Musician Biographies » Aretha Franklin » New Directions - Trying Something New, Moving On, Financial Woes, Who's Zoomin' Who?, Recognition And Grief

New Directions - What Is A Diva?

aretha opera prima aria

In the world of opera, a prima donna (Italian for “first lady”) is the most important female performer. Prima donnas are often seen as grand, dramatic women, and are sometimes accused of having enormous egos and demanding personalities. When the singing of the prima donna excites opera fans, they will applaud loudly at the end of her song (an aria) and shout “Diva!” “Diva” is the Latin word for goddess.

Over the years the word “diva” has been used to praise talented women, but it has also taken on some of the negative associations of prima donna behavior. Depending on the situation, calling a performer a diva may be a compliment of her talent and beauty. But it might also be an insult, suggesting that she is vain, self-centered, or too demanding.

As an incredibly talented singer and a powerful, self-confident African American woman, Aretha has been called a diva in both senses of the word. More often than not, Aretha is referred to as a diva because she generously shares her talent with others and reaches the highest levels of professionalism. At the 1998 Grammy Awards, Aretha got to translate her diva status, literally, into operatic terms!

Aretha was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award that evening, and she sang “Respect” for the adoring audience. Opera star Luciano Pavarotti had been scheduled to sing later in the evening, performing his famous rendition of “Nessun Dorma,” an aria from the opera Turandot. While Aretha was backstage, a producer announced that Pavarotti was not feeling well enough to perform. The producer asked Aretha if she could quickly fill in for Pavarotti by singing the aria.

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