Death and the Diva: Gothic Prima Donnas

Posted by Dorota Babilas on November 27, 2011 in Dr Dorota Babilas, Guest Blog tagged with , ,

Christine Nilsson

The figure of a diva has such wonderfully Gothic potential. They are unpredictable, larger than life creatures, at the same time alluring and threatening, sometimes grotesque, and occasionally aspiring to immortality. In Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera there are two of these weird and wonderful characters: the overpowering, capricious Carlotta and the hopeful fledgling Christine. In the novel and its many adaptations they have represented the dichotomy of true art versus mere craft, rigid conventionality versus ‘natural music’, greed for fame versus artistic inspiration. To some extent, the clash of the divas recalls also the professional rivalry of two of the greatest sopranos of the 19th century – Adelina Patti (1843-1919) and Christine Nilsson (1843-1921). The biographical details included by Leroux in The Phantom seem to confirm the author’s thorough knowledge of the  world of opera and prove his admiration for Nilsson in making her the model for his Christine Daaé.

We will probably never know whether the ladies in question  were even aware of their (somewhat unconventional and not quite flattering) literary portrayals. Still, some prima donnas used the associations with the macabre to their advantage. Nilsson and Patti’s contemporary, the theatrical superstar Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) shocked (and titillated) the audience by sleeping in a coffin (much like Leroux’s Erik); photographs of her posing as a beautiful corpse circulated in countless copies.

Sarah Bernhardt

There are some operas which use the figure of a prima donna as their central image. The most obvious one is Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca (1900) which tells a dramatic story of a celebrated soprano blackmailed into sexual submission by a lecherous aristocrat. Floria Tosca, who ‘lives by art and love’ alone, is lured to the Palazzo Farnese by the chief of the Roman police, baron Scarpia, who had ordered the arrest and torture of her lover, the republican painter Mario Cavaradossi. In an act of desperate rage, the diva murders her would-be rapist, but Scarpia has his revenge from beyond the grave as Cavaradossi is executed, causing Tosca to leap to her death from the roof of Castel Sant’ Angelo. In a way, Leroux’s novel seems to use a similar melodramatic triangle, with a frantic soprano forced to chose between an aristocrat and an artist, yet in the case of The Phantom the roles of the villain and victim are reversed – the mad genius Erik threatening to murder the meek Vicomte de Chagny. Puccini’s exuberant style including his use of leitmotifs (borrowed from the operas of Richard Wagner) was also one of the main inspirations for Andrew Lloyd Webber in writing his own musical version of The Phantom of the Opera.

Madness and superhuman greatness are never far from the prima donna. The hysterical outbursts of Mozart’s leading ladies, the terrifyingly spectacular scenes of insanity (usually caused by spurned love) of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor or Bellini’s Elvira of I puritani have been used repeatedly by culture in its all forms, from Joseph Losey’s Don Giovanni (1979) to Luc Besson’s Fifth Element (1997). However, the most divine (or mad) of them all – and, incidentally, also the one most related to Leroux’s Christine – is Senta from Richard Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer (1843).

Kiri Te Kanawa in Don Giovanni

Maiwenn Le Besco in The Fifth Element

Senta is a daughter of a sea-captain, trapped in an unhappy and lonely life in a small Scandinavian town. She detaches herself from the mundane occupations of local girls and dreams of a legendary un-dead anti-hero, cursed to sail the high seas forever in search of a woman capable of reciprocating his awe-inspiring passion. Senta feels herself to be able to break the Dutchman’s curse with her constant and undying love. The very thought of him seems to transform her into a prophetess, a mystic, an ultimate prima donna capable of mesmerizing the other girls with the power of her song. When Senta’s father returns from the voyage, he brings home with him a mysterious stranger who turns out to be the Dutchman himself. With typically Wagnerian abandon, the two immediately proclaim eternal mutual love. However, a rival appears in the person of Erik, a local huntsman who had courted Senta before and whom she had forsaken to dedicate herself to the Dutchman. The ghost sailor accuses the girl of infidelity and prepares to return to sea. Distraught, she flings herself from a cliff and dies, only to be reunited with her un-dead beloved in the afterlife.

There has been much debate whether the cursed Captain had some real presence in the world of the opera, or he was only a creature of Senta’s own frenzied imagination (this seems to be the underlying assumption of Harry Kupfer’s famous staging of Der fliegende Holländer in Bayreuth in 1978). The connection with The Phantom is again in the dramatic choice a woman must make between the divine/demonic fulfilment offered by the (nameless) Dutchman, and the stable, ordinary life promised by Erik (it seems plausible that Leroux borrowed the name from Wagner’s opera, but, with a measure of his characteristic irony, used it for the anti-hero). Slavoy Žižek calls the Dutchman ‘literally “a phantom in the opera”, a phantom-like apparition on the stage,’ who ‘prevent[s] the “normal” sexual relationship between Senta and Erik’ (61) with his temptations of otherworldly, excessive ecstasy. In the 2003 Vienna staging by Christine Mielitz the right-hand side of the Dutchman’s face is scarred as if by fire, in a way reminiscent of Lloyd Webber’s (also nameless) Phantom. Unlike Leroux’s Christine, however, Senta never chooses (or allows herself to be forced to chose) timid domestic stability over the flights of passion; faced with a prospect of returning to the small-town life and her down-to-earth Erik, she prefers death – this time by fire, not by water.

Falk Struckmann in the title role in Der fliegender Hollander (2003)

Susan J. Leonardi and Rebecca A. Pope in their book The Diva’s Mouth compare the prima donna’s  vocal mastery to her assumed power of inspiring madness in the listeners, the same lunacy that she allegedly carries within herself (48-72). Yet, if divas are to be understood as femmes fatales, their voices prove most fatal for themselves. The divine fire in their throats burns them out, fed by the ‘unsexing’ Luciferian pride which makes them transcend the socially proscribed female roles and speak out in the Temple of Art. Indeed, this seems to be the destiny of many divas, like the triple (or even quadruple) heroine of Jacques Offenbach’s markedly Gothic Les Contes d’Hoffmann (1881). The disturbing (if innocent) automaton Olympia, the soul-stealing femme fatale Giulietta, and the moribund yet brilliant Antonia embody the dangers posed to the title hero by various aspects of femininity. The one that comes closest to the concepts used by Leroux in The Phantom (the events of which take place around 1881) is Antonia – Hoffmann’s virginal fiancée who becomes possessed with an insatiable artistic ambition and eventually dies in effect of exhausting her weak health with excessive singing. She is inspired by the memory of her dead mother, a reigning diva herself, whose ghost is raised on stage by the Mephistophelian Doctor Miracle to persuade Antonia to relinquish her conformist future of quiet domesticity. A similar fate – death by over-vocalising and separation with her demon/angel/teacher Svengali – befalls the heroine of George Du Maurier’s Trilby (1894), a humble painters’ model turned prima donna. The novel’s bourgeois hero Billee has to watch helplessly as his long-lost love expires muttering the rival’s name with her last breath.

Christine Daaé chooses – or, considering the way in which she was asked the question, is forced to choose – Raoul de Chagny, silence and oblivion. The question whether this concession to social expectations brought her happiness remains open, but Leroux seems to hint that the fallen diva’s transformation into an artistic nonentity was a sad one, with only the fiords of ‘silent Scandinavia’ echoing  the mournful songs of the one who used to be inspired by the Angel of Music. Some adaptations/sequels, especially the literary ones – like Susan Kay’s Phantom (1990), Frederick Forsyth’s Phantom of Manhattan (1999), and countless works of fan-fiction – have her regret her choice and long for the chance of greatness she allowed to slip away.


There seems to be a strange, and disquieting, coda to the connection between The Phantom of the Opera and the figure of the prima donna. The new addition to the heavily advertised Mattel fashion dolls series ‘Monster High’, featuring what is presented as teenage offspring of famous Gothic monsters, is called Operetta, a 16-year-old un-dead daughter of The Phantom of the Opera (and, by the looks of her, Elvis Presley). She is described as ‘a bit of a diva and a perfectionist,’ complete with a hypnotizing singing voice, a pet spider, and a heart-shaped glittering mask worn as a fashion accessory.  She is not the first attempt of pop culture to furnish the Phantom with a baby – the most notorious one appearing  perhaps in Lloyd Webber’s musical Love Never Dies (2010) – however her presence validates not only the apparent paternity (and thus sexuality) of the Phantom, but also confirms his ‘really’ un-dead status, as Operetta is a ghost with supernatural powers, on friendly terms with, among others, Count Dracula’s alleged brat called ‘Draculaura’, Frankenstein’s rotting-yet-coquettish daughter ‘Frankie’, and a couple of mummy sisters. This new take on the Phantom fits into the broader problem of recent infantilisation of classic Gothic stories and the attempts of imposing onto them conservative social values of child-centred family life, respectable work, and state-controlled education. We can only hope that the subversive potential of the Gothic will find the strength to resurface once more and continue providing a much-needed outlet for the liberating creativity and diversity of ‘otherness’.

PS. Once again, many thanks to Dale Townshend for inviting me to write for the Gothic Imagination blog. It was a great honour and pleasure to appear beside so many eminent and talented scholars.


Leonardi, Susan J., Rebecca A. Pope, The Diva’s Mouth: Body, Voice, Prima Donna Politics. New Brunswick, N. J.: Rutgers University Press, 1996.

Žižek, Slavoy, ‘Grimaces of the Real, or When the Phallus Appears’ in: October, Vol. 58, Rendering the Real (Autumn 1991), pp. 44-68. (Available on JSTOR).

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