Remembering Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez

The diva from “Diva” anchors my playlist of treasured songs

Mauricio Matiz
Human Parts


“Diva Original Soundtrack” LP cover, showing front and back. Front features movie stills; back include the track listing and more stills from the movie, including one of Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez in her white gown from the theater scene.
“Diva Original Soundtrack” LP cover. Source: author’s collection.

I remember the buzz around the film, Diva, the French thriller directed by Jean-Jacques Beineix, when it premiered in New York in 1982. I was in the front half of my twenties when I went to see it at the Plaza Theatre at 58th Street East of Madison.

In the movie, Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez is mesmerizing, playing the role of soprano Cynthia Hawkins. She steps out on the stage in a shimmering white gown, a beautiful and imposing figure, the center of gravity in the intimate but crumbling theater. As the conductor escorts her to center stage, she returns the applause with curtsies so deep, she kneels on stage. Once she reaches her spot, she stares at the floor, then signals to the conductor that she’s ready. Her elegant voice rises slowly, and soon saturates the hall, baring the emotions of a girl (Wally) running away from an arranged marriage. She’s singing the aria, “Ebben? Ne andrò lontana (Well, Then? I’ll Go Far Away.),” from Alfredo Catalini’s opera, “La Wally.”

Jules (Frédéric Andréi), the film’s young protagonist, is a mail carrier by day, and a full-time opera aficionado. On his lap, he has snuck in a recording device to capture Ms. Hawkins’ concert. The catch is that she forbids recordings of her voice. The plot gets complicated, featuring different cassette tapes, a murder, and an unbelievable chase scene, but it’s Ms. Fernandez’s performance of the aria that steals the show — oh, that reminds me, Jules also steals her gown after the performance.

Before the movie, my exposure to opera music had been minimal. My college course on the “History of Western Music” likely featured a couple of opera tracks, but listening under pressure took some of the enjoyment out of the experience. But after the movie, I became an opera aficionado, too, and a fan of Ms. Fernandez. The Spanish surname was a plus. She could be Dominican or Cuban, I thought.

Ms. Fernandez was from South Philly. Her Spanish surname, I learned from the obituary, was her first husband’s, Ormond Fernandez. He was a mail carrier, just like Jules. (The New York Times published her obituary on February 15, 2024, announcing she had died earlier that month, on February 2, 2024. She was 75.)

Within days of seeing the movie, I purchased the soundtrack album, which also featured several instrumental tracks by the conductor, Vladimir Cosma, including a beautiful piano piece, “Sentimental Walk,” which also became a staple. In the movie, that piano piece highlights Parisian sights, the boulevards, arches, and outdoor cafes, with romantic undertones, reminding me of the gloss I had put on my short visit to Paris two years earlier.

The Diva Original Soundtrack LP joined a rotation of new wave and ska music that poured out of my speakers most waking hours of the day, and sometimes even while I slept. I was obsessing over music as much as Jules does in the movie. I was getting my money’s worth out of my Pioneer Hi-Fi integrated system, a recent splurge, after heavy haggling at the Crazy Eddie store on Eighth Street in Lower Manhattan, but that’s another story.

Within a decade, I would replace my sizable LP collection with compact discs. I was won over by the marketing of “pristine” audio, with no scratches or pops, buying CDs at a steady rate while selling off the vinyl collection. But there were a few LPs I couldn’t bear to let go. Among them was the Diva LP, which I just retrieved for inspiration while writing this.

Ms. Fernandez and her aria have enchanted me for over forty years. It is one of a small number of cherished tracks that feel like the soundtrack of my life. These special songs are what I queue up when I’m feeling nostalgic, when I need a muse, or when I’m in one of my happy alone moments that need to be accented by just the right music. Several years ago, I compiled these songs — just twenty-seven have weathered the years and my evolving interests — into a playlist.

Why some songs are on the list might be obvious to people who know me. Steve Miller Band’s “The Joker” (The Joker, 1973), with its reference to my name in English, “some people call me Maurice/’Cause I speak of the pompatus of love,” is one of those. (Just don’t look up the unknown word. It’s made up.) When I was younger, people connected my uncommon name with that song or with Maurice Cheeks, the Hall of Fame basketball player. Both gave me undue but welcomed cachet — my mother said Maurice Chevalier was her inspiration, but when I repeated his name, my friends said, who?

Then there’s R.E.M.’s “I Remember California” (Green, 1988), released at the time when I had made a few trips out west. The hard-driving song has just the right mixture of gloominess spiced with anger, with its reference to the Trident submarines, the war machines I had worked on at General Dynamics before I read Slaughterhouse-Five, and its refrain, “I recall it wasn’t fair,” resonating like a tuning fork.

The Who’s “Pure and Easy” (Odds & Sods, 1974) is on the list too. It’s one of my earliest faves. It reminds me of listening to records with Frank, an old friend from high school, when music and lyrics, through our adoration, would turn into magic, revealing “the simple secret of the note in us all.”

Other songs on the list would need similar explanations why they’re important to me. I have been slowly working on this per track summary, although I should drive to finish it. There’s an undetermined deadline. I know.

One other task to accomplish is to drop hints to my loved ones that this is the playlist for that last gathering on my behalf — hopefully many years in the future. That this is the music that was special to me. They’ll recognize many of the songs, and some will be completely foreign, like imaginary friends I never introduced. Finding the playlist should be fairly easy — the most recent version is queued on Spotify. The playlist title is, “Well, Then? I’ll Go Far Away,” just like the aria that turned Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez into a lifelong companion.

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Mauricio Matiz
Human Parts

I’m a NYC-based writer of personal stories, short stories, and poems that are often influenced by my birthplace, Santa Fe de Bogotá.