A Valentine for You Sistas: From “Diva,” Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez, Aria from ‘La Wally,’ 1981
Well, here’s a sista who is really far up the food chain, way past a John Mayer, and someone who has a voice: the incomparable Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez singing in 1981’s Diva, directed by Jean-Jacques Beineix. When I saw it, I just thought that it was the grand coming out of beautiful black women who could be worshipped.
Diva was based on a novel by the Swiss author Daniel Odier, writing under the name of Delacorta. However, the story of Cynthia Hawkins, Fernandez’ character, and that of the mailman, Jules, is also said to be based on the story of a young French fan who adored and pursued the African American opera singer Jessye Norman. In real life, this shy young man only met Norman once or twice, according to an article I once read about the diva, possibly in Vanity Fair. He was so overwhelmed by the experience of meeting her at last that he could barely speak to her. And then, on a trip to Asia with friends, the young man caught some kind of tropical virus that he could not shake, and died. Sad, but true.
twenty thirty years, though, Diva has become a bit dated. For instance, the Paris of 1981 is still an analog world. A slower world. Satellite, cable television (and MTV) has barely begun in the States. There are no cell phones. There is no Internet. There are, however, answering machines, chic white 1939 Citröens (the favorite car of French gangsters and of the Surête), heavy car phones, Vietnamese hustlers named Alba, and audio cassettes that spit out either damning testimony from a prostitute or present an opera singer at the height of her powers.
This aria sung by Hawkins, from Alfredo Catalani’s famous La Wally, “Ebben ne andro lontano,” opens the film. La Wally is set in the Austrian Tyrol, and chronicles the ill-starred relationship between Wally Stromminger and Giuseppe Hagenbach. At the outset of the opera, both Wally and her lover are overcome by an avalanche, just as they are about announce their love to the world.
In the audience, Jules is doing what no person (or as it turns out, no music company) has ever done; that is, record a performance–live or in a studio–of Cynthia Hawkins on a cassette. Cynthia has resisted all calls to record; even her manager has gone along with her, though now he has doubts about putting up with her wishes. Every performance is special to her, but the older she becomes, it is more obvious that her powers are beginning to fail her. And she knows that she is a goddess crashing to earth. Jules, though, doesn’t know all this; Jules is bootlegging this performance for a single purpose: he wants to have that voice–and thus Cynthia Hawkins–all to himself. He’s not doing it for the money.
Unfortunately, right behind him, are two Taiwanese gangsters who know that Jules is making this recording, and who will make trouble throughout the film in order to force Hawkins to record for their company. They are doing it for the money. The aria is a meditation on traveling alone on a journey, far, far away from home; and for a while, for both Cynthia and for Jules, they won’t know if they’re home free.
Later in the film, though, there is a respite: the couple take an early morning stroll around Paris, she with her umbrella, and there are no words, just sharing the moment and each other. It’s not that Jules doesn’t have romantic or sexual feelings for Cynthia (and it turns out that he does), but the circumstances–and Cynthia–deflect him from immediately consummating what he feels for her. He is wooing her, nonetheless, in his own way, no matter what.
At times, it’s been hard to find copies of Diva. Occasionally, there are revivals of the film at repertory houses. A newly remastered DVD was released in 2008. Despite its age, it is a beautiful, gentle film, and while Wiggins Fernandez is not necessarily a great, undiscovered actress, she is indeed the queen of it all. Now in her early sixties, she has been married to singer Andrew Smith for several years, and I believe that she has one grown daughter. She has continued to work overseas and in the United States, and she always manages to visit her hometown, Philadelphia. Now as her voice has lost its youthful elasticity, she does mostly recitals rather than full length operas. Diva has since become a cult classic, but it is her lasting fame; Wiggins Fernandez will always be known as the diva of Beineix’ film.