO many more divas to profile, but it’s impossible to cover them all in detail here. Perhaps I’ll follow up in a future post: Cubana Celia Cruz, “Queen of Salsa;” Spanish Montserrat Caballé, bel canto soprano; Brazilian Astrud Gilberto, samba and bossa nova singer; Argentinian Mercedes Sosa, “La Negra;” and so on. I notice too that in some instances the line begins to blur between a national style or musical genre (ie: Salsa), and a particular country’s musical tradition (ie: Cuba), since that genre is shared with many latin countries, AND Cruz (for example) is yet another diva who became an expatriate.

Any divas of the highest tier or regard from these or other countries or cultures that I have left out? Do share!

(All quotations were taken from Wikipedia.)

4 comments so far

  1. Ice Charades on

    I think you have to include Amalia Rodrigues, the Diva of Fado from Portugal. I went to Portugal for my honeymoon and went to a Fado club one night and it was wonderful. I think it’s a very beautiful style.

    and here’s a You Tube video …

    This is a computer-generated video instead of watching her live, but the quality of the audio is so good on this one. Enjoy.

    Have a great weekend – Jenny, a/k/a/ Ice Charades

    p.s. guess who I talked to today? Skating royalty … lives in Mexico … wrote the book (plus 9 more, he told me) you were reading … I’m going on a field trip soon to visit him … and I’m very nervous.

  2. jumping clapping man on

    OMG!!! TOLLER!!! enjoy! tell him a mutual reading/skating fan says hello. hehe. perhaps you can buy one of his paintings?

    thank you SO much for the amalia contribution. this is EXACTLY the sort of nudge i need to open up my horizons. i only have heard her name, but wouldn’t have known or thought to include her.

    enjoy your field trip. take your video camera…that’s great blog fodder, eh!?

  3. jumping clapping man on

    Here’s a beautiful vid of Amalia in action:

  4. Anonymous on

    mariah carey sis the best at all time!!!!!

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