By Barbara Rowes
July 09, 1984 12:00 PM

Not long ago your typical diva was an aging, amply proportioned European, trained on the Continent and possessed of more vocal talent than acting ability. These days, however, the opera world has its glasses trained on a vivacious New Yorker who grew up on the Lone Ranger, holds Greta Garbo as a heroine and has drawn as many plaudits for her dramatic skills as for her sweet soprano voice.

At 36, Catherine Malfitano is one of the youngest prima donnas ever at New York’s Metropolitan Opera: “The Meryl Streep of opera,” as one Met higher-up calls her. Following successes in dramatic roles like Violetta in La Traviata and Mimi in La Bohème, she embarked this summer on a European tour that has brought her to the attention of the Old World’s hard-to-please opera audiences. While the Paris Opera’s production of Massenet’s Manon last month rated boos, Malfitano in the title role garnered shouts of approval during the work’s June 4 centennial performance. “A feast of refinement and coquetry…” raved one reviewer.

Operas by Frenchmen such as Massenet suit her, says the Manhattan-born Malfitano: “Perhaps it’s because I can understand the characters—they’re all child-women.” Still she adds, “they haven’t yet written” her ideal role. “I think of Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, even Sophie’s Choice as great operas.”

The unconventional Catherine comes by her calling naturally. Father Joseph, 63, has been a Met violinist for 30 years, and mother Maria, 54, was a dancer with the company from 1952 to 1957. Catherine was packed along on her first Met tour (a 1952 trek from Boston to Cleveland) when she was a toddler. “She’s a real Met baby,” says general manager Anthony Bliss, who has known the diva since she was a girl.

A shy, sober child known as “Cat,” Malfitano (who has two younger siblings—Giorgio, a film editor, and Elena, a dancer) would hear sopranos vocalizing behind closed doors at the Met when she was growing up. “Something about the sound of the voice reminded me of the sound of my father’s violin,” she says. “Music was my father.”

Eventually Catherine and Dad became artistic collaborators. Enrolled in New York’s All-City High School Chorus at 12, she displayed astounding talents but still dreamed of emulating actresses like Katharine Hepburn (“because she moved like a feather in the wind”). Chorus director John Motley saw Catherine as a diva aborning and urged Joseph Malfitano to begin coaching his daughter because, as he said, “string players have a rare rapport with the human voice.”

Under her father’s tutelage she became a standout at the High School of Music and Art, but she was rejected by Juilliard (“They didn’t think I had any potential”). When she entered the Manhattan School of Music, Joseph stepped up the tutoring schedule. “I tried to develop in her a very natural, very flexible and expressive way of singing,” he remembers. “I always insisted she listen to pop singers.”

After her 1971 graduation, Catherine sang in regional opera companies for three years and then made a smashing New York debut in La Bohème at the New York City Opera. Three months later she triumphed as Liù in Puccini’s Turandot. A string of dramatic performances in contemporary operas, including Kurt Weill’s Street Scene and Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Saint of Bleecker Street, brought her career to a crescendo. In 1979 Maestro James Levine invited her to the Met, where her ascendancy has symbolized the company’s increasingly contemporary and American orientation.

“Intense about almost everything” (as she puts it), Malfitano keeps herself in tune by living salubriously, drinking mineral water, favoring broccoli over burgers and practicing yoga and Transcendental Meditation. Home is a book-laden apartment shared with husband (and now personal adviser) Stephen Holowid, 38, whom she married in 1977 when he was the City Opera’s artistic coordinator. Holowid sees his wife as a real-life romantic heroine. Not only does she dress the part (wearing vintage ’30s and ’40s clothing), but she lives it. “Whether it’s cooking, making salads or buying flowers,” he says, “she’s romantic.”

Not that Malfitano’s career allows much time for such pursuits. She and Stephen are on the road half the year. Shortly after her European jaunt ends in August she will plunge into her most demanding project: a fall Met production of Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann in which she will portray three wildly disparate heroines (roles usually filled by a trio of singers). A challenge, by any reckoning—but one that this Met baby was born to.