Saturday, December 02, 2023

Callas Centenary

Today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Maria Callas (1923-1977).

Born in Manhattan, New York City, to Greek immigrant parents, Maria received her musical education in Greece at age 13 before establishing her career in Italy. Today she is celebrated as one of the twentieth-century’s most renowned and influential sopranos.

To mark the centenary of Callas’s birth I share today excerpts from Zachary Woolfe’s November 27 New York Times article, “Maria Callas Was Opera’s Defining Diva. She Still Is.”

These excerpts from Woolfe’s insightful article are accompanied by some of my favorite images of Maria. Enjoy!


Her voice is the shadow that remains after shock, after anger: the sound of a woman realizing she has nothing left to live for.

It is the second act of Verdi’s opera La Traviata. Violetta and Alfredo, a prostitute and a wealthy young man, have fallen madly in love. But his father confronts her, demanding she drop the disreputable affair to salvage the marriage prospects of Alfredo’s sister.

For Violetta, it is an unbearable sacrifice, but she’ll do it. “Dite alla giovine,” she sings, in a broken murmur: Tell your daughter that I will abandon the one good thing I have, for her sake.

Singing that passage on May 28, 1955, at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, the soprano Maria Callas reached the phrase about how “bella e pura” Alfredo’s sister is – how beautiful and pure – and inserted the tiniest breath before “pura.” It’s a barely noticeable silence, but within it is a black hole of resignation. Callas’s split-second pause achingly suggests Violetta knows that if she, too, were pure, her happiness would not be expendable.

Tiny details like this are how Callas – who would have turned 100 on December 2 – gave opera’s over-the-top melodramas a startling sense of reality, and her characters the psychological depth and nuance of actual people. Tiny details like this, captured on hundreds of recordings, are how this most mythical of singers has stubbornly resisted drifting entirely into myth.

The defining diva of the 20th century, Callas is not so far from us in some ways; a normal life span would have brought her well into the 21st. Those many recordings – endlessly remastered, repackaged and rereleased – have kept her in our ears, the benchmark of what is possible in opera, musically and emotionally. Her dramatic art and dramatic life, often intertwined, have made her an enduring cultural touchstone: a coolly glamorous stare in Apple ads and the inspiration for plays (including a Tony Award winner), performances by Marina Abramovic (bad) and Monica Bellucci (worse), a coming film starring Angelina Jolie (we’ll see), even a hologram tour (sigh).

Yet Callas can also seem like a figure of faraway history. Her lonely death was back in 1977, when she was just 53 – and by then, her days of true performing glory were almost 20 years behind her. The number of people who saw her live, particularly in staged opera, is dwindling, and her short career was just early enough that precious little of it was filmed.

So she has been for decades, for most of us, a creation of still images and audio. We have to use those tools to conjure what her performances were like, to complete them.

But when you hear her, this is surprisingly easy. You listen to that “Dite alla giovine” and immediately see, in her voice, the blankness of her face, the mouth barely moving and the rest a mask of surrender, the shoulders collapsed.

. . . In her performances, there was never a sense of opera as mere entertainment, a night out with pretty music. She took every note seriously, where others fudged and coasted; she was refined where others were vulgar. In her powerfully expressive voice and magnetic presence, opera really, truly mattered. . . . Opera in the modern era is at its core an exhumation of the past, a literal revival. Callas is the essential singer – she is opera – not because of her instrument or her acting, but because, with a combination of born intuition and carefully acquired skill, she imagined and reconstructed a vanished world.

She took on a whole repertory – the bel canto of the early 19th century, notably operas of Donizetti, Bellini and Rossini – that had been ignored or distorted for generations. And she approached pieces that had never left the public, like La Traviata, Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor and Bellini’s Norma, as if they were being done for the first time.

Her voice, matchlessly articulate and often quite beautiful but also idiosyncratic and fragile didn’t hold out too long, and her career was brief; there was maybe a decade of prime singing, largely in the 1950s. By the time she was 40, it was essentially over.

Brief – and unbelievably dense and tumultuous. Who knows the root of Callas’s restlessness, her insane commitment, her ferocity, her rivalries? There was clearly a deeply ingrained sense of unworthiness that you could trace back to her difficult childhood, with a mother who openly preferred her prettier sister. Self-buttressing, self-hating, self-defeating, Callas needed the stage desperately, and yet she always needed to be pushed onto it.

Her loss of some five or six dozen pounds in the early ’50s, slimming into one of the century’s most stylish women, made news, as did her dropping out midway through a “Norma” in Rome in 1958. The year before, she had pleaded illness before missing a performance of Bellini’s La Sonnambula in Edinburgh, then was photographed at a swank party in Venice. A lifetime later, it all seems so petty, but the venom that greeted these cancellations – hard to imagine today – helped usher in the end of Callas’s career.

She left her husband for the shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, largely giving up performing in the process. When Onassis eventually married Jackie Kennedy instead, Callas was alone and bereft, without either the vocation that had given her purpose or the man who had replaced it. Living mostly in seclusion, though always harboring hopes of returning to the stage, she became for many a kind of saint or martyr, an embodiment of the hopelessly loving, direly abandoned characters she had played.

“Until the end,” a friend said, “she continued her vocal exercises.”

As Callas’s life fades ever further into the distance, her voice is more and more what we are left with. “Generally, I upset people the first time they hear me,” she told a biographer, “but I am usually able to convince them of what I am doing.”

To read Zachary Woolfe’s article, “Maria Callas Was Opera’s Defining Diva. She Still Is,” in its entirety, click here.

To hear Maria Callas sing, click here,
here, and here.

Related Off-site Links:
Maria Callas: The Soprano of the Century – Tom Huizenga (NPR News, December 2, 2023).
Enduring Greatness: Five Essential Maria Callas Recordings on Her Centenary – Martin Kettle (The Guardian, November 30, 2023).
Maria Callas: More Than a Myth – Jay Nordlinger (The National Review, November 29, 2023).
“They’ll See She Was Extraordinary”: Callas Centenary Inspires New Generation to Find the Real Maria – Vanessa Thorpe (The Guardian, November 19, 2023).
A Century After Her Birth, Opera Great Maria Callas is Honored with a New Museum in Greece – Derek Gatopoulos (AP News, October 26, 2023).

For more of Maria Callas at The Wild Reed, see:
“Better Than Callas We Will Never See”
Remembering Maria . . . Celebrating Callas
Maria by Callas: “Revelatory, Unprecedented, and Authoritative”
A Queer Aria
Re-Visioning Callas
Remembering Callas
Callas Went Away
Maria Callas – "Ava Maria"
Callas Remembered
The Impossible Desire of Pier Paolo Pasolini
Europe 2005 – Part 6: Paris

Images: Photographers unknown.

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