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Maria Callas: The Ultimate Diva

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Maria Callas: The Ultimate Diva

by Michael Ashman on September 26, 2013 (September 26, 2013) filed under Classical Music | Opera | Comment Now
Callas’s status as a cultural icon endures 90 years after her birth, with the lasting legacy of La Divina.

The gods who looked down on Cecilia Sophia Anna Maria Kalogeropoulou must have been a diverse bunch. We may guess at there being tutelary deities from her homeland, Greece. Given her regular success in the title roles of Cherubini’s Medea and Bellini’s Norma, their number may have included darker spirits from Colchos on the Black Sea as well as Druid spirits from Gaul. Whoever they were, they created an artist and a woman who epitomised, in her short life (1923-77) and short performing career (1941-74, with significant gaps), the talents, the lifestyle and the crises both professional and personal of the modern prima donna – someone who appeared to go through life as if she herself was one of the tragic heroines she portrayed.

Mary Kalos (as she started out), then Marianna, and later Maria Callas (to which the surname of her husband Meneghini was briefly added), was not over- fond of the role of the prima donna Tosca in Puccini’s opera – even if it became one of her regular calling-card triumphs. Yet, in both a life and career full of apparent contradictions, she appeared to try to live to the full the words of that opera’s Act II aria Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore: “I lived for my art, I lived for love.”

Here are those contradictions in brief. Adored by the masses on stage and on record, where she role-played the greatest romances of all time, Callas was a lonely individual who never found a satisfactory love interest of her own. Crushes on attractive young colleagues who turned out not to be so interested (Leonard Bernstein, Franco Corelli) were interspersed with longer relationships with older men – always rich father figures (Giovanni Meneghini, Aristotle Onassis). A dumpy, overweight young girl as her career started, Callas transformed herself, in 1954, into a svelte, stylish woman who always appeared in and came to define the latest fashions.

A workaholic from her first childhood singing lessons in New York to her last private rehearsals for Beethoven’s Ah! perfido in Paris nearly 50 years later, she could act up the temperamental, self-obsessed, clichéd image of the prima donna, but generally (as former intendant of London’s Royal Opera House Sir John Tooley notes) “she only became fussed when somebody or something got in the way of her pursuit of the truth and perfection”. As may be seen from the two films of Act II of Tosca (still the only extended examples to emerge showing her in a full operatic performance) she was an athletic singing-actress, an imaginative – even intellectual – psychological interpreter; a 19th-century attitude-striker in the tradition of the great divas Giuditta Pasta and Maria Malibran, whose repertoire she revived. But the dramatic soprano who had started singing Turandot, Aïda, Isolde, Kundry and Brünnhilde became the leader in the 1950s revival of bel canto operas by Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti and the Classical Gluck, Spontini and Cherubini, not to mention her vocally agile Verdi (Rigoletto, La Traviata, Il Trovatore).

Such contradictions fed a romanticised, turbulent popular image of Maria Callas. As we shall soon see, the sobriquet “La Divina” was already attached to her (in genuinely stunned admiration at her professional capabilities) when she was an unknown student in an occupied wartime country. The Divina of legend – the difficult, temperamental, walking-out playgirl dressed à la mode who only sang when she felt like it in between millionaire yacht cruises – was the creation of an intrusive and newly trivia-conscious media, fabricated from a handful of events between 1958 and 1963.

That said, in these years it is (basically) true that she walked out of a gala Norma in Rome, was fired from the Metropolitan Opera and rather publicly became the lover of billionaire shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis, all the while neglecting not just her career but the state of her voice. But behind the scenes, there was more to the story.

Callas with Aristotle Onasis

Vissi d’arte

The prime motivator of Callas’s career continued throughout her active stage life and can still be glimpsed in her various comeback attempts after her apparent retirement in 1965 and in response to the shock of Onassis’s marriage to Jacqueline Kennedy in 1968. This was sheer hard work on the music – her raison d’être and her cover to hide behind.

At 15, Callas made her stage debut in Athens as Santuzza in a piano-accompanied student production of Cavalleria Rusticana. A little later she auditioned at the city’s Conservatory for the retired Spanish coloratura Elvira de Hidalgo, with Weber’s Ocean thou mighty monster! De Hidalgo recalled the aspiring singer’s “tempestuous, extravagant cascades of sound, as yet uncontrolled, but full of drama and emotion”, and said that she was already imagining during the audition what she could do with such a voice. She became Callas’s principal teacher and artistic counsel, offering a solid grounding in the old ways of bel canto technique (and eventually outliving her pupil). This included work on trills, chest tones, passagework, chromatic runs, an extension reaching to a high E natural and legato (Callas’s would be remarked upon in virtually every first-time report of hearing that voice).

Her professional debut (aged 17) came as Beatrice in Suppé’s Boccaccio, and by the end of the war in Greece she had already set down some important markers for her future career: Tosca, Santuzza, Fidelio’s Leonore and some florid Rossini and Verdi in concert. Her first appearance in Tosca Act I was almost thwarted by drama in the wings: a run-in with the husband of the embittered, replaced soprano Remoundou, who had sent him to prevent the young upstart making it to the stage. Later, watching Callas rehearse in Fidelio, it was Remoundou who asked, “Could it be that there is something divine and we haven’t realised it?”

Partly because of the war (Greece was occupied by the Germans), and partly because of her insistence on returning to America in 1945 to search for work, Callas’s burgeoning career remained on hold until August 1947, when she secured the role of Gioconda at the Verona Arena and met the second great musical influence on her life, the opera’s conductor Tullio Serafin. With Serafin, Callas went on at first to sing Turandot, Aida, Brünnhilde and Isolde (in Italian), securing the last part by claiming to know the role already but in fact sight- reading it “live” for the conductor.

Although a passionate Wagnerian, Serafin had other ideas for his young protegée. His grasp of repertoire compelled him to look beyond contemporary vocal stereotypes. In the 20th century so far the bel canto roles of Donizetti, Bellini or Rossini had been taken generally by light coloratura voices like that of de Hidalgo; productions became showcases for vocal agility rather than serious music drama. Callas, thought Serafin, could bring to these works a heavier voice that took all their agiltá in stride while imbuing them with dramatic credibility. With Serafin she studied the role of Norma (which she debuted in Florence, November 1948) and, the following January at Venice’s La Fenice, was persuaded to learn and take over Elvira in I puritani at three days’ notice after her last Brünnhilde. Callas’s success in two such disparate roles yielded comparisons with legendary singers of an earlier generation like Lilli Lehmann, but she was still a long way from becoming the incomparable artist we revere today.

The secret of Callas’s “new” repertoire for the next decade and a half, then, was that the roles on which she chose to focus had been written as vehicles not only for singers with exceptional vocal capabilities, but for dedicated and effective actresses. Callas would uncover once more the sheer drama of bel canto parts like Bellini’s Norma, Amina and Elvira, Donizetti’s Lucia and Anna Bolena and classical roles like Medea, Alceste and Iphigenia. This was the very quality – representation of character being at least as important as singing – that Bellini sought while casting Giuditta Pasta as Norma, just as Puccini cast Hariclea Darclée as his first Tosca because of her beauty, at the expense of more accomplished vocalists. (Callas had both).

“If one reads contemporary reports about Giuditta Pasta,” wrote Robert Levine in his notes for EMI’s Icon compilation of Callas recordings, “for whom Bellini composed both Amina in La Sonnambula and Norma, two vastly different roles (and two of Callas’s great successes), it seems as if the writers are describing Callas. The sfogato or “unlimited” voice is anchored in the mezzo range, but through study, or nature (in Callas’s case, both) can extend upward to incorporate notes above the high B natural – sometimes as high as E. The timbre is basically darkly hued and has the power to cut through full orchestration in exclamatory sections, but includes great agility in the filigreed bel canto style and can be manipulated to sing at any dynamic level at any register.”

Callas offered insights into her dramaturgical method of shaping the music in master classes at Juilliard in 1971/72. She spoke of “arrows within a piece, that took the singer and the listener from one word to the next, then one phrase to the next, giving it direction”.

“She was a living paradox,” wrote former ENO chief and ROH director Lord Harewood. “She was the composer’s servant – and yet her range of musical sympathies was not wide and she cared little for some of her own roles, for instance Tosca and Elisabeth in Don Carlos.” Carlo Maria Giulini, who conducted Callas’s 1955 and 1956 La Scala appearances as Violetta and Rosina (the latter, unbelievably, substituting for an Erich Kleiber-led Parsifal with Callas as Kundry), would describe her as “the figure who represented Italian melodrama in our time... there are three fundamentals necessary: words, music and acting, but how rare it is to find the three embodied in one person! She was melodrama. She realised the value of the text; she possessed a natural musical instinct, and an immense knowledge; and on the stage she had a radiance which reflected every mood and movement.”

The Rossini comic roles (Fiorilla in Il turco in Italia and Rosina in Il barbiere di Siviglia) Callas undertook were similarly treated to her richly dramatic input. Using the widest variety of vocal colours and effects, she transformed Una voce poco fa into a visceral reflection of Rosina’s moods as if she were a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. It’s tempting to identify this interpretation with Callas’s own domestic situation at the time: imprisoned in a loveless but financially secure household while waiting for the mythical Mr Right, a singer to boot – think of Lindoro under Bartolo’s balcony – to appear. In the introduction to Ardoin’s master class log Callas At Juilliard, conductor Nicolai Rescigno commented that “Callas has very often been accused of having three voices. Nonsense! She had three hundred. Every role she portrayed had a special voice, and within that particular timbre she would constantly change colours to convey the message of the composer.”

“There’s the sheer sound of the voice’, wrote Robert Levine, “tender, girlish, murderous, charming, imperious, innocent, seductive, filled with either love or hate – it was a voice that could be anything, except, some have argued, conventionally pretty.” This is not altogether true; it’s just that ‘pretty’ did not interest her: “It is not enough to have a beautiful voice,” Callas said. “When you interpret a role, you have a thousand colours to portray happiness, joy, sorrow, fear. How can you do this with only a beautiful voice?”

But those prepared to hear beyond literal bel canto can peer behind another Callas mask to where truth and beauty are interpreted via a gritty realism often believed to be the polar opposite of Italian operatic drama before the age of verismo. This went for the theatrical side of her performances as well. “To witness Callas and Gobbi in the second act of Tosca,” wrote an operagoer privy to their March 1965 Met collaboration, “was not to observe a performance in the usual, ritual fashion, but felt instead as if one was peeking through a keyhole at the real events upon which an opera was later based.” The 1964 London film of the same act – a Zeffirelli production established with much walking-in of Tosca’s part for Callas by the then staff director John Copley – gives the sense of a glorious improvisation by two performers (Gobbi and Callas) who knew each other and the music very well.

Violetta was the role that Callas famously didn’t record for EMI in the studio, although the record company eventually yielded to pressure to adopt the pirated radio tape of the Visconti-directed May/ June 1955 performances with Giulini. Verdi was always thinking drama first, whatever the resulting difficulties and apparent inconsistencies for his soprano interpreter.) Before Callas, there were Violettas who could act the emotional drama of the girl with the camellias and those who could tackle the florid singing required in Act I. Callas did both, from an Ah, fors’é lui described as having “the feeling of eavesdropping on a private moment” to a Sempre libera that sounds like an unrealisable dream for her Violetta to the more direct, naked emotion of Ah! Gran Dio! Morir si giovine.

Callas’s recordings provide many other examples of clearly defined portraits in sound: the shell-shocked guilt of Lady Macbeth’s “Sleepwalking Scene”, Lucia’s fragile happiness before her descent into madness (the role throughout is informed by a running emotional detail that makes some other performers sound like they’re merely waiting for the display passages) and Leonora’s predicament in Il trovatore – even Callas’s earliest performance makes this often dramatically bland- seeming role sound like a complex character study.

Callas with husband Giovanni Menenghini

Vissi d’amore

Callas’s postwar Verona debut led to encounters with two older men who would help shape her life, her career and even her body: conductor Tullio Serafin and the Italian industrialist Giovanni Battista Meneghini, whom she married in 1949. Meneghini offered the young diva the security to pursue a career she had neither the funds nor representation to manage on her own. Then, while preparing to sing Cherubini’s Medea in 1953 in Florence, Callas began to lose weight – over 70 pounds – after taking to heart Serafin remarks about her figure. With a new ease about her body language came a hypnotic use of facial expression. (See the post-1953 photos of a woman who now likes being looked at by the camera.) Her new look inspired film director Luchino Visconti to move into opera for a series of productions with Callas at La Scala – La vestale, La traviata, La sonnambula, Anna Bolena, Iphigenia in Tauride. Callas now began to appear on the fashion as well as the arts pages, the very opposite of the cartoon “fat lady” who has to sing before the show’s over. She also started to want to move in circles other than Meneghini’s to find love – of society, of entertainment, of men. Callas now had rivals (Joan Sutherland and Renata Scotto were two of her younger colleagues now in the same repertoire frame), increasing vocal problems and the added pressure of an escalating social schedule eating into her stage and concert engagements. She began to cancel performances and put off learning new roles.

Then, in the summer of 1959, the world’s two most famous Greeks, Callas and Aristotle Onassis, began an affair on the latter’s yacht, in the presence of both their spouses. Callas, who had worked unceasingly for a decade, believed that she had found love and fulfillment as a woman at the point when she was seeking an escape from the pressures of her career. As conductor Carlo Maria Giulini wrote sympathetically after her death (and echoing again the words of Vissi d’arte): “The moment inevitably arrived in her life when total dedication and the discipline she had shown were jeopardised. The attractions of high life and society were open to her, and it was impossible to reconcile the two ways of life. But who can blame here? She had dedicated herself to art, and now she wanted to enjoy life. However, it was impossible to achieve a 100 per cent dedicated performance unless she was prepared to give up the new life she had discovered. That, in a way, was the tragedy of Maria Callas.”

And tragically, the ensuing relationship with Onassis did not result in the marriage of which Callas dreamed, nor – as far as we know – the child she’d hoped for; at least not one who survived. Retreating into the studio, she returned to music as her consolation.

“The microphone magnifies all details of a performance, all exaggerations,” said Callas. “In the theatre you can get away with a very large, very grand phrase. For the microphone you have to tone it down.” In the last years of her active career (1960-65) Callas made only sporadic appearances in the opera house – and with little staging rehearsal at that. But she did give a number of concerts – for which less time and preparation commitment was required – and made recordings. Callas threw herself into this relatively behind-closed-doors process almost up until her death. Sometimes, as in the unpublished 1972 London Philips sessions on Verdi/ Donizetti duets with Giuseppe di Stefano, she used the recording process – in the manner of EMI producer Walter Legge – as rehearsals for planned live appearances.

Another contained world in which Callas triumphed was the cinema of Pier Paolo Pasolini. “It’s from personal qualities that I realised I could make Medea. Here is a woman, in one sense the most modern of women, but there lives in her an ancient woman – mysterious, magical – whose sensibilities create a tremendous inner conflict for her.” Writing a ‘Letter from Paris’ for The New York Times in February 1970, Jean Genet (no less) described the singer’s film debut as “a virtuoso corporeal and psychological triumph... flinging herself to the ground, grovelling with anguish and fury in contortions of pain accented by extraordinary grace.”

Callas in the film of Medea

Here, once again, there is a tangle of contradictions behind Callas’s art. As Lord Harewood wrote: “There was never at any stage anything comfortable about Callas the performer. She drove colleagues and managements almost as hard as she drove herself, and she played safe over nothing except in her insistence on meticulous rehearsal. With her heroic attack and bravura, she raised vocal pyrotechnics to a new level of expression, at least in our times, and yet her vocal method was never technically secure. Her performances, at least in Italy, amounted to little short of battles and her attitude towards the public was more like a matador’s than a singer’s; defiant, even hating... Perhaps these paradoxes were a product of the inner struggle which allowed – forced? – her to penetrate deeper into the music she sang than virtually any singer I have known; an X-Ray imagination turned ordinary stage heroines into something close to prototypes for all time; and the struggle with technique evolved an apparently different vocal and spiritual personality for each role she essayed – another paradox, since this chameleon attitude belonged to the most individual and immediately recognisable artist of her time.”