Zinka Milanov, true diva
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Zinka Milanov sings Tosca (vaimusic.com)

Patricia Racette and Craig Terry

I haven’t taken umbrage with anything in a while. What good is a column without some umbrage? Today’s umbrage is brought to you by the term diva.

Nowadays, we have three-year-olds wearing "diva in training" shirts, but that wasn’t always the case.

Diva means goddess — kind of. Its origins are in the Roman practice of apotheosis, the process of posthumous deification. The process didn’t start with Julius Caesar but it became conventional after his death and continued throughout the imperial era. Men who were deified were called divus and women were diva.

Divine is probably a better way to define the term instead of goddess. A good example of a diva is Diva Faustina. She was a Roman empress remembered for her charity and supporting education for the poor, particularly girls.

The cult of Diva Faustina became widespread after her death. There was a coin struck with her image and a temple built in her honor. Newlyweds were encouraged to pray at the altar in her temple as she and her husband, Emperor Antonius, were considered to have had an ideal marriage.

In the 19th century the term diva started being applied to opera singers, mainly sopranos. In the 20th century, several sopranos, most famously Maria Callas, were referred to as diva.

The mid-20th century was the era which I most associate with the opera diva. Yet not all great sopranos are divas in my mind.

Birgit Nilsson and Kirsten Flagstad were two of the greatest singers of all time but I don’t associate the term diva with them because they were best known for their Wagner. For some reason, diva and Wagner don't mix.

The divas were Renata Tebaldi, Maria Callas, Zinka Milanov, Renata Scotto, and Leontyne Price. Mirella Freni is probably a diva but she seems too sweet. None of these were known for their Wagner. These are the great sopranos of the Italian repertoire — divas.

The term then became associated with the leading soprano role. One might go to the opera and hear the question, “So who is the diva?”

An opera aficionado would probably start holding forth about Zinka Milanov versus Renata Tebaldi. The dilettante asking the question would be confused and might say something such as, “I meant who is the diva tonight.”

Now San Diego Opera is presenting a concert entitled Diva on Detour . The concert is soprano Patricia Racette singing standards by Cole Porter, Stephen Sondheim, and others. Annie Lennox started the trend in pop culture by naming her solo album Diva.

This deteriorated into the three-year-old being called a diva. However, a quick Google search also yields the Beyonce-inspired meme, "Diva is a female version of a hustla."

That’s a far cry from a Roman empress deified for educating Roman girls and helping the poor. I take umbrage.

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