Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez, the diva of 'Diva,' dies at 75

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Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez, the diva of 'Diva,' dies at 75
A soprano who rose from South Philadelphia to the opera houses of Europe, she was memorably seen and heard in a 1981 film considered a paragon of cinematic style.

by Alex Williams

NEW YORK, NY.- Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez, a South Philadelphia-bred soprano who sang in the opera houses of Europe and gained even more fame for playing the title role in the style-soaked 1981 French thriller “Diva,” died Feb. 2 at her home in Lexington, Kentucky. She was 75.

Her daughter and only immediate survivor, Sheena M. Fernandez, said the cause was cancer.

Trained at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia and later at the Juilliard School in New York City, Wilhelmenia Fernandez made her mark in the 1970s as Bess in the Houston Grand Opera’s international traveling production of George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess.” The tour took her to Europe, where she caught the eye of Rolf Liebermann, the impresario known for reviving the Paris Opera. He offered her a two-year contract.

It was in a 1980 performance as Musetta in “La Bohème” alongside Plácido Domingo and Kiri Te Kanawa that she caught the attention of French director Jean-Jacques Beineix, who was looking for a figure radiant enough to serve as the diva at the heart of his forthcoming film.

“Diva” was considered a high-water mark in the movement known as the cinéma du look, a high-sheen school of French film often centered on stylish, disaffected youth in the France of the 1980s and ’90s. A film with all the saturated color and gloss of a 1980s music video, it was an art-house hit that became a cult favorite for the initiated.

The story revolves around a young opera fan named Jules (played by Frédéric Andréi) who grows so infatuated with an American opera star named Cynthia Hawkins that he surreptitiously tapes one of her performances — despite her well-known decree that none of her work be recorded, since it would capture only a part of the power and immediacy of her grandeur.

That grandeur is on full display in Fernandez’s opening scene, as she takes the stage in a hauntingly weathered old theater wearing a shimmering white gown and metallic eye shadow. She proceeds to mesmerize the house — and Jules — with a soaring rendition of the aria “Ebben? Ne andrò lontana” (“Well, then? I’ll go far away”) from Alfredo Catalani’s opera “La Wally.”

Jules’ tape of the performance becomes a device that leads him into a swirl of underworld hit men, Taiwanese music pirates and whirring engines in a moped-focused chase scene that reaches into the Paris Metro.

Not all the critics were charmed. Vincent Canby of The New York Times called the film “an anthology of affectations.” But Pauline Kael of The New Yorker praised it as a “glittering toy of a movie” that “dashes along with pell-mell gracefulness.” While extolling Fernandez as “awesomely beautiful,” Kael even made the allowance that her “American-accented French and her amateurishness as an actress are ingratiating.”

“Diva,” in fact, would be Fernandez’s only film role. In interviews, she said that she never had any desire to be an actress, believing that the static environment of a film set was no substitute for the electricity of the stage.

Still, in a 1987 interview with radio host Bruce Duffie, she expressed satisfaction that her role had brought exposure to opera “to a completely different audience who are probably not accustomed to going to the opera or hearing classical music.”

“More and more, I find in doing recitals and concerts that the audience is younger and younger, and it’s because they have seen the film,” she added. “Not only are they coming to see me, but they say they’re going to see some other people, and that’s great.”

Wilhelmenia Wiggins was born Jan. 5, 1949, in Philadelphia, the elder of two children of Ernest and Vinelee (Clayton) Wiggins.

Her vocal talents were on display as early as age 5, when she sang with the choir of her family’s Baptist church. By her teens, her celestial soprano was taking flight in the choir at the William Penn High School for Girls. She honed her voice with formal training under soprano Tillie Barmach at the Settlement Music School in Philadelphia.

After graduating from the Academy of Vocal Arts, also in Philadelphia, in 1969, she earned a scholarship to Juilliard in New York. She married Ormond Fernandez, a mail carrier, in 1971 and ultimately left Juilliard in 1973 without a degree to raise her infant daughter.

Wilhelmenia Fernandez later recalled the challenges she faced as a Black performer trying to carve out a career in the Eurocentric world of opera.

“For a long time I was afraid I couldn’t sing because I was worried how color was affecting my chances,” The Washington Post quoted her as saying in a 1982 profile. “I wished I could sing behind a screen and just be judged on my voice.”

In auditions, she said, she often noticed “the little falling of the face” when she arrived, which she interpreted to mean “We would like you to do the role, but you’re Black.” Then, she added, “they’d talk amongst themselves while you sang.”

While “Diva” was Fernandez’s last appearance on celluloid, it was merely a prelude to a long career that included her New York City Opera debut in 1982, once again as Musetta in “La Bohème,” as well as performances throughout Europe.

In addition to making Musetta her own, she also made the title role in Giuseppe Verdi’s “Aida,” an Ethiopian princess held captive in ancient Egypt, a signature. At one point she even performed the role amid the temples of Luxor in Egypt itself.

In 1992, Fernandez won a Laurence Olivier Award, the British equivalent of a Tony, for best actress in a musical for her rendition of Carmen in “Carmen Jones.”

She married Andrew W. Smith, a baritone with the Metropolitan Opera in New York, in 2001 and moved to Lexington, where he was directing the voice program at Kentucky State University. He died in 2018. Her first marriage ended in divorce in the early 1980s.

Motivated to complete her education, Fernandez earned a bachelor’s degree in voice from the University of Kentucky in 2007 and later a master’s degree in education from Georgetown College in Georgetown, Kentucky. The master’s program prepared her for her eventual work as a special-education teacher in a Lexington elementary school.

Although she carved out a lasting place in cinema lore with her role as a big-screen diva, Fernandez never tried to inhabit such a persona away from the stage, even when her movie fame was fresh.

She told The Washington Post in 1982 that the film “Diva” “opened up a different kind of world for me.”

“I’m being recognized on the street,” she said, “and I just finished a recording session. It seems I’m getting a little more attention.”

Even so, on that hot summer day when she was being interviewed in her South Philadelphia home, with children outside splashing in water gushing from open fire hydrants, she said: “This is my identity. I don’t want to pretend to be what I’m not.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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