Long before the word diva entered everyday conversation, Philadelphia-born and -educated Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez showed what that word could mean in the 1981 cult-classic French thriller Diva — even while living incognito in South Philly.
The soprano, 75, died of cancer Feb. 2 at home in Lexington, Ky., said her daughter, Sheena Maria Fernandez.
Resembling a Greek goddess in a white gown, with eyes illuminated by metallic eyeshadow, her opening scene in Diva had her bowing deeply in a dilapidated theater, and coming forth with a stream of lush vocal tone in the tragedy-steeped world of “Ebben? Ne andrò lontana” (“Well, then? I’ll go far away”) from the opera La Wally.
It became her signature aria in the 25-year career. Her voice and presence took her to the great opera houses of Europe, performances of Aida amid the Egyptian pyramids of Luxor, and made her the centerpiece of gala occasions such as the 1984 inaugural ball for then-Philadelphia Mayor Wilson Goode.
Philadelphia Orchestra violinist Davyd Booth was her piano accompanist on that occasion in the La Wally aria she made famous. “She was a dream to accompany,” Booth said. And she insisted that he dance with her during the festivities that followed.
At the time of her death, she had lived for years in Lexington, where she earned degrees from the University of Kentucky and Georgetown College in Georgetown, Ky., in voice and education. Though she taught singing, she was ultimately disillusioned with the lack of dedication among the students, and found greater fulfillment as an elementary special education teacher specializing in working with children with autism and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.
“It was a zestful life,” said her daughter. “The kids, they were her babies, they gave her life and energy. She loved working with them and working through how to help them achieve the goals that were set for them.” She was preceded in death by her husband, Andrew William Smith, in 2018.
Though she often went by her married name, “Smith,” she was professionally known as Fernandez, and primarily for Diva by French director Jean-Jacques Beineix. The film was not only an international hit but began the Cinéma du look movement, marked by slick visual stylization wedded to an action-filled story. The Fernandez voice was an exalted counterpoint to the film’s subplots taking place in an ominous Paris underworld. Ms. Fernandez projected a natural gravitas onto the role, based on the early career of Jessye Norman.
Ms. Fernandez’s voice had first been noticed at age 5, cultivated by singing in the church choir at Tasker Street Baptist Church. She was later enrolled in the William Penn High School for Girls, but more importantly, the Settlement Music School, where she studied with Tillie Barmach.
“I lived at 23rd and Dickinson streets, and in the Black community there was always church outreach. But we knew Settlement was the place to be enrolled, a positive place,” Ms. Fernandez told the Philadelphia Daily News in later years. “She (Tillie) knew young singers and saw the farther, bigger picture. She wouldn’t allow pushing the voice into the blockbusters, into an area of no return.”
She went on to Academy of Vocal Arts, which has developed talents such as Jame Morris and Joyce DiDonato, and after graduation from AVA in 1969 continued at the Juilliard School in New York on scholarship. While singing La bohème in Paris, she was approached by the Diva filmmakers — an out-of-left-field opportunity. The 12-day shoot transformed her life, and not always for the better.
“The film gave me an exposure that I could not have imagined, and I had to catch up with my own fame when the floodgates opened to do countless operas,” Ms. Fernandez later recalled. “My repertory simply wasn’t that great, and there was so much expectation to do everything well.”
Her career decisions weren’t always optimal, sometimes taking on opera roles that she wasn’t ready for. A 1983 recital at the Philadelphia Ethical Society featured arias for which she wasn’t well suited. Her voice needed time to grow, and it was 1991 by the time she was ready to sing Verdi’s Luisa Miller at that 3,800-seat Metropolitan Opera.
That engagement, however, never came to be: She left for a top-flight London production of Carmen Jones (a Broadway musical-style version of the opera Carmen updated to World War II), for which she won an Olivier Award — thanks partly to the expansive two months of rehearsal. “For at least one month,” she recalled at the time, “the entire cast of 50 or 60 people just sat around tables and read dialogue. And I said, ‘This is incredible. When do we act? When do we get on stage?’”
Her appearances in Philadelphia were strangely scant. She never sang with the local opera companies and only twice with the Philadelphia Orchestra, including a particularly significant 1983 concert for nuclear disarmament with members of the orchestra. Conductor Riccardo Muti requested a list of four or five arias to choose from, and he wanted them all. For many years during this period, she lived quietly in South Philly (her word was “incognito”) though not so quietly: Neighbors opened their windows to hear her practicing — and asked her not to stop.
Most divas are retired by their 60s, and often with great farewell fanfares, but Ms. Fernandez was never silent. She was director of the children’s choir at Main Street Baptist Church in Lexington, and she sang in the church choir. “She continued singing in church,” said her daughter, “because that’s where she got her start.”
In addition to her daughter, she is survived by her sister, Janice Wiggins of Newark, Del.; and cousins. Services are Friday at Main Street Baptist Church in Lexington.