Last month Spain’s Volvera Empezar won the Oscar as Best Foreign Language Film, but for many moviegoers the biggest noise from overseas recently has been the stylish French romantic thriller Diva. The first feature film by director Jean-Jacques Beineix, Diva is set in motion by the obsession of a young Parisian postal messenger for a black American opera singer, played with such commanding presence by soprano Wilhelmenia Fernandez, 36, that viewers asked why they had never heard of her before. Simple. Though her crystalline voice haunts both the movie and memory, Fernandez is a relative unknown from a poor Philadelphia family, and her route to success has been nearly as convoluted as Diva’s subplots. “Diva helped, but by no means do I have it made,” Fernandez says. “A lot of people think that because of this film I have no worries, but I still have to establish myself as an opera singer.”
To that end, Wilhelmenia now is giving a series of recitals in the U.S. and abroad. In July she will sing the role of Micaela in the New York City Opera’s production of Carmen. As for recordings, she already has the Diva sound track to her credit, as well as an album of gospel songs, Wilhelmenia Fernandez Spirituals.
Raised in South Philadelphia by her mother, Vine Lee Wiggins, a garment worker, Wilhelmenia was exposed to religion and music as a child. Her mother was the organist at the neighborhood Tasker Street Baptist Church. “I was resolved about a singing career from a very early age,” Wilhelmenia recalls, “but I remember my mother stressing the importance of commercial skills—typing, shorthand—in case the singing didn’t pan out.”
Those skills helped to support her as an insurance company secretary after she graduated from high school in 1966. Two years later she quit to study music full-time. Applying to New York’s prestigious Juilliard School, she was allowed to audition but was informed she would have to wait a year for an opening. She sang Oh Divine Redeemer (she knew no operatic arias)—and two weeks later got a letter announcing her immediate acceptance. “My mother was just coming in from work, and I ran and grabbed her, and the two of us went toppling down the stairs,” Fernandez says. “We were both crying—me for being accepted, her from being knocked down the stairs.”
Life in New York included classes from 7 a.m. until 4 p.m., eight hours of secretarial typing, and then studying until 2 or 3 a.m. “I wasn’t interested in social life,” she says. “All I wanted to do was learn to sing correctly.” While attending Juilliard, though, she met Ormond Fernandez, a postal worker, and they married after she graduated in 1973. (Their daughter, Sheena Marie, is 9 now.) For the next three years Wilhe-menia’s career languished. “I stayed home and climbed the walls,” she says. Then she won a place in the chorus of the Houston Grand Opera’s 1976 Porgy and Bess, but her marriage faltered. “I think if I really had wanted it to work, it could have,” she says. “I was just too eager for my career.”
When the Porgy company traveled to Europe, the director of the Paris Opera saw her perform and signed her to a two-year contract. In 1980 director Beineix asked her to read the script of Diva. “I was reading murder, prostitution and drugs, and I wanted nothing to do with it,” she recalls. “Jean-Jacques forced me to read it with him. Then I realized it was actually light, like a Disney treatment of a Hitchcock film.” Wilhelmenia agreed to do the part after a few racy scenes were tamed. “In the bed scene, Jean-Jacques wanted me nude underneath a sheet that contoured to my body, and I wanted a comforter 20 inches thick. [She got it.] I’m inhibited, but the bottom line was that my mother would see it.”
Not to mention her daughter. Sheena has traveled with her mother and a tutor since she was 3. Now, as she gets older, Sheena spends more time with her father in Philadelphia while Wilhelmenia is on the road. When not touring, Wilhelmenia returns to the tiny row house she bought with her Diva income. The house, in the heart of South Philadelphia, is less than a block from her childhood home, where her mother still lives. “I like to stay home and cook and spend time with Sheena,” she says. “Fried chicken is still my favorite.” Like many opera singers, she harbors an impressive appetite. On the touchy subject of weight, she is quite frank. “One hundred thirty-eight pounds, the last time I looked, anyway.” When was that? “About nine years ago,” she says, laughing. No matter. Fernandez obviously is one diva whose real hunger is for operatic prominence.