Divas' dressing rooms

From June 5 till December 31, 2010

Although the Diva emerged in the early 19th century, and despite the fact that this term is nowadays readily attributed to any female celebrity with a potent personality, independently of her particular skill, the Diva remains an emblematic and elemental figure of today's performing arts. The Centre National du Costume de Scène is paying homage to those prime donne endowed with such a magnetic aura, via an exhibition entitled "Vestiaire de divas" (Divas' dressing rooms), during which over a hundred costumes, jewels and accessories will be displayed.

To be a Diva

For Romans, then for Italians, the "Diva" was originally a "goddess". At the dawn of the 19th century, she was immortalized in the form of an opera singer whose talent, virtuosity and personality combined to form a truly explosive blend, nurturing unparalleled success and popularity. Her audience stretched well beyond amateur circles, vowing to her its fervent worship. And it is not purely by chance that the "Diva ex machina" arrived on the lyrical scene simultaneously to the decline of her masculine counterpart, also referred to as "Divo", and hitherto revered by all European aristocratic courts. Driven by the intense fervor and the delirious devotion of their public, Divas made their ever-increasing impact. On stage, they imposed their artistic choices: roles, rhythm and tempo, partners, stagecraft and, of course, costumes. It was the period when Maria Malibran, Pauline Viardot, Giuditta Pasta, Hortense Schneider, Adelina Patti... reigned as 19th century queens and icons for many a composer. By the end of the century, the term Diva was gallicized and its use broadened to the theatre. Sarah Bernhardt was given the epithet "The Divine", in allusion to both her talent and her beauty. In the early 20th century, the Diva's popularity resided in the charisma, the brio and the spirited temperament of those female artists who, alone, successfully symbolised the identity of their homelands to perfection! Emma Calvé, Marthe Chenal, not forgetting Mistinguett, Cléo de Mérode... were all adulated by their audience, not only for their immense talent, but for their capacity to epitomise the French woman. After World War II, the development of cinema and the growing success of Hollywood stars was to cast a shadow over these great voices, until Maria Callas entered the scene, reviving the Diva's great aura. Her voice, her performance, her physical metamorphosis and her love life offered all of the necessary ingredients for a Diva Assoluta and the great passion she aroused. Today, the notion of a Diva remains, yet the majority of opera singers and actresses alike endeavour to protect themselves from the many risks of excessive popularity.

For one does not choose to be a Diva! It requires talent, hard work, will, generosity and that indefinable quality that magnifies an artist, allowing her to set the theatre ablaze and offering her audience a taste of paradise. Far from common clichés, one of the most remarkable characteristics of our modern Divas is often the great modesty with which they perfect their art and regard their collaborators: conductors, producers, costumiers, partners...

Diva, to be and to appear to be...

On stage, Divas are those emblematic figures that play heroines destined to a tragic fate and stirred by vivid and intense emotion. Their costumes are, without fail, the embodiment of their dramatic features. The costumes worn by Divas on stage were, for a long time, intended to enhance their appearance: sumptuous fabrics, rich embroideries, pearls and sequins, glistening jewels, fur, feathers and precious gems rivalled in the great race to sparkle. These costumes were both the jewel and the crown. They were an integral ingredient in the magical performance of these great ladies, and were among their most cherished belongings. Singers and actresses, just like their male partners, for a long time owned their costumes, the provision of which was part of their contract. Hence, their wardrobe was a major constituent of their personal heritage and a source of often extravagant expense. Their competitive spirit was high, each and every one of them looking to surpass their counterparts by means of their appearance. In the 20th century, modern scenography was to generate a change in such conventions. Costumiers, who worked in close collaboration with directors - in turn acting as "deus ex machina"-, literally dressed the entire work, with a keen eye on the necessary ingredients to preserve the production's aesthetic unity. The obligation was then handed over to the production team, which specifically created the costumes performers were to wear. Yet, not so long ago, certain prime donne continued to enter the stage donning their own costumes, whatever the style of those designed for their partners and choir, adamantly refusing to wear the costumes created for them. Similarly, today, it is not rare to see certain artists requesting that the theatre donate a costume they have worn for a particular opera, and of which they are intensely fond. Some go even as far as having costumes copied by their personal seamstress... The theatrical costumes worn by today's Divas, be they spectacular or of simple elegance, are not those of the "red carpet celebrities" that slowly walk their way up the grand staircase of whatever fine establishment scrutinised by a horde of photographers. No... they are "sacred objects", those that rhyme with magic and are endowed with that suggestive force that stirs the public so. So different, along with the recital dress that, free from any scenic context, so readily flaunts and emphasizes the magnificence of the artist it adorns. Perfectly aware of their great contribution, not only to image and seduction, but also to performance, artists are occasionally personally involved in the design of their costumes. For over and above any considerations on appearance, costume is also a precious tool, a second skin designed first and foremost to give free rein to the artist's talent.

The exhibition offers a journey through the sartorial world of Divas, opera singers, actresses, chorus girls, stars of French song... all of them reunited here, on the same stage, in truly extraordinary fashion. "An exceptional line-up," one could well say.

In alphabetical order:

  • Isabelle Adjani, an Ondine from a world beyond humans.
  • June Anderson, "leads the march" one could quite logically say for this "Daughter of the Regiment", and advances proudly as a fine bel canto Diva,
  • Marie Belle, a genuine giant,
  • Teresa Berganza, a superbly charming and gentle Diva, but also flamboyant as Carmen,
  • Sarah Bernhardt, immensely successful late 19th century tragedienne, genuine "giant" of the French theatrical scene,
  • Grace Bumbry, a great lady, who epitomizes both the Diva and dignity,
  • Emma Calvé, devoted to the role of Carmen in the early 20th century,
  • Maria Callas, "the" 20th century Diva, world famous and archetype in the genre, regularly at the top of the hit parade,
  • Régine Crespin, the French Diva whose clothes, jewellery and personal costumes are preserved by the CNCS,
  • Montserrat Caballé, kind hearted and with great technical prowess,
  • Natalie Dessay, Renée Fleming, Angela Gheorghiu,
  • Jessye Norman, great lyrical performers... whose appearances in today's theatres and concert halls arouse great enthusiasm,
  • Christa Ludwig, Diva and great lady, of whom each and every leader recital was also a demonstration of consummate artistry,
  • Adelina Patti, referred to as the "million dollar Diva",
  • Jane Rhodes, unforgettable as Carmen, with a black currant blossom between her lips,
  • Hortense Schneider, Offenbach's muse and performer, creator of the role of the "Grand Duchess of Gerolstein",
  • Cécile Sorel, and her famous phrase, "Did I do a good job descending that staircase?",
  • Kiri Te Kanawa, unforgettable as Elvire and many other proud heroines,
  • Shirley Verrett, a model for all Divas...

And of course:

  • Edwige Feuillère, empress of the dramatic scene,
  • Edith Piaf and Dalida, legendary Divas so cherished in the hearts of their fans and whose melodies have travelled the globe.
  • Zizi Jeanmaire, her interminable legs and, of course, her feather dress!
  • ... And many others who are sure to emerge from our deepest memories to take to the stage once more for the duration of this exhibition...

The exhibition will be presenting a selection of the finest designer creations for these modern Divas, including, among others, costumes created by Christian Lacroix for Renée Fleming at the Metropolitan Opera in New York; by Maurizio Galante, including those worn by June Anderson, for the designer's Haute Couture fashion show last January; or those created by Frank Sorbier for "La Traviata", in Henry-Jean Servat's production for "Opéras en plein air"... These Divas' dazzling legends will be portrayed throughout the exhibition via their accessories, jewels, headdresses, shoes, make-up and travel trunks (some of them specially created by the Vuitton company)... and many of the other personal effects and indispensible objects that went and continue to sustain their great aura.