Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez, soprano who starred in ‘Diva,’ dies at 75

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Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez, an American soprano who had recently established herself as an opera singer in real life when she was cast by a French director to play one on-screen in the 1981 movie “Diva,” a cult film that lodged her in the memory of generations of art house audiences, died Feb. 2 at her home in Lexington, Ky. She was 75.

The cause was cancer, said her daughter, Sheena Fernandez.

Ms. Fernandez made her vocal debut at age 7 when, by her account, her grandmother brought her before the congregation of their Baptist church in Philadelphia and told her to “sing for the people.” She went on to study at the Juilliard School in New York before entering the professional opera world in the late 1970s as one of its relatively few Black singers.

African American stars such as Leontyne Price, Shirley Verrett and Grace Bumbry had achieved major international careers before Ms. Fernandez embarked on hers. But obstacles and indignities remained.

When she presented herself for auditions, Ms. Fernandez once told The Washington Post, she detected what she described as “the little falling of the face,” which to her signaled that “we would like you to do the role, but you’re Black.”

“I wished I could sing behind a screen and just be judged on my voice,” Ms. Fernandez said.

She was singing in churches in Philadelphia in the late 1970s when a friend encouraged her to try out for a Houston Grand Opera touring production of “Porgy and Bess,” the Gershwin opera set in the fictional Black community of Catfish Row in Charleston, S.C. Hired to sing in the chorus, she quickly was promoted to play Bess.

While touring with the production in Europe, she won a contract with the Paris Opera, where she attracted the notice of film director Jean-Jacques Beineix. Beineix was at work on his debut feature, a thriller whose plot centered on an American opera star. He decided that Ms. Fernandez was the person to play her.

At first Ms. Fernandez was unsure. “I don’t quite believe in filmed performance; it seems to me it should be real flesh and blood,” she later told the Miami Herald.

But she ultimately agreed, and her initial reluctance perhaps contributed to the verisimilitude of her performance as Cynthia Hawkins, the fictional title character of “Diva,” who bedazzles Paris and bewitches a young French postal messenger named Jules (Frederic Andrei).

Cynthia’s defining trait is that she refuses to consent to recordings. Only in the presence of an audience, amid the emotional exchange between performer and listener, does she believe her artistry can emerge. Jules, obsessed, sneaks a tape recorder into one of her concerts, bootlegs a recording of her singing “Ebben? Ne andrò lontana,” the signature soprano aria from Alfredo Catalani’s opera “La Wally,” and steals the white gown she had worn onstage.

Meanwhile, Jules becomes entangled with mobsters and unsavory representatives of a record company that threaten to sell the illicit tape unless Cynthia records with them — a plot line that sends him speeding through the streets of Paris and into the underground Metro on his moped.

With its highly stylized presentation, including lush colors and unconventional camera angles, “Diva” came to epitomize a genre of film popular in the 1980s and 1990s known as “cinéma du look.”

Vincent Canby, writing in the New York Times, described “Diva” as “an empty though frightfully chic-looking film” but conceded that Ms. Fernandez had “great film presence.” New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael, however, called the work a “glittering toy of a movie,” and in recent decades the film has attracted renewed interest — and affection.

“It’s astonishing how many people remember the French opera-meets-gangster flick ‘Diva’ as one of the coolest movies they’ve ever seen. Everyone, including the criminals, in this luxurious, punk version of a typical French crime film was hipper than you were,” Philip Kennicott wrote in The Washington Post in 2008.

“More than a quarter-century later,” he continued, “‘Diva’ seems the very opposite of cool. It seems, well, sweet. The love affair between Jules and Cynthia is consummated with a pre-dawn walk and a gentle hand on the shoulder. The passion for music, for a particular singer singing a particular song, is untainted by the ennui of too many channels, too many recordings, too many choices. The grittiness of Beineix’s Paris, which seemed so edgy 27 years ago, is now just another nostalgic view of Paris.”

But the film, he concluded, “as a lifestyle, a fantasy, a model for alienation and solipsism and eccentricity, has gone deep into all of us.”

Ms. Fernandez pursued the rest of her career mainly in Europe. After “Diva,” she once told the Philadelphia Daily News, she had to “catch up with [her] own fame when the floodgates opened to do countless operas.”

“My repertory simply wasn’t that great,” she said, “and there was so much expectation to do everything well.”

She specialized in roles including the title Ethiopian princess of Verdi’s “Aida” and Musetta in Puccini’s “La Bohème.” She was set to sing in Verdi’s “Luisa Miller” at the Metropolitan Opera but canceled her debut there to star in “Carmen Jones,” Oscar Hammerstein II’s take on the Bizet opera “Carmen,” at London’s Old Vic theater in 1991. The performance won her a Laurence Olivier award for best actress in a musical.

She said she was gratified that “Diva” — her only film — had carried opera to the ears of people who might never otherwise have heard it. But by all accounts, she was not, herself, a diva. She remained as comfortable in her old Philadelphia neighborhood as she was in the capitals of Europe.

“I don’t want to pretend to be what I’m not,” she told The Post.

Wilhelmenia Wiggins was born in Philadelphia on Jan. 5, 1949. Her mother played the piano and the church organ.

Wilhelmenia was a teenager when she saw her first opera, “Carmen.” In an interview years later with the Lexington Herald Leader, she recalled thinking, “That’s what my voice can do. Now, I know where my energies can be channeled.”

She studied at the Settlement Music School in Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Academy of Vocal Arts before receiving a scholarship to attend Juilliard. She was married to Ormond Fernandez in the early 1970s and left Juilliard shortly before graduating to care for their daughter.

Ms. Fernandez’s first marriage ended in divorce. In 2001, she married Andrew W. Smith, an operatic baritone who had performed with her in “Porgy and Bess.” She moved with him to Kentucky, where he ran the opera program at Kentucky State University.

Ms. Fernandez returned to college and, in 2007, received a bachelor’s degree in music from the University of Kentucky, followed by a master’s degree in special education from Georgetown College in Georgetown, Ky., in 2013. Until shortly before her death, she worked as a special-education teacher at a Lexington elementary school.

Ms. Fernandez’s husband died in 2018. Her daughter, of Atlanta, was her only immediate survivor.

Unlike her character in “Diva,” Ms. Fernandez was not, in the end, entirely averse to recording her voice and made albums of African American spirituals and the songs of George Gershwin. A voice recording, she told The Post, is “a way to live forever.”

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