Renowned Soprano Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez Smith, known for her captivating performances in the 1981 French film 'Diva' and her illustrious operatic career across the United States and Europe, passed away at the age of 75. Fernandez Smith, who had been residing in Lexington, Kentucky after years spent in her native Philadelphia, succumbed to cancer on February 2 at her home, according to her daughter, Sheena Maria Fernandez.
A funeral service was held on Friday at a church in Lexington to bid farewell to Fernandez Smith, often billed as Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez. She gained worldwide recognition by opening the film 'Diva,' directed by Jean-Jacques Beineix, dressed in a white gown and delivering a captivating rendition of the aria 'Ebben? Ne andrò lontana' from the opera 'La Wally.' This aria became the cornerstone of her 25-year opera career, which took her to prestigious opera houses and made her the focal point of many grand events.
Fernandez Smith began her musical journey by graduating from the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia, after which she continued her education at the renowned Juilliard School in New York. During a performance of 'La boheme' in Paris, filmmakers for 'Diva' noticed her exceptional talent and offered her a role in their thriller, kickstarting a life-changing venture.
'The film gave me 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,' Fernandez Smith once recollected. 'My repertoire simply wasn't that extensive, and there was so much expectation to excel at everything.'
Fernandez Smith spent considerable time in Kentucky due to her late husband, Andrew Smith, who returned to his hometown in the 1990s to direct the voice program at Kentucky State University. In Lexington, she was known for her work as a special education teacher at an elementary school, as well as her involvement with the children's music program at Main Street Baptist Church.
Described as a private individual who didn't seek the limelight, Fernandez Smith's unassuming nature stood in contrast to the allure she held for audiences around the world. 'Wilhelmenia was always a very quiet person and did not crave the limelight,' remarked Everett McCorvey, director of the University of Kentucky Opera Theatre. 'Although the limelight craved her.'
In addition to her daughter, Fernandez Smith is survived by her sister, as confirmed by Kerr Brothers Funeral Home of Lexington.
Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez Smith's passing marks the end of an era for the world of opera and the film industry, leaving behind a legacy of breathtaking performances that remain etched in the hearts of her admirers. Her unique talent and dedication to her art will continue to inspire aspiring performers and audiences alike for generations to come.