NO, says Wilhelmenia Fernandez, she is not really a diva, does not live the diva's life, and she does not see herself that way: imperious, detached, set apart in the rarefied world of the opera. "This is my identity," she says, looking around the living room of her small row house in South Philadelphia, while outside the summer sun chokes the air out of the street and the children stay close to the water gushing from the open fire hydrants. "I don't want to pretend to be what I'm not."
And yet her life is changing and has been ever since she starred in the movie "Diva," an offbeat French New Wave thriller in which she plays an American opera star with an adoring fan whose passion for her music lands her in the middle of an international intrigue to pirate a recording of her voice. The movie, she says, "opened up a different kind of world for me. I'm being recognized on the street, and I just finished a recording session. It seems I'm getting a little more attention."
She mentions the recording session with a smile: The character she played in the movie refused to have her voice recorded, insisting that art exists in the moment of performance and that to mix business with art would cheapen her work. It is not the way Fernandez looks at it. "I will put it on records, everyone wants to record," she says. "It's a way to live forever."
She is 30, luminously beautiful, with large brown eyes and a smile that glows with her confidence. This fall she will sing "Aida" in Toulouse, and in January, "La Traviata" in Paris; but for now, she says, her sense of herself is still firmly grounded in Philadelphia, in her life here with her 9-year-old daughter Sheena. For now, but not forever: "I don't have the right to hold myself back," she says. "I have a gift, I want to share it. I don't want to be a local talent, I want the world to share my talent. I don't want to be here for the rest of my life."
She knew early that she wanted to be an opera singer. "My mother was an organist at the church and there was always classical music playing in the house. Pop and hard rock was very offensive to me." She fell in love with the opera when she saw "Carmen" when she was 14, and with the encouragement and help of a high school teacher, got a scholarship to the Academy for the Vocal Arts in Philadelphia.
By the time she graduated from Juilliard in 1973, she had decided on a performing career, but the career was postponed after she married. After three years, she had "really started climbing walls" and went to Texas on vacation, where a friend told her that the Houston Opera Company was auditioning for their production of "Porgy and Bess." Two and a half months later she joined the company on tour in Toronto.
Her career began to flourish, but at the expense of her marriage. "We're friendly, we talk, but it had gotten to the point where, after that first trip, I had to make a decision," she says. "I'd always wanted a performing career, but that meant I was going to be out of town for six to 10 weeks at a time. I had a choice to make."
The Houston company went to Paris with their production of "Porgy and Bess," and her performance there landed her a two-year contract with the Paris Opera. In the beginning, the director offered her the understudy of the title role in "Lulu," Alban Berg's difficult German opera, and promised her two performances at La Scala. "La Scala!" she says, her eyes becoming incandescent at the idea. "Any singer would give their right arm, their left arm, an eye, to sing at La Scala. But there was a risk involved--It was the kind of role that could send you close to the top, or you wouldn't be singing for two years," she says. "The voice was young, it was still taking shape, it was growing, it's still growing. The role could have stretched or strained the vocal cords, and it takes years for vocal cords to heal properly." She talks about her voice as if it were a thing apart from her, living within her but with a life all of its own.
She decided against the part, and instead appeared in the Paris Opera's production of "La Bohe me," and it was while she was singing the role of Musetta in "La Bohe me" that Jean Jacques Beineix, the director of "Diva," saw her and decided to cast her in the movie. "Diva" is still playing in Paris, where Fernandez has built a strong following; in fact, she says, "the doors have all opened in Europe." In America, the progress has been slower; Americans, she says, are not as appreciative of opera as Europeans. Still, she made her debut last season at the New York City Opera, and she even has an adoring fan, who, though he has not gone to the lengths of stealing a gown from her dressing room as the young delivery boy in "Diva" does, has still managed to make his presence felt. "I was at a reception at the French Consulate for Bastille Day, and all of a sudden there he was," she says. "And I realized I'd seen him in Charlotte, and Charleston and New York. I was a little apprehensive, but he greeted me very respectfully."
Although she has plenty of work these days, Fernandez is still registered with an agency that supplies secretaries to offices on a temporary basis. "I was an executive secretary for four years," she says. "Now I do it not out of necessity but out of a need I have at times to do something else, to get away from what I do. It was how I was raised to make a living; now it's the way I get back in touch with my little reality."
The world of opera, after all, is an exotic one, and her place there is doubly difficult because she is black. It took her three years, she says, to get used to auditioning. "For a long time I was afraid I couldn't sing because I was worried how color was affecting my chances," she says. "I wished I could sing behind a screen and just be judged on my voice." She would notice, she says, "the little falling of the face" when she walked in--which meant, she says, " 'We would like you to do the role, but you're black.' And then they'd talk amongst themselves while you sang."
Still, she has not really found that discrimination has been a barrier in her career, although it was just recently, she says, that an opera company official from a southern city "very cordially but very bluntly said, 'What would Miss Fernandez do, being black and beautiful, running around here as Leonora?' Well, I'll sing it and I'll make him pay to come hear me at the Met." It is much harder, she says, for black male opera singers. "It's just not accepted. Society still can't handle the idea of black males with white prima donnas."
She knows what she wants. "I want to get to the Met," she says. "I want to get to La Scala." She does not want "to be so successful that I can't reach someone, where I become the diva, where I can't be touched, can't be giving." Life is not to imitate art.