Divas, famous for their arias, tempers and fluffy knitwear, are an endangered species, says a leading opera producer. Elijah Moshinsky urges opera houses to show them a little tenderness

THE COVER of the latest Opera Now magazine features a photograph of a bejewelled young woman in a black dress. She looks pleasant and friendly - but it is the jewellery that takes the eye. Around her neck is a pearl choker with a golden butterfly, from which dangles a baroque pearl. Each wrist is decorated - the left with pearl-strapped watch, the right with a grape-and-vine affair .Who is this woman? And is the magazine selling jewellery?

It turns out that she is the graceful and talented Russian soprano Galina Gortchakova and I think the magazine is selling jewellery. For the first question that springs to mind is not "Is she a good singer?", but "Are those pearls real?" The photograph is a perfect demonstration of the characteristics of a Diva.

Divas are the stars of opera and the stuff of legend. They are separated from ordinary mortals by a whole tradition of extravagant and often jealous behaviour. They may not be team players and they can be obsessed about their careers. There is the famous story of Maria Callas at La Scala which sums up Divadom perfectly. Callas was in the audience for a performance of Tosca sung by her arch rival Renata Tebaldi. As Tebaldi came on stage and began to sing, Callas appeared to drop her gloves. She called over the theatre ushers and made them get down on their hands and knees to search for them. No one watched Tebaldi - the commotion in the stalls was too great.

But the traditional Diva is fast disappearing from the stages of the world's opera houses. A combination of tough managements determined to put the Diva in her place and the modern trend for "Director's opera" seem to be making the Diva an endangered species. Opera houses now want more compliant singers rather than larger-than-life characters who may be difficult and have too many ideas of their own.

A DIVA is a transformed soprano: a singer who has a goddess-like effect and has somehow transcended mere mortality. Divas also seem to have a miraculous healing quality. Who can forget the scene in Philadelphia when Tom Hanks, dying of Aids , finds a moment of relief from his terrible illness by listening to a Maria Callas aria? It is a moving scene, depicting not only the power of music but also the power of Callas's voice to take the suffering of the world into its colour. It was also the scene criticised for betraying Hanks as an inauthentic performer: because a truly gay Callas fan would have lip-synched to the music.

It was probably Callas who created the modern myth of the Diva, and in whose shadow most post-war sopranos have struggled to create their own myths. At first enormously fat, she lost an incredible amount of weight and transformed herself into a glamorous, coutured figure. The act of transformation seems to be very important. Divas are not ordinary sopranos nor even very good sopranos. They are ladies who assume a priest-like separation from life. They often combine a touch of both Mother Teresa and the Princess of Wales.

Obvious jewellery and extraordinary larger-than-life clothes are part of it. I remember working on a production of Il Trovatore for the Australian Opera when I had to submit the costume designs to Joan Sutherland for her approval. The costume designer, Lucianna Arrighi, and I had to present ourselves to the Great Diva at her Kensington apartment. Lucianna draped the living room with large Indian shawls, and carefully laid out the Risorgimento- inspired designs. At first the meeting did not go well. Explanations about the period of the production and references to the inflammatory nationalism of the opera did not really persuade the great lady.

Then we talked colours. The first act was to be green. "Well, that obviously means emeralds!" Joan cried. Quick as a flash she disappeared into another room and came back with a tissue-paper package. "Will these do?" And she unwrapped an incredible pair of emerald Empire earrings and an astonishing emerald necklace. Act two was to be blue - of course, sapphires! Another hurried trip produced a bundle containing the most amazing necklace and earrings. I may be wrong, but I think it was mentioned that some of this jewellery came from Princess Eugenie's collection. We worked through the entire opera, ending up at the famous tower scene with her wearing an ivory crucifix that had been worn by - Patti? Melba? I can't remember. By the end those costume designs had been Diva-fied.

The final effect on stage was stunning. The Great Lady had become bigger than the opera itself and her singing was truly magnificent.

BUT WHAT does a Diva wear to rehearsal? Here the rules get more complex. In the era before casual dressing Divas didn't really rehearse. There is a story of Melba sending her maid in her place to a rehearsal at Covent Garden. The maid appeared on stage bearing in front of her the dress that the singer would wear for the performance - so that everyone could get an impression of what was going to happen.

Photographs suggest that in the Fifties Callas wore Piaf-like dresses to rehearsal. But my own experience is that there is a fashion item which I suppose we could call Diva knitwear. This is fabulous, over-the-top, highly patterned, often fluffy stuff, often with padded shoulders.

It is not unlike the knitwear in Married to the Mob. Perhaps there is a similarity between being a Mafia moll and being an opera singer. Was it in Some Like It Hot that the mob disguised its activities by being fans of Italian opera and didn't the chief hit-man say for his alibi: "I was with you, Boss, at Rigoletto's"?

You can't buy Diva knitwear in Marks & Spencer. You have to sing in Italy to get it. I once produced an opera with an Italian Diva who rang the changes with a different, multi-coloured, strangely fluffy jumper every day for a four-week rehearsal period. My first experience of the "Willow Song" in Otello was with Katia Ricciarelli, who wore an eye-catching pullover which had a colombine's face emerging from a cloud. All eyes were glued to this. When Otello demanded the handkerchief from her, I thought he should be quizzing her about her pullover.

And no Diva is really complete without a fur coat. Because Divas sing in very cold climates they seem to bypass the political correctness which prevents women in this country wearing fur. But fur is the quintessential Diva material. It is the ultimate draught excluder for protecting vocal chords - I rehearsed a Diva once in a dyed sable coat worn on top of a Renaissance costume. As Peter and Sandy on the stage door at Covent Garden testify, the winter months are marked by a passage of bear-like shapes passing through the stage-door.

When the young American soprano Andrea Gruber sang the role of Leonora in Glasgow a few years ago, she astonished the Glaswegians by being the only person on the mean streets promenading in a full-length black mink coat. She was only in her twenties and the coat was a gift when she sang the Third Norn at the Met. None the less it was there to signal that a serious Diva was on her way.

MANY SINGERS who aspire to become Divas don't make it. The careers of these great ladies can be enormously self-destructive. What makes them different from film stars and other celebrities is the fact that their divinity is based on the voice. Every Diva will tell you that the voice is an incredibly delicate instrument, responsive to the slightest alteration in weather, humidity or emotional strain. That is why Divas spend their lives creating a system of self- protection. They are often distanced from life by protective husbands, managers and teachers. In the end, of course, the career becomes the Life. Happiness, children, husbands and a normal social life are usually sacrificed. Loneliness through travel and the protective custody of managers often makes them aloof characters - sometimes out of touch with the outside world.

Recently there was a furore in Sydney when Dame Joan Sutherland remarked at a public lunch how awkward it was to get an Australian passport renewed because these days you were likely to be questioned by a Chinese or Indian official. Ethnic groups were outraged by her gaffe and the Prime Minister of Australia was forced to make a public statement to defuse the row. It probably wasn't an intentionally racist remark - it perhaps just showed how out of touch with modern life the great Australian Diva, the most down to earth of all singers, had become. A long career and work in the most sophisticated culture capitals of the world has not really touched her understanding or awareness - she still is a nave child of an old colonialism.

Managements of great opera houses don't like Divas. The issue is very simple - it is about power. In the Fifties, there were great quarrels between Rudolf Bing, in charge of the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, and Maria Callas. She constantly complained that she was not offered roles that suited her. Bing believed that what she was really complaining about was that the roles did not always put her centre stage. In the end, he said that the issue was simply about who ran the Met. He wasn't going to have her throw her weight around and he had to assert his power.

Managements don't like to give the singers any sense of power. At a time when the main heads of our opera houses in Britain seem to come from television or accountancy, it is clear that they are not really admirers of the singers. When Lord Harewood was running the London Coliseum he created real stars out of his singers: Rita Hunter, Josephine Barstow and Valerie Masterson. But I suspect that he was the last of the managers to be a true fan of singing.

The opera-house seasons are now no longer about the appearance of great Divas. This is not because they are a dying breed, it is because our managers don't want to encourage singers to have ideas above their station. But this is a mistake. Opera needs the communicative singing and acting skills of these extraordinary, sometimes difficult women. It is only through them that many of the great operas can be performed and experienced to their full potential. An opera can somehow lay dormant until the proper interpreter comes along to breath fresh life into it. The modern singing actor is fine, but we need someone really extraordinary as an interpreter to experience Norma, Tristan or indeed The Ring.

The development of the modern production - with its strong director or designer-led concepts and strange dislike of singing - is nowadays cited as the artistic ``idea". It is said to have supplanted the role of Diva as interpreter. But ironically Callas fought with Rudolf Bing over the issue of production. She said she did not want to appear in routine productions and endless revivals, because they would mean the death of opera. It was her Diva choice which brought Visconti to La Scala and it was she who gave Franco Zeffirelli his first break. It was largely her work which showed that grand Italian opera could be produced in an intelligent way. This was something quite new. The Diva, once thought of as just a dumb singer, was in the centre of the modern co-ordinated production and not, as it exists now, outside it.

When we think of a Diva now we tend to think of a singer who will resist modern production-led ideas and have old-fashioned ideas of her own designed to make her the centre of the show, thereby promoting herself. But without this larger than life woman who has sacrificed her life for this strange and exacting art, opera can remain an obscure and emotionally unfulfilling form.

! Elijah Moshinsky's Omnibus programme, `Divas', is at 10.30pm, 25 April, BBC1.


MONTSERRAT CABALLE. Catalan soprano, born 1937. Also known as `Monsterfat', unkindly but for obvious reasons. Famous for seamless vocal lines, immaculate technique and playful personality, as seen in Covent Garden's Il Viaggio Reims when she swapped jokes with the conductor and read an uncomprehending audience a letter from the management asking her not to swap jokes with the conductor. Also famous for being a lirico- spinto-coloratura (technical term) which means she can sing virtually anything. Including Freddie Mercury (remember Barcelona?).

GRACE BUMBRY. American mezzo, born 1937, who 'went up': ie. she started singing soprano roles and became a celebrated Tosca. Career began 1960 in Paris where they make a fetish of black singers and would later book her to open the Bastille Opera. Achieved international cult status when she became the first black singer at Bayreuth, cast as an uncommonly voluptuous Venus in Wagner's Tannhuser. Famous for dark, smoky vocal timbre and for living out her diva status to the nth degree: fast cars, furs, diamonds, and a house on Lake Lugano.

JOAN SUTHERLAND. Aus-tralian soprano, born 1926, also known as `La Stupenda' and the subject of a legendary biography by Mrs Norma Major which no one has ever seen. Left the Sydney suburbs in the early 1950s to come to London where her big, bottom-heavy voice predisposed her toward big, heavy Wagner roles until persuaded by conductor (later husband) Richard Bonynge to aim higher and specialise in Italian bel canto. Thereafter famed for brilliantly athletic coloratura. The most down-to-earth of divas, she always knitted backstage until retirement beckoned, with full honours, in 1990.

KIRI TE KANAWA. New Zealand soprano, born 1944, and still the most sheerly beautiful of divas despite a dubious taste in frocks (as evidenced at her 50th-birthday concert last year). A pure lyric voice, rarely tested by more challenging dramatic roles, she came to attention in the early 1970s singing Mozart's Countess at Covent Garden, and hit the headlines at Prince Charles's wedding which earned her an early (critics would say premature) Damehood. Noted for its freshness and warmth, the voice can be perfection though it's not often accompanied by vivid acting or intelligence.

KATHLEEN BATTLE. Am-erican soprano, born 1948 and less obviously a great singer than a great temperament. Career began mid-1970s as a protg of James Levine at the New York Met. A high, sweet voice, it's best heard in the lighter lyric Mozart roles. Backstage she doesn't win so many friends. Her grandeur has become a standard source of stories at the artists' bar. Most recent revelation: she doesn't speak to chauffeurs. Sitting in the back of a limo with the privacy shutter closed she reportedly rang her agent to ring the driver (separate phone) and ask him to turn down the air-conditioning.

JESSYE NORMAN. Ameri-can soprano, born 1945 and possibly the grandest living grande dame of them all. Enormous presence/personality/ego riding on a voice of stunning strength and opulence. Famed for the stipulations in her contracts which, for example, require the Barbican to curtain off her entry to the platform (she doesn't like to be seen walking up steps) and close the backstage caf lest the chink of cups worry her at rest. In other words, a true artiste. But not without humour. In response to the suggestion that she might negotiate a small door sideways she replied: `Honey, with me there ain't no sideways.'

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