American soprano Wilhelmenia Fernandez, best known for her starring role in the 1981 film Diva by French director Jean-Jacques Beineix, has died. She was 75.

Wilhelmenia Fernandez in Diva

Born in Philadelphia in 1949, Fernandez began singing at the age of seven. She started her studies at the Philadelphia Academy of Vocal Arts, followed by a scholarship at the Juilliard School of Music in New York City. Her operatic debut was as Bess in Porgy and Bess for Houston Grand Opera, a production which toured both the US and Europe.

She made her debut in Paris as Musetta in La bohème alongside Plácido Domingo and Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, and at the New York City Opera in the same role in 1982. Her assured performance in Diva, an art house hit in Europe and the US, made her a very bookable singer and she reprised her singing of Ebben? Ne andrò lontana from Catalani’s opera La Wally, many times on the live stage.

Her notable performances included the title roles in Carmen and Carmen Jones, for which she received the Laurence Olivier Theatre Award in 1992 as Best Actress in a Musical. She starred in Aïda, staged at the Luxor temple in Egypt.

Moving away from performance in later years, Fernandez – who earned degrees from the University of Kentucky and Georgetown College – became a special education teacher, particularly for children with autism and ADHD. She also directed the children’s choir of the Main Street Baptist Church in Lexington, Kentucky, where she lived for many years.

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