Benedickta Roland marched into her operatic career from a childhood of desperate poverty, holding firmly to just one treasured posession: a much-thumbed copy of a book called "Surviving the Wilderness" that had belonged to her dead brother, Mark. Its value was purely symbolic; in the wilderness of opera at the international star level, the ability to tell edible from inedible plants or to make a fire without matches is irrelevant. What counts is the ability to thrill an audience with a perfectly placed high E-Flat, a precisely timed gesture, a surge of dramatic power in the coloring of a word, the shaping of a musical phrase. And having developed all these skills, Benedickta discovered that still more was needed: a ruthless concentration on the next production, the next role, the total development of a career.
A moment of self-revelation comes midway through Nancy Freedman's novel when Benedickta is getting acquainted with Jeff Hartley, who will later become, briefly, her second husband. "You're a very nice person, Jeff," she tells him. "I'm not. Did you know that? I'm not a very nice person."
At that point, she is still trying. Jeff is an agronomist whose dream is to stamp out malnutrition. "Benedickta," he asks her, "do you know what the most romantic words in the world are?" "Not I love you?" she offers. "No," he says. "The U.S. Agency for International Development." It seems he has been hired by AID for an experimental project in Mexico -- just for a few months. Like a dutiful wife, the budding prima donna goes along and even tries to memorize a table of the protein values in various types of grain.
But when the project turns out to be a smashing success and Jeff is offered a five-year contract in Mexico, it is more than Benedickta can take. The Venice opera house, La Fenice, beckons; she has already sung "I Puritani" there and Cherubino in Rome, although it is not the best role for her voice, and she has been offered a new production of "Norma." There is a point where niceness becomes irrelevant, and you must leave the agronomists and the starving people of the world to work out their own destiny. It's not that Benedickta is not still "a nice person," but she has chosen a way of life that leaves no room for certain kinds of niceness -- and she owes it to her dead mother, her dead brother, her recently deceased, first voice teacher, to achieve the success without which their lives and deaths are meaningless. She owes it to Jeff not to complicate his life with hers.
"She has been desolate three nights a week before an audience of a thousand people," Benedickta reflects. "She grieved in F minor, cried at top C. Her life was a parody of her art."
An image that pervades "Prima Donna" is that of the castrati: the male sopranos of the 18th century and earlier who made the ultimate sacrafice for their art -- in childhood, before they could really know what they were giving up. As a woman Benedickta cannot survive manhood for her career, but she does give up most of the accessories to what lesser mortals consider a normal, happy life.
Her introduction to the full implications of stardom begin with her first marriage -- to conductor Wolfgang Menetz -- while she is still a conservatory student and hopes that talent and hard work alone will be enough. Wolfgang, it turns out, is incapable of sex in the routine modes and, on the whole, seems to prefer boys and housemaids to the talented, decorative wife who arouses his lusts primarily as a career-builder. He is not incompatible with her career but with her humanity, and, as she will later with Jeff, she leaves him.
Millionaire Wendel Simeon, the next candidate for Benedickta's affection, seems better qualified. They have a tempestuous affair, on and off his yacht, which she breaks off in a fit of anger. A polyp in her throat, a minor operation, and the destruction of her voice (perhaps psychosomatically) drive her to the brink of suicide before she decides to try again by training a protege; and the process begins anew. "You are not an artist when you sing, Nicole, but every moment of your life," she tells the girl near the end of the book. "You must do everything more intensely than other people . . . And to do this you must take . . . you must take from life, you must take from other people."
Benedickta Roland is not Maria Callas, although there are occasional similarities. She is not Greek; her mother dies while she is stiill a child; neither of her husbands much resembles Giovanni Battista Meneghini, and Wendel Simeon resembles Aristotle Onassis only in the most superficial ways -- for example, in owning a yacht. Most important important of all, musically, she sings Mozart, as Callas did not. But the emotional ups and downs of Benedickta's life parallel those of Callas' rather closely. In both lives, the operatic style continues after the makeup has been removed. But in the final analysis, what Nancy Freedman has written is not a novel about opera; it is a novel about a woman's attempt to find out who she is and what her life means, with the world of opera as the main element in the background scenery. That scenery has been more knowingly protrayed in such insiders' novels as "Aria" by Brown Meggs and "The Divas," by Robert Merrill, and the life of Callas has been better presented in the new biography by Arianna Stassinopoulos. But Freedman is not really competing with any of these books, and on her own terms she has produced a novel that will keep many readers eagerly turning pages.