Wilhelmenia Fernandez

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Wilhelmenia Fernandez
Birth nameWilhelmenia Wiggins
Also known asWilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez
Born(1949-01-05)January 5, 1949
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.
DiedFebruary 2, 2024(2024-02-02) (aged 75)
Lexington, Kentucky, U.S.
GenresOpera (soprano)
Occupation(s)Solo singer
Spouse(s)Ormon Fernandez (1971–1976; divorced; 1 child)
Andrew William Smith (2001–2018; his death)

Wilhelmenia Fernandez (sometimes billed as Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez; January 5, 1949 – February 2, 2024) was an American soprano. She appeared in Diva, the 1981 film by French director Jean-Jacques Beineix, credited as "Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez".[1]

Life and career[edit]

Wilhelmenia Wiggins was born in Philadelphia on January 5, 1949, to Ernest and Vinelee (Clayton) Wiggins.[2] As a child she sang with the choir of the Main Street Baptist church.[3] In her teens, she sang with the choir of the William Penn High School for Girls and received formal training under soprano Tillie Barmach at the Settlement Music School in Philadelphia.[2]

Fernandez began her academic training at the Philadelphia Academy of Vocal Arts and then studied as a scholarship student at the Juilliard School of Music in New York City. She made her operatic debut as Bess in Porgy and Bess for Houston Grand Opera, a production that toured the U.S. and Europe. She made her Paris début in 1979 as Musetta in La bohème alongside Plácido Domingo and Dame Kiri Te Kanawa.[4]

French film director Jean-Jacques Beineix saw her Musetta performance and cast her as the title character of his 1981 film Diva, which proved an art-house success and became a cult favorite. In the film Fernandez performed the aria "Ebben? Ne andrò lontana" from Alfredo Catalani's opera La Wally.[2] Its New York run lasted more than two years and it was the official French nominee in the Academy Awards.[5] New York Times critic Vincent Canby disliked the film and wrote that Fernandez "is no actress yet, though she has great film presence".[6]

She performed the role of Musetta at the New York City Opera in 1982.[7] She debuted at the Detroit Opera that year and returned to sing Marguerite in Faust the next year.[8]

Thereafter, she sang in operas and recitals in cities all over the world. Her more notable roles were the title roles in Carmen, Carmen Jones and Aïda, role she has performed in Luxor and at the Egyptian pyramids. She also made recordings of George Gershwin songs and of Negro spirituals.

For her work in Carmen Jones on the London stage she received the Laurence Olivier Theatre Award in 1992 as Best Actress in a Musical.[9]

Fernandez' 1981 recording of "Ebben? Ne andrò lontana" for Diva was included on the soundtrack of Ridley Scott's 1987 film Someone to Watch Over Me. She also sang as part of a number of television appearances.

Fernandez earned degrees from the University of Kentucky and Georgetown College (in Georgetown, Kentucky) in voice and education.

Fernandez died on February 2, 2024, at the age of 75, of cancer, in Lexington, Kentucky, where she had lived for years.[10][4]


  1. ^ Heaton, Michael (May 9, 1983). "Soprano Wilhelmenia Fernandez Soars from Philadelphia's Ghetto to Paris Glamour in Diva". People. Retrieved February 17, 2024.
  2. ^ a b c Williams, Alex (February 16, 2024). "Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez, the Diva of 'Diva,' Dies at 75". The New York Times. Vol. 173, no. 60066. p. B10. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved February 16, 2024.
  3. ^ "'Diva' Film soprano Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez Smith has Died at 75". WHYY. Retrieved February 16, 2024.
  4. ^ a b "Obituary: 'Diva' Soprano Wilhelmenia Fernandez Dies at 75". Operawire. February 6, 2024. Retrieved February 7, 2024.
  5. ^ Lowen Finn, Terri (November 20, 1983). "'Diva''s Diva in State Debut". New York Times. Retrieved February 17, 2024.
  6. ^ Canby, Vincent (April 16, 1982). "French 'Diva' Opens at the Plaza". New York Times. Retrieved February 17, 2024.
  7. ^ "4 New to 'Boheme'". New York Times. April 25, 1982. Retrieved February 17, 2024.
  8. ^ "Detroit Opera and Faust" (PDF). Retrieved February 17, 2024.
  9. ^ "Carmen Jones: 1991 West End Premiere". The Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization. December 20, 2021. Retrieved February 17, 2024.
  10. ^ Dobrin, Peter; Stearns, David Patrick (February 6, 2024). "Famed South Philadelphia soprano Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez, star of 'Diva,' dies at 75". Philadelphia Inquirer. Retrieved February 16, 2024.
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