Celebrating the power of the DIVA

London’s V&A is opening a major new exhibition, DIVA, to celebrate the extraordinary power and creativity of iconic performers from the 19th century to the present day.

The exhibition will celebrate some of the most famous divas, from opera goddesses and silent movie stars to sirens of the big screen and modern-day megastars. The exhibition will be theatrically staged and showcase over 250 artifacts from both the V&A collection and loans from across the world, journeying through fashion, photography, design, costumes, music and live performance.

DIVA is presented in two “Acts” and the spectacular costumes feature many that are rare or on display for the first time, including a stage ensemble worn by Maria Callas when she performed as Norma in the Covent Garden Opera Company production of Norma (1952).

“Act One” celebrates how the first opera divas Adelina Patti and Jenny Lind enjoyed extraordinary careers at a time when most women struggled to do so. Key highlights include an early Parisian couture worn by Patti, an ensemble worn by prima ballerina Tamara Karsavina as Salomé in La Tragédie de Salomé, performed by Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes (1913) and a corseted crimson dress designed by Christian Dior and worn by Vivien Leigh in Jean Giraudoux’s play Duel of Angels at the Apollo Theatre (1958).

The finale of “Act One” showcases the timeless opera diva and includes costumes worn by Callas from her first and last performances at The Royal Opera House. Joyce DiDonato’s custom red satin dress by Vivienne Westwood (2012) and a grey chiffon dress and turban worn by Jessye Norman in the Royal Opera House’s production of Ariadne auf Naxos (1985) also feature.

“Act Two” celebrates the diva today and explores how performers of all genders have redefined and reclaimed the title “diva” as an expression of their art, voice and sense of self. It will also explore how divas navigated the historically male-dominated music and film businesses. Highlights include Edith Piaf’s iconic “little black dress” (1950s) and a Louis XIV inspired look, complete with towering, powdered wig and train, worn by Elton John for his 50th birthday celebrations (1997).

DIVA will also look at how the performer has intersected with society and forged change through their platform and profile for social good and political change, including feminism and global civil rights. Finally, a video wall will celebrate the art of drag and its relationship to the diva.

Kate Bailey, curator of DIVA, said: “At the heart of this exhibition is a story of iconic performers who with creativity, courage and ambition have challenged the status quo and used their voice and their art to redefine and reclaim the diva.”

DIVA takes place at the V&A from 24 June 2023 to 7 April 2024.
For more information, visit vam.ac.uk/exhibitions/diva