Maria Callas: A Voice and a Legend That Still Fascinate
by Anthony Tommasini, New York Times, 1997-09-15

What is it about Maria Callas that continues to mesmerize us 20 years after her death?

The iconic soprano has become the focus of a cult that the playwright and opera expert Albert Innaurato recently described as preposterous. There is something perverse in the way Callas crazoids cherish pirated recordings of her most vocally frayed live performances.

Yet her importance to opera has never been more pervasive. And her legend has never been richer, stoked in part by Terrence McNally's recent play "Master Class," a hit with audiences though not with many music critics, who reject the portrayal of this supreme artist as a self-absorbed, sniping and silly woman.

It's understandable that Callas' singing still polarizes listeners. Her voice can sound strident, dangerously out of control, even ugly. There is a leap you have to make to get to where she is as an artist; and once you cross over, it's hard to look back.

To a listener in the throes of a Callas recording, all other sopranos can seem like pale substitutes. She exploded the concept of what beautiful singing means: Is it pretty sounds and pure tones? Or should beauty evolve from text, musical shape, dramatic intent and, especially, emotional truth?

Tuesday marks the anniversary of Maria Callas' death in Paris in 1977 at the age of 53. To acknowledge the anniversary, a major exhibition has opened at La Scala in Milan and is scheduled to tour the United States and Japan. In December a seminar at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington will bring together historians, critics and singers to grapple with her legacy. A street in Paris is to be named after her. And in Greece an eternal flame is being dedicated the same day that a naval ship will lay a wreath on the waters where her ashes were scattered.

Most important, EMI Classics, the record company with which Callas was associated, is releasing its entire Callas catalog on compact discs, impressively remastered from the original tapes.

Many of these are benchmarks of recording history, providing riveting evidence of the way Callas conveyed emotional truth through her unconventional artistry.

Take her searing 1954 recording of "In questa reggia" from Puccini's "Turandot." Think of what she is singing about. Turandot, an icy princess in ancient Peking, nurses a hatred of all men because her revered ancestor, Lo-u Ling, was raped and murdered.

In "In questa reggia," Callas, as Turandot, begins telling the story with steely defiance to a heedless young suitor. "In this palace" thousands of years ago, "un grido disperato" ("a desperate cry") rang out. "E quel grido" ("and that cry") she sings, leaping with a ferocious wail to a high A, "took shelter in my heart," settling into dusky tones that convey the exhausting daily effort of sheltering that cry.

As Turandot invokes the name of Principessa Lo-u Ling, Callas ascends a sublimely sad phrase to a sustained midrange C sharp that seems to come from a place thousands of years away. As the soft note gains in intensity and starts to wobble, Lo-u Ling's tragedy is painfully evident.

Beverly Sills, who points to Callas as a role model, heard her only once, in a 1958 production of "La Traviata" at Covent Garden, and on that night Callas was in poor voice.

"She knew it, too," Ms. Sills said recently. "She didn't deceive herself about the state of her singing. She was visibly nervous. But her use of words, the vitality of language in her singing, was amazing. She was hellbent on her own destruction, and broke all the rules of singing. But so what? That's why 20 years later we're talking about her."

The new EMI sets have been repackaged in black-and-white boxes, which gives the series an archival look. Already in the stores is the first installment: 20 complete recordings of operas by Rossini, Verdi, Bizet, Puccini and others, including two legendary Bellini interpretations — the 1954 "Norma" with her mentor Tullio Serafin conducting, and the acclaimed "I Puritani" with her most frequent partner, the tenor Giuseppe di Stefano.

The remastered "Tosca," conducted by Victor de Sabata, which some critics have called, over all, the finest opera recording ever made, will also be released on Oct. 7 in CD-ROM format, with texts, biographies and production photos.

Phase two of the project will come in January with the release of 11 midprice recital discs as well as, for the first time on CD, Donizetti's "Poliuto" with the molten-voiced tenor Franco Corelli, whose clashes with the tempestuous diva were notorious.

The final installment, next March, will offer nine additional complete operas, plus two double-disc collections of rarities, some 70 discs in all. The company is confident that the rereleases, most of which have been available at one time or another, will be scooped up again in these new formats.

First, Awkwardness; Then, Determination

The glamour of Callas' life has been much exaggerated. Born in New York City to Greek parents, she returned with her mother to Greece at 14 and entered the conservatory in Athens. She began her career as a chunky woman, awkward on stage and unsure of her musical direction. Then with sheer determination she shed 70 pounds and became the sleekly beautiful and charismatic musical actress of legend.

There were essentially just two men in her life: her husband, Giovanni Battista Meneghini, 20 years her senior, who protected like a father and nurtured her career, and Aristotle Onassis, who lured her with promises of luxury and marriage, cared nothing for her art and publicly rejected her for the widowed Jacqueline Kennedy.

Video of 'Tosca,' but Only Act II

There are few documents of Callas onstage, the most important being Act II of "Tosca" taped at Covent Garden for a special television broadcast in 1964, which is available on an EMI video.

The fact that only Act II was taped is an incalculable loss to opera history, for Callas' Tosca is unforgettable. There is nothing grand or histrionic about her; gestures and movements are precise, natural, instinctively right. Much of the power of her portrayal comes from an ability to react: Callas listens with more intensity than most Toscas sing with.

Her legacy resides largely on the EMI discography, and every singer who has followed her has had to contend with these recordings. There are some roles that Callas stamped indelibly: for a soprano to take on. Norma or Tosca after Callas is like an actor's taking on Stanley Kowalski after Brando.

Shirley Verrett did just that with Norma and Tosca, for it was the example of Callas that, in part, compelled Ms. Verrett, who began her career as a mezzo-soprano, to add the Callas soprano roles to her repertory. "I saw her as Norma in 1956 and was floored," Ms. Verrett said recently. "It was not just her acting, but the way she acted with the voice. Every note was meaningful. The shape of the musical phrase and the dramatic gesture were linked. From then on I thought, this is what opera should be."

The idea that Callas used excessive expression to compensate for inadequate technique is often belied by the recordings. Her technique was wildly uneven, as much the result of willpower as know-how. But, as Ms. Sills pointed out, Callas' musicianship was impressive. Citing the final moments of "Qui la voce sua soave," Elvira's aria from Bellini's "Puritani," in the classic 1953 recording, Ms. Sills said:

"Those descending chromatic scales are so lithe, so rhythmically honest; every note is articulate. Most singers slide through the notes; she shapes them into vibrant gestures."

The producers at EMI have taken their archival responsibility seriously. Each reissued opera comes with a history of Callas' association with the role in question and a complete list of her stage performances in it.

This provides a stark reminder of how short her peak career was, essentially about 14 years, from 1950, two years before she began to lose weight, until 1964, when her voice grew unreliable and her relationship with Onassis started to deteriorate. For example, she performed Elvira, one of her most lauded portrayals, just 16 times onstage.

Callas' producer at EMI was Walter Legge, the husband of the soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. Legge understood like no other mentor the potential of Callas' artistry.

He encouraged her to learn and record new roles, even ones she never sang onstage, like Bizet's Carmen, Leoncavallo's Nedda and Puccini's Manon and Mimi; also comic roles, like Rosina from "The Barber of Seville," which she sang just five times onstage, but recorded with sparkling coloratura roulades and dramatic zest.

Puccini's Butterfly was another role urged on her by Legge that represented a stretch. She recorded it in 1955 and later that year sang it three times with the Chicago Lyric Opera, her only stage performances. The passionate Greek diva might seem an odd choice to portray a demure 15-year-old geisha. But Callas understood how hard Butterfly had fallen for a dashing American naval officer, with his hearty laugh and cocky ways.

The key to her portrayal comes in one moment of the love duet. "Why," Pinkerton asks, "have you not told me you love me?" "Maybe," Butterfly answers, "because she is afraid to say the word for fear of dying from it."

What emerges through the aching poignancy of Callas' sound and the pungency of her phrasing is a realization that to feel so strongly is to disarm oneself totally.

Callas' stature as a musician took a hit in McNally's "Master Class." His Callas is a caricature of the vulnerable woman and dedicated professional who gave 12 master classes at the Juilliard School in 1972, excerpts of which were released 10 years ago on another EMI set.

At the time of these classes, Callas' voice was virtually gone. Yet in struggling to help these awestruck students she could not refrain from singing herself, even when it meant exposing her ravaged vocal condition, which took great personal courage. McNally's Callas does no singing, just carping and carrying on.

In a way, Callas had to sing for the students, because she was not articulate about her artistry, or much else. Ms. Sills met with her only once, for a 90-minute tea. "We sat and chatted," she recalled, "and, in truth, there was nothing intellectually memorable about her in person.

"She asked what I did in my spare time. I told her that I was a word freak; I did word games and read books. She said: 'I don't read; I don't have the patience. I'm too fidgety.' She was serious and pleasant. In a way, she was an ordinary person with an extraordinary talent."

Along With Fame, a Sense of Isolation

Ms. Verrett recalled a story that made clear how isolated Callas had become in her last years.

It was 1970, and Ms. Verrett was scheduled to sing Adalgisa for a concert performance of "Norma" in Paris. When the performance was canceled because of a chorus strike, John Ardoin, the critic and Callas' friend, arranged for the lead singers to visit Callas at her Paris home.

"At dinner, she was like a little girl," Ms. Verrett said. "She showed off her house like a toy. The bathroom was a real ladies' toilette, with a sofa and a table with flowers. Callas had never performed with a black singer and was fascinated by me."

Some time later they met again, and Callas, Ms. Verrett said, told her: "Shirley, you must invite me to your house. I don't have many friends. When you're famous, people think you want privacy. But you will never have a more loyal friend than Maria Callas."

Ms. Verrett was overcome. "She was my idol," she said. "But I didn't want to assume a friendship with her. I thought she was being polite."

Soon after, Ms. Verrett's international career took off. Years passed; she never saw Callas. Then came the news that the diva had died of a heart attack, in her Paris home, alone.

Maria Callas had meant it. Perhaps the greatest singing artist of our time died feeling friendless and unsure of her legacy. Those of us who never heard her live must rely on the stories and on the incomparable recordings.

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