Leontyne Price (Jack Mitchell Photo)
by LZ Granderson
(CNN) — In the third act of the opera “Aida,” there is an aria, “O Patria Mia,” that begins, “Oh, my country, I shall never see you again.”
On January 3, 1985, after Leontyne Price sang those words, the audience at the Metropolitan Opera House stopped her with a four-minute ovation. Price first performed at the Met 24 years earlier, and this night, this performance would be her last on an opera stage.
During the curtain call, she was showered with flowers and confetti as the audience applauded her performance, and career, for 25 minutes. She stood there, beautiful, gracious, mouthing the words “thank you” to admirers who clearly did not want to see her go.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is what a diva looks like.
I’m not sure when the meaning of the word went from someone with the talent and life journey of Price to the cast of “The Real Housewives of (insert city here),” but I know its erosion epitomizes all that is wrong with pop culture today: Oscar nominations surrendered to actors for carrying a tune, singing competitions judged by people who can’t really sing, celebrities who are famous for being famous.
Kanye West is “a creative genius,” but the fact that he repeatedly needs to tell people that makes him more of an anti-diva. True divas don’t need to self-promote. That’s what their loyal subjects are for.
Price didn’t request a 25-minute ovation. Her moment commanded one.
“I’m trying to exhibit good taste,” Price said of her goodbye. “I prefer to leave standing up, like a well-mannered guest at a party.”
I long for the day when phrases such as “good taste” or “well-mannered” are uttered, let alone displayed, by the people we refer to as divas today.
We’ve always had bubble gum and fluff and raunch, but we used to recognize those things for what they were. If being a talentless bad girl is what pays the bills, fine … but we never used to refer to these train wrecks as “divas.”
If it sounds as if I’m blowing things out of proportion, consider this: There is a reality TV show called “R&B Divas” with a cast filled with one-hit wonders. It’s as if eye-rolling has become the only qualification to be considered a precious gem.
The reality is, today’s “divas” are more likely to be pieces of charcoal: mass-produced, quick to flame out and apt to leave behind a filthy residue on everything they touch.
The reason why the notion of a “diva” was reserved for the main female singer in an opera company, like a Price or Jessye Norman — who sings in German, French and Italian and served as the inspiration for the 1982 film “Diva” — is because the level of talent these women possess was thought of as rare and thus made their demanding personalities tolerable. Their recordings, treasured; their presence, captivating; their performances, transcending all others.
Think Streisand, Houston, Streep.
Today, we use the word so frequently, hardly anyone knows what it means anymore.
For example, after this year’s Grammys, Buzzfeed listed its 16 greatest divas moments and included the pitch-challenged Taylor Swift — twice.
An ABCNews.com headline actually read: “Kim Kardashian’s Diva Delivery.”
Entertainment Weekly once named Rihanna “Diva of the Year.”
The very existence of such an honor should provoke nausea, because there are not enough true divas in the world to sustain such an annual award.
Bit by bit, we have replaced art that is meant to be slow-cooked art with that which is microwavable (and forgettable). Thus our movie theaters are dominated by remakes and sequels, best-selling authors plagiarize, belching is considered witty.
VH1 Divas is a fundraiser music showcase created to support the Save the Music Foundation. The nonprofit was designed to help restore instrumental music programs in public schools after so many were lost due to budget cuts. In the beginning, the “divas” who performed were along the lines of Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, Mariah Carey … voices that were iconic, even if you didn’t particularly care for their music.
In the latest installment of the series, Miley Cyrus was among the headliners.
Miley Cyrus. Diva.
No, I don’t think I’m overreacting.