Scientists reveal what Callas should have sung

Medea’s final aria, hidden by Cherubini, sees the light of day after 200 years under charcoal.

The missing concluding aria to Luigi Cherubini’s 1797 Médée (better known in the Italianised form as Medea) has been revealed using X-ray techniques at Stanford University’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.

Cherubini is believed to have removed the aria after criticisms of the opera’s length but he didn’t throw it away, merely smudged it over with a think layer of charcoal. Powerful X-ray light has now allowed it to be transmitted to computer screens for easy viewing.

Cherubini was considered by many of his contemporaries to be one of the greatest composers of his time. Maria Callas, who famously brought the opera back into the public domain in the 1950s after a century of neglect, never sang the coda to the piece. The lost aria, Du trouble affreux qui me dévore (The terrible disorder that consumes me) arguably adds an even more dramatic conclusion to the tragic tale.

“It is very exciting,” said Stanford physicist Uwe Bergmann. The device, known as a synchrotron “can unlock the secrets of nature…But it can also find things that are important to our human culture – with an impact that is just as high, maybe even higher.”

The synchrotron’s X-ray detected the iron and zinc in the printed copy, causing them to fluoresce. The carbon smudges were nearly transparent to the X-ray beam and a computer converted the X-ray patterns into various shades of grey, readily recognizable as notes.

“It is indescribable to see Cherubini's notes after more than 200 years for the first time again,” wrote Heiko Cullmann, the German musical scholar who first contacted SLAC to suggest the project. Médée" is an important opera of its time, based on the Greek myth of Medea, who murders her two children for revenge. Although it shocked contemporary Parisians it was said to have influenced both Fidelio and Carmen.

You can hear a synthesised version of the rediscovered aria below. Now if only they could synthesise Callas...

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Scientists reveal what Callas should have sung
Maria Callas: what might have been, if only she'd had x-ray vision
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