Divas on the internet: a primer

Divas on the internet: a primer

I’ve been paying closer attention lately to how the social media are being used by the mezzos and altos, and some other musicians and opera professionals.


Many singers stay away. American singers, the younger generation Canadian, American and UK singers, and singers who often work in North America and the UK and have vast NA audiences join sooner than others. There are exceptions to the rule (see below who gets the award).

Much worse than staying away is the following: creating an account (the idea was probably the agency’s or the publicist’s), getting thousands of followers, then either never showing up (the lovely Sarah Connolly tweeted the whole of three times since joining; see also, Cecilia Bartoli) or tweeting one sentence every two months (Susan Graham, I’m looking at you).

Equally bad is opening an account, then having a publicist run it for you. Even worse if he runs it for you by posting links to the official press releases. (Elīna Garanča, a case in point. The young conductor Pablo Heras-Casado had such a start, but after a few months started tweeting himself in his own name. Excellent correction.)

Then there are the Twitter Divas: they tweet a little more frequently than the above categories but still very infrequently, never interact with followers, and often couch announcements in emo, diva-is-personally-moved language. Renée Fleming is a good example. “It is with great emotion that I [ fill in the blanks]” is the usual structure of the tweet. Could be anything, from “I say good-bye to bel canto”, “I sing my final night at La Scala” or “…I saw this film”.

Then there are artists who use Twitter a lot, but do nothing but systematic and pretty shameless self-promotion. I’ve noticed a number of men in this category (a certain bass singing currently at the COC doesn’t shy away from sending links of his other media coverage to CBC personalities on Twitter begging for Ceeb coverage, for example). If you asked me months ago, I would have put Joyce DiDonato in this category. She developed a consolidated, multi-pronged social media publicity approach which has no peer among her peers. But I can’t object too much to how she uses Twitter these days. Yes, I am annoyed by the endless exclamation points and the saccharine cheerfulness. Yes, she loves being complimented by men (don’t know whether she’d say this to a woman follower telling her “you’re hawt in drag”:

and around the time of Wimbledon earlier this year we were told in many many different ways that she really likes Rafael Nadal). But crass, obvious, open-this-link-now promotion is a low percentage point of JDD tweets. She often interacts with followers (OperaCreep regularly has little chats, but then again, he’s a mad fan, so he doesn’t count; he gets in via flattery road). She is also unique in using Flickr and YouTube very aptly – former for the photographs she takes, which sometimes include exclusive behind-the-scene images with a unique vintage point that no reporter could even try to provide (“Looking at Diana Demrau from the wings while she’s singing”, eg.), and latter her own video reportage and the footage of her answers to the questions from the audience (not live, but recorded, edited, packaged — but still). I’ve never seen another singer use Flickr or YouTube this way —  though Elizabeth DeShong does something similar with her photoblog, but her tack is different: she records everything but her professional life, which also works well.

JDD sometimes, not frequently but it happens, expresses a political opinion or gives her support to a cause. She expressed support for the withdrawal of DADT in the US military, and have written an open letter for her native State of Kansas which recently overnight cancelled all arts funding on state level.

But there is one tweeter who still manages to oneupman her (one-up-mezzo her?) and that is Malena Ernman. She does the healthy amount of direct promotion, yes. But she also interacts. Just before she released Opera di fiori, she asked on Twitter what people would like to see in pre-listening on YT, and followed the received preferences. For the most part Ernman tweets as people who joined twitter not for self-promotion do. And this means expressing opinions about issues of the day (political included), not hiding a grumpy mood or sadness, whingeing about the stodginess of Vienna or a video segment lost on the cutting room floor, tweeting about the weather, European soccer championship, live-tweeting her expulsion from the visa lineup at the Russian embassy, and occasionally clearly not taking herself too seriously (a rarity among opera singers; hell, people in any profession). She also facilitates tweetups for her fans:

For all this, Malena Ernman gets the first prize in the category Twitter Usage By a Diva.


She is also very good on Facebook, although probably due to the amount of people (10,000 plus readers, with average posts by her getting something like 40 comments) she doesn’t interact there. She posts a lot of photos taken from an exclusive vintage point. She also doesn’t mind posting photos of herself unkempt and wearing raggedy old around-the-house things.

That’s something you won’t see in another good Facebook commando profile, Joyce DiDonato’s (though apparently she was game for a few impromptu photos after all for these boys). Joyce posts a lot and interacts occasionally, and I think that she indeed runs her own Facebook page, probably with some consultation with her Web 2.0 person.

Another mezzo with a solid Facebook page who runs it herself and interacts on it is Ann Hallenberg. Lots of timely announcements there, and media coverage links. Some photos, not too many and no private or family photos at all. And that is just ducky.

But the Facebook user I’d actually single out for the award in this category is an alto. Sonia Prina has the official Sonia Prina page (which 391 followers “Like”), where news, clips and announcements get posted, and that is decent enough in itself. But the main thing is SP’s personal account, which is run by SP herself and set to Public.

Since there are 2000-plus FB friends there, she probably friends strangers/audience members (I don’t know – I didn’t dare send a request, and besides can read the updates from the outside anyway). And this is a FB profile with a real voice (as much as such a thing is possible on Facebook). SP really sounds like an artist human being, and not a brand. There’s all of that that I described in Ernman’s twitter usage, and much more along those lines, and even more idiosyncratic and human.

Openness to the alternative and smaller traditional media

Eh heh, this is a big one for me. How much are the divas willing to be interviewed by people other than the 72-year-old permanent dude music critic of a major national daily with a penchant for soft-ball – and here I mean anything from individual-run blogs / vlogs / podcasts, the freelancers who have yet to sell the story somewhere, the so-called ethnic media in large North American cities, large web portals for music and musical criticism (such as MusicalCriticism.com, Quobuz, OperaBritannia.com and Forumopera.com) and also, very importantly, the queer press.

I will have to rely on other writers to share their experiences, and go by my own. I am assuming that a lot depends on the publicist advice; that if somebody’s publicity consultant or agency is open to these types of media that the artist will be open to the idea. I am speculating, of course; no idea if most artists follow their instinct, or seek advice.

But let me highlight some good examples. Vesselina Kasarova recently allowed an independent videographer (on other words, a filmmaker who did not have a backing of a large media house, nor air time secured for the segment to be broadcast anywhere) to film her stay in Moscow. The access given was very generous. I don’t have the full story here and all the background information – how well they knew each other before etc. — but this one thing is undeniable: an alt-media maker shooting a YouTube documentary was welcomed to record (and debate) her around Moscow, including the rehearsals. I choose to see this as a precedent-setting case which will invite other publicists to relax a little. (The responses to the doc were pretty positive.)

Sonia Prina interviewed (via Skype, it seems) by this geezer who likes talking about himself, for a university online network. She is excellent in a situation where not very much is under her control; not stiff, not patronizing, not afraid, just being fine with whatever question may be thrown her way and making the best of the situation.

The COC organized the online chat with some of the cast of Aida last year. Sondra Radvanovsky was a primer in how a diva should interact in a live online chat with her audience and gave well thought-out and frank and not at all short answers.

…and I have to say, that is about it. Any other examples I’ll welcome with a happy dance.

If you look at the film industry, pop music and politics: all have a huge alternative media population that has become fundamental (and probably the largest) part of their respective mediascapes. But I don’t see changes of this kind in the opera world, though the opera blogosphere is growing like fire.

Updated this morning:

La Ernman just tweeted a production photo of her as Serse, at a follower’s request. Johnny Who isn’t even in the same category. Behold.

Countless thanks to the total doll Eyes for her help with media capturing for this post.



18 thoughts on “Divas on the internet: a primer

  1. I guess another category is podcasts. Charles Reid (@ThisOperaLife) does a weekly podcast of an interview with someone from the opera world. They are usually singers but he’s done one conductor and one vocal coach as well.

  2. Good, I’ll look for it. Qobuz does amazing podcasts, but in French of course. Good to know that *some* exist in English too. Edited to add: Oh I see, he’s a singer who also does podcasts. An interesting overlap of the two spheres.

  3. *like* the post.
    what about divas’ blogs? I just read on Nick Phan (ok, he’s not quite a diva) blog about coming out, though I’m not sure if he interacts with fans. 2 years ago, vivica genaux has a blog where she discussed the daily lives of musicians in great details, such as how they got stuck in an airplane because the the bass player had to buy 2 tickets for himself and his instrument, and the flight attendant only counted “1” person and reported that a passenger was missing… she also wrote about what’s going on onstage, giving insights to the hall’s acoustics, staircases (how singers dislike but directors love), and wrote about daily lives including how to buy toilet papers in Italy 🙂 Her fans also interacted with her quite a bit on the blog. But then due to busy schedule, the blog was taken off…

  4. You build up the excitement, and then you tell me she took the blog off? *pout*

    I thought about the blogging divas, but I think Joyce is the only one who’s doing it with some consistency. Jennifer Rivera (Trying to remain opera-tional) pretty much stopped blogging when she got herself a boyfriend. I think she posts once every blue moon now.

    That’s too bad about Viveca’s blog, though.

    1. i was searching in vain but couldn’t find the link (argh!!) Last year it was taken off but you can still get in via a link, which after rebooting computers so many times i lost the website address… but, while searching for that, i came across this quick-questionaire and like her answer

      “What or who makes you feel embarrassed?
      Coming from Alaska, I guess that would have to be Sarah Palin…”

  5. To a certain extent I understand your disappointment that you are not always able to be a very successful singer’s (twitter) friend but… the truly professional singers with an intense career have to live a complicated work-life-balance— on the pro side they have to focus on research, work, discipline, recordings, rehearsals, tours and they also have the right to use some time for their privacy. … Plus: I suppose you know that this is a neverending story – if you start net communication (ie in public) with individuals, you can’t stop this without hurting somebody and – worse- by being accused in public as arrogant. IMO it is very wise to organize net contacts by using publicists – the latter should, however, really be better in faking …

    My advice: if you want to communicate with a a singer on a personal level: try to contact him/her in person (eg after a concert, a signing session ) and convince him that you are an interesting person for him/her. If he/she finds you fascinating enough to be in contact with you he/she’ll give you his/her private email adress or mobile# .

    It will only work that way round – for the simple reason that he/she is more busy/famous/ than you are and has a real life.

  6. I suppose publicists have to guard their own jobs somehow. Now, you can’t allow artists to have an open channel of communication with fans without the interventionism of their hired help. That would mean less gigs for them that make them feel as important as the artists…unlike their real function as the go in between journos and record company execs. Someone should tell him that not being famous doesn’t exactly equal having a non hectic life. We all still find time to listen to music, go to concerts, write blogs, shop, have sex, cook, eat and learn despite our busy working and family lives.

  7. Actually, I’m glad for this comment, because it illustrates perfectly a total lack of understanding how the social media work.

    I couldn’t care less whether the singers I mentioned interact *with me* (in fact, none of the people analyzed above are the singers that I listen to very often, as anybody who has spent more than 5 minutes on this blog can attest). To read this as some sort of a stalker’s whinge just shows 1) defensive nastiness and 2) total lack of understanding of the web 2.0 and even of the media criticism.

    I am pretty sure you are a publicist, so: good luck with that attitude. It’ll get you far.

    PS: I could have equally analysed politicians, writers, TV personalities, Hollywood celebrities and visual artists, and basically anybody who thinks it’s easy to self-promote through the social media (similar problems emerge all around). But alas, the focus of this blog is opera.

  8. Well actually, I think you can tell if something is publicized or not. It’s not about faking well or not so well. Taking me, the fangirl that I am, as an example, I deeply respect that singers are busy people. More than myself? Not true in all cases. (I’m not talking about jobless wannabes, but about successful singers here.)
    The few I know I met by various chances, and at occasions where the fact that they were famous wasn’t important. Yes, even famous people need a geek like myself once in a while for some pc issues. They live — apart from their singing.

    But then — people are different. Some like to tweet, and some not. Considering the shitload of comments circling about “haha, he is gay,” under Mr. Jaroussky’s clips on Youtube, I can perfectly understand that his eagerness to make a twitter account is rather limited. There are people with nothing to do, and even if a flame shouldn’t affect you on a personal level, it sometimes does.

    I know singers who talk to no one unless they really have to if they have to sing that night, and some who virtually only stop texting when they actually sing. People are different, which includes singers.

    When I say I know a singer, I don’t mean exchanging two tweets, so, no. I don’t know Rinat Shaham. But at any rate, I found this one really cute, and it made my day.

    I’m quite sure it wasn’t written by a professional publisher, too.

    1. Oh drop the pretence — I know you only had that exchange with Rinat because you really really want to be her best friend forever. Furthermore, you want to move to her house and get adopted by her. That’s it. You’re busted too.

      On a more serious note… Absolutely, I agree: social media are not for everybody, and I don’t argue everybody should join and go full throttle. But if I tried to identify the reasons an artist should make herself present on the social media, I’d say:

      – it’s where your audiences and your future audiences are. If you’re not interested in keeping the existing, or making new audiences, then don’t use the social media.

      – you partake in the creation of your legacy and your reception very directly; you write your own history as you go. If you stay away, the interpretation of what you do and why your work is important will be dominated by other voices. This is the same argument whether you talk to the media of any kind or not. They’re messy in conveying one’s message, the media are, but if you stay silent, somebody else will say “Well, in fact, her work is about this…”

      – some artists really don’t mind the rough and tumble of the internet and its encounters. Some even thrive in it and get inspired by some aspects of it.

      And whether you’re a politician, a bakery owner, a writer, a composer, a singer of pop or opera persuasion or the old ladies’ knitting club chair, if you hire somebody else to tweet for you so that you can appear in a better light, you’re doing it wrong.

  9. Oh yeah, talk dirty to me hehe. Imagine, if private persons had a PR agency involved, for private calls and texts etc.
    “I don’t have time tonight, keep my gf busy with a bit of smut via text message. You’d better be good so she won’t notice the difference. Oh, well, but then, not too good, you know what I mean… Oh, and toss in some random typos from time to time for extra credibility. Remember, I’m mostly drunk at night…”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s