Skip to main content
Open Access Publications from the University of California

UC Berkeley

UC Berkeley Electronic Theses and Dissertations bannerUC Berkeley

Passionate Failures: The Diva Onscreen


I place the origins of the diva in the 19th century artistic movement l’art pour l’art (“art for art’s sake”) in order to show that the diva was born of mechanization and the reaction against it. Therefore, to consider the diva “onscreen” is to acknowledge the very dialectic that birthed this paradoxical prima donna: uniqueness vs. reproduction, private vs. public, ritual vs. politics.

I understand the notion of the female voice as a way to anchor the meaning of “diva,” which has come to be used too promiscuously, sometimes denoting just about anyone whose manner of self-presentation puts them on some imagined scale between self-confidence and vanity. I do not aim to offer a strict definition of the term, but I do aim to draw from certain tropes of the presentation of the diva onscreen the contours of particular relations of desire that hem the specificity of what “diva” might mean. The common ancestor of the operatic prima donna, I argue, accounts for many other iterations of the diva type, which goes well beyond singers. The virtuosic female voice has historically been thought of as “expressing the inexpressible,” a melodramatic striving for an unattainable meaning that is also manifest in the grand theatrical postures of 19th century actors, in the violent and tortured D’Annunzian body language of the Italian silent film divas, as well as in the languid and swooning gestures of Hollywood silent film stars, and in popular American singers of the 20th century, such as Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, Liza Minnelli, and Whitney Houston.

In this dissertation, I define “diva” as a cultural type that has broadened beyond opera singers to include nearly any woman with a theatrical manner of self-presentation who is narrated as a “public success,” and a “private failure.” Still, I posit that it is crucial to understand the diva’s origins in discourse around female opera singers because the diva’s overdetermined relationship to the notion of presence is determined by a history of ideas regarding the female voice. I divide the dissertation into three tropes surrounding the diva: The Voice, The Narcissist, and The Comeback. Using studies in musicology, and citing a history of ideas about the female voice, including psychoanalytic notions and queer theory, I explain the importance of the fact that “diva” came into currency particularly in association with a series of two-soprano duets in the late 1820s. It is this redoubled and self-referential femininity, coupled with ideas of the female voice as “beyond language” which trouble standard regimes of representation, such as those codified by mainstream cinema. Finally, I use theories of melodrama and cinematic time to explain the meaning of “the comeback” and the diva’s relation to nostalgia and pathos.

Main Content
For improved accessibility of PDF content, download the file to your device.
Current View