Callas in Norma II

Towards the end of this reportage, at c. 7:30, you will find what is probably the most important footage of Callas in staged opera apart from the two versions of Tosca Act II.

The director Sandro Sequi, who studied dancing with Clotilde and Alexandre Sakharoff (himself a student of Isadora Duncan), saw Sakharoff’s methods reflected in Callas’s movements on stage.
This alternation of tension and relaxation can exert an incredible hold over the public. I believe this was the key to Callas’s magnetism, why her singing and acting were so compelling. Think of the movements of her arms in the Mad Scene of Lucia. They were like the wings of a great eagle, a marvelous bird. When they went up, and she often moved them very slowly, they seemed heavy—not heavy like a dancer’s arms, but weighted. Then, she reached the climax of a musical phrase, her arms relaxed and flowed into the next gesture, until she reached a new musical peak, and then again calm. There was a continuous line to her singing and movements, which were really very simple.


Callas: The Dregs

Maria Callas’s 1972 Philips recording of duets with Giuseppe di Stefano has never been commercially released (in The Callas Legacy, John Ardoin deemed the prospect “ghoulish”) but some, maybe all, of the material can be found on YouTube.

I listened to the Otello duet, which I found ghastly. I will say nothing of di Stefano—even in his prime, he is, for me, an unacceptably coarse vocalist—but Callas sounds tentative and adrift. Ardoin wrote of another selection that she “is forced to chop up phrases into small expressive units to breathe and survive.” The same is true of her pitiful work in Desdemona’s Act I music.

In the Forza duet, muscle memory seems to take over, because here and there Callas shapes a phrase or colors a word with some of her old magic. (She recorded Forza for EMI and sang Leonora onstage during her early years in Italy.)

For the record: Ardoin assesses the Forza duet very harshly and judges the selection from Vespri to be the disc’s highlight, relatively speaking. Myself, I don’t know whether I will listen to any more than the Otello and Forza duets.

Callas and Orpheus: Codicil

Rufus Wainwright’s song “Damned Ladies,” an homage to opera’s female victims, ends with a nod to the genre’s founding myth:
Damned ladies of Orpheus:
Your arias cause a stir in my sad and lonely heart


Callas in Mozart and Verdi

27 January is a day kissed by the angels, a vortex of musical space-time. It is the day on which Mozart began his earthly journey in 1756 and on which Verdi passed back into eternity in 1901.

Maria Callas sang only one Mozart heroine on stage: Kostanze in Die Entführung aus dem Serail (1952, La Scala). Verdi was much more important in her career; her Verdi rôles comprised Gilda, Violetta, both Leonoras, Elisabeth de Valois, Lady Macbeth, Hélène, Aida, Amelia, and Abigaille.

A quote from Will Crutchfield’s masterful 1997 article “The bel canto connection”:
One of Maria Callas’ more eyebrow-raising comments in her 1971 – 72 Juilliard master classes was the assertion that Mozart “should be performed with the same frankness and bel canto approach one would use in Il trovatore, for instance. Mozart,” she went on, to make sure no one overlooked the point, “was a master of bel canto, and a necessity of bel canto is a full, sustained tone and good legato. So sing Mozart as though he were Verdi—there is no difference in the approach.”
Callas, Crutchfield concludes, was “dead right”—though, heaven knows, fascists and dorks of many stripes would howl in protest.

(For the record: I think that today’s “mainstream,” commonly accepted performance practices for both Mozart and Verdi are pathetic and wrongheaded.)

Judge Callas’s work for yourself. For this 27 January 2010, I make you two gifts: Her 1954 recording of “Marten aller Arten” and her 1956 recording of “Tu vedrai che amore in terra.”

Both Kostanze and the Trovatore Leonora are in love with death, and Callas imbues their music with a dark urgency.


Callas and Orpheus

Scholars have long acknowledged the importance of Orpheus for the history of opera. Many of the earliest operas took Orpheus as their theme because the cameratisti who wrote and commissioned them cast themselves in the guise of the legendary bard, raising from the dead not Eurydice but their beloved, the drama of the ancient Greeks.

Orpheus harrowed the underworld; in some tellings of his tale (notably Vergil’s), his madness (furor) undid the miracles he had accomplished with his song. Legendary singers partake of Orpheus’s glory and limitations: Pauline Viardot (who reportedly sang Gluck’s Orphée, with its despicable happy ending, some 150 times) and also Maria Callas.

Callas is both Orpheus and Eurydice. The only rôle that she created was Eurydice in Haydn’s Orfeo ed Euridice, composed in 1791 but not staged until 1951. While some dispute her importance to the past half-century’s renewed interest in early Ottocento music, many agree with Pierre-Jean Rémy that, Orpheus-like, “she revived an art of singing which had been forgotten or neglected for years.”

In Vergil, Orpheus sings after even death:
Rent from the marble neck, his drifting head,
The death-chilled tongue found yet a voice to cry
‘Eurydice! ah! poor Eurydice!’
With parting breath he called her, and the banks
From the broad stream caught up ‘Eurydice!’
Callas’s voice, too, echoes on and on in those recordings that we orfanelli never quit, even to the point of carrying them around in a coffin. (The mechanical, almost autistic quality of our listening may evoke Ovid’s derision more than Vergil’s pathos.)

Are we Bacchantes, obsessively poring over the scattered bits of Callas’s life and work? Or are we puny parodies of Orpheus, forever bereft of Callas-Eurydice, fallen silent too soon, never coaxed back to life?

Callas’s most maudlin biographers say that in the 1970s, she spent mournful hours listening to recordings from her glory days, knowing that her past vocal mastery would never return. This Callas-Orpheus suffered perhaps the cruellest fate of all, that of outliving her own, once triumphant voice.

The image shows Orpheus sculpted by Antonio Canova, on display at the Museo Correr in Venezia. Callas recorded “J’ai perdu mon Eurydice” under Georges Prêtre in 1961.


Callas and Walter Benjamin

By this point the student of Walter Benjamin will be on edge. Mechanical reproduction, he [sic] will object, destroys the ritual value of a work of art, its “aura.” How can a cheap copy of art, like a poster or a record, figure in a ritual?
Evan Eisenberg, The Recording Angel


Callas in Medea I

The clip shows a 1969 NBC report on Callas in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film Medea, including many outtakes.

As was her wont, Callas affects a posh accent, and her dismissive remarks about music and opera are humbug. Still, I am not aware of an interview in which she appears more serene and fulfilled. Her trust and admiration for Pasolini, her cinematic taskmaster, seem wholehearted.
He feels my mind the way I feel. He’s like an eagle that looks straight into the mind and soul. This is his great quality… I call it quicksilver. I’m quicksilver, and he is the same kind.
Contrast this with footage shot from the orchestra pit of Callas in the title rôle of Luigi Cherubini’s Medea, during one of her last performances at La Scala (in 1961 or 1962).

To quote one of the YouTube comments: “Seeing her performing is like watching a goddess blessing us.”


Callas in Tosca I

This snippet purports to show Callas as Tosca at the Metropolitan Opera in 1965—at her entrance, following which she freezes as the audience erupts into applause.
“A fine picture, Signorina; whatever it represents, it’s a pretty thing and should be treated carefully.” Then he turned to the relics: seventy-four of them, they completely covered the two walls on each side of the altar. Each was enclosed in a frame which also contained a card with information about it and a number referring to the documents of authentication. These documents themselves, often voluminous and hung with seals, were locked in a damask-covered chest in a corner of the chapel. There were frames of worked and smooth silver, frames of bronze and coral, frames of tortoiseshell; in filigree, in rare woods, in boxwood, in red and blue velvet; large, tiny, square, octagonal, round, oval; frames worth a fortune and frames bought at the Bocconi stores: all collected by those devoted souls in their religious exaltation as custodians of supernatural treasures.
Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, The Leopard


The ghost of Maria Callas

“The Ghost of Maria Callas” by Matt Elliott is from his 2006 CD, Failing Songs. Wordless, it is unquiet and graceful.

Is it a song about failing? A song that is failing? A song failing (in the absence of) songs? (Now that is one sexy idea.)

What to make of the melody’s spin and tendency to fold in on itself? Of its quickening tempo and its dying out, hoarse, only to be taken up by that sad, sad piano?

Elliott evoked the spirit world earlier in his career. He said of his 1997 album, Ghost:
While I was making Ghost, I wasn’t really making it for humans. It seemed to me that there was like lots of people just hanging around. The whole experience was really strange.


Callas and Rufus Wainwright I

I think Callas sang a lovely Norma,
you prefer Robeson in “Deep River.”
I may not be so manly,
but still I know you love me…
Rufus Wainwright, “Beauty Mark”

Rufus Wainwright, whose opera Prima Donna was inspired in part by Maria Callas, addresses these lines to his folkie mother Kate McGarrigle. “Beauty Mark” is from his 1998 début album, Rufus Wainwright. McGarrigle died in January 2010, and Wainwright published a fierce and moving tribute to her.

Over the years, Wainwright alluded to differences of style and taste between himself and his crunchy, flower-child mom, exemplified here by Callas and Bellini (precious, foofy, arcane) versus Paul Robeson and spirituals (engagé, “of the people”). Well, the dichotomy, in some ways, is false—but I digress.

The avowed contrasts between McGarrigle and Wainwright made it all the more touching to see her performing with him (for example, during his Carnegie Hall Judy Garland program) and lustily cheering him on (at New York City Opera’s 2005 Opera-For-All Gala and elsewhere).

Maria Callas never knew a mother’s unconditional love. How lucky for Wainwright (and for those of us who admire him) that McGarrigle nurtured her son’s unique talents and empowered him to pursue his own path.

Rest in peace, Kate, and thank you for leaving us your own important body of work as well as two beautiful musicians (Rufus and sister Martha).


Callas as Lucia

At times one feels oneself to be enormous, larger than the theater. At other moments one is small, tiny, one feels ashamed, one would like to run away, one is terrified. And at those times the performance continues, one must sing, act, create.
Interview with French national broadcasting company (1965)


« La Callas du music-hall »

Dalida, born on 17 January 1933, was known in her time as La Callas du music-hall. Sprung from puffery, the epithet nonetheless points to interesting parallels between the two artists.

Both were “exotics,” at home nowhere, almost without a native tongue. (Dalida was born in Egypt to Italian parents and spent most of her life in France.) Both exemplified public glamour and private unhappiness—to the extent that either woman was granted privacy.

Both underwent striking physical transformations and mastered an astonishing variety of musical styles (ranging, in Dalida’s case, from bubblegum pop and yé-yé to disco and the chanson d’auteur). Both sang with arresting intensity and gave unsparingly of themselves to music and their public.

Both, too, enjoy a cult following among gays. (Dalida spoke out early and forcefully for gay rights.)

Both died in their early fifties—Dalida of an overdose of barbiturates in 1987.

Callas crossed paths with Sylvie Vartan and Johnny Hallyday, contemporaries of Dalida, but I do not know whether she ever met Dalida.


Callas and D&G

Dolce&Gabbana are stockists to those who mistake flash for elegance and vulgarity for style, to provincials not of place but of soul. (Luca Turin notes of their swill, Light Blue: “If you hate fragrance, you’re probably on your fourth bottle.”)

Their fall 2009 ready-to-wear collection included Maria Callas t-shirts and other frippery for which, they claimed, she was somehow to blame. (Their show took place in Milano’s Cinema Metropol, where Callas recorded Norma for EMI in 1954.)

WWMD? Petition for redress of grievances, no doubt!

JRD, ever acute, wrote of Dolce&Gabbana:
These men have always struck me as the Kevin Costner and Anna Netrebko of the fashion world. Their talent as a team is neither here nor there.
Indeed, they did their best work undressing the Azzurri. (And, yeah, thanks for nothing with those uniforms for Euro 2008.)


Callas and Martha Graham

She is for me exciting and deeply moving—Her sense of design, her never-failing animal-like absorption in the instant—that spiral of inner activity which is rare and devastating to watch—the precious calculation of her appearance and the fact that she has an innate courtesy to her audience which makes her wear her costumes for their pleasure…
Martha Graham after seeing Callas in Norma (1956)
The images are taken from the 1961 or 1962 Medea footage from La Scala.


Callas in La Gioconda

Amilcare Ponchielli’s La Gioconda (1876) bookended Callas’s greatest years. In 1947, she made her Italian début in the title rôle in Verona. There she met two men who would prove decisive for her life and career: The conductor Tullio Serafin and her future husband and manager, Giovanni Battista Meneghini.

She made two commercial recordings of the opera, for Cetra in 1952 and for EMI in 1959. (The photo shows her during the 1959 sessions.) The EMI recording was set down immediately after she had left Meneghini, as news of her relationship with the shipowner Aristotle Onassis exploded in the press.

La Gioconda, with a libretto by Arrigo Boito based on Victor Hugo, is claptrap, much loved by fans of murk and truculence. (For Callas, Ponchielli’s music was “on the borderline of decent singing.”) Gioconda is a singer of ballads in love with a sea captain. For reasons of filial piety, she sacrifices her own happiness—that is, passes up chances to stab, poison, and bury alive her rival. Instead, she kills herself.

You need know no more.

The opera takes place in Venice, a city that Callas loved. For much of her life, she spoke Italian with the lilt of the Veneto, the region of Venice and Verona.

Callas’s 1952 recording of “Sucidio!” is a monumental thing, cast in molten-lava tones. But she was especially proud of this 1959 version—tamer, perhaps, but more inward and musically refined, with phrases and episodes beautifully knit together. The sessions found her in superb late-career voice. (She was 35 at the time.)


Callas in Norma I

With thanks to the reader who brought this clip to my attention, here is what purports to be video of Callas in Norma at the Opéra de Paris in 1965.

I cannot determine to what extent, if at all, the audio and the footage are synchronized; nor is it clear to me that, excepting the curtain call (at c. 6:51), the video actually depicts Callas or conveys any meaningful information about her.

Let’s be honest: These ghostly images have the pathos and the credibility of a séance, shaped less by the agency of the departed than by the needs and desires of those in attendance, we orfanelli callasiani.

In 1949, Callas was a more vocally secure and less fully formed Norma.


Callas went away

Enigma is an electronic musical collective born of mysteries and dreams.

Michael Cretu, the project’s founder, said that Enigma’s sound came to him while he was sleeping on a train. Early on, Cretu and his colleagues worked anonymously, but their use of audio samples led to high-profile copyright lawsuits.

Wikipedia indicates that “unsolved crimes“ and “philosophical themes such as life after death” inspired the group’s name and sound.

“Callas went away” is a cut from Enigma’s first CD, MCMXC a.D. (released in 1990). It samples phrases from Callas’s 1963 recording of Charlotte’s dark, foreboding Air des lettres from Massenet’s Werther: “I re-read them again and again. I should destroy them. Those letters, those letters!”
Callas went away,
but her voice forever stay.
Callas went away.
She went away.
(G-d bless you.)
Ah ! Je les relis sans cesse.
Je devrais les détruire
Ces lettres, ces lettres !


Essay: Callas : Trente ans déjà

Note: I first published this tribute to Callas in September 2007 at my old blog, vilaine fille, to mark the thirtieth anniversary of Callas’s death. Many bloggers kindly linked to it, and ionarts at the time wrote: “Best Maria Callas tribute. Anywhere.” It is slightly revised here.

The densely encrusted tiaras and parures threw off icy flashes of color—acid yellow, violet, snowy white. Spectral women hovered silently in front of the jewels. There was a will-o’-the-wisp ballerina wearing a crown of dainty white flowers; a somber queen whose huge eyes were dark with encroaching madness; a pagan priestess lost in thought, swept up in the riptide of her doom.

The gems were fakes: Swarovski crystals, the same kind that sparkle on the Metropolitan Opera’s chandeliers. And the ghostly ladies were holograms of soprano Maria Callas, on display earlier this year along with her stage jewelry and other memorabilia in the Met’s Founders Hall.

The installation of Callas relics blotted out the portraits of Met stalwarts that line the space. That was not the least of the exhibit’s ironies, given that the Washington Heights soprano’s appearances with her hometown company were infrequent (twenty-one in all), mediocre (Callas groused of “lousy” productions and mix-and-match casts), and abruptly interrupted when Met intendant Rudolf Bing dismissed her in 1958. Callas lived in New York from her birth in 1923 until 1937, and again from 1945 to 1947. All her life, when she let slip her grand airs, she spoke English with a decided New York snap.

The world’s most celebrated soprano died in Paris, rich, silent, and young, thirty years ago, on September 16, 1977. A frenzy of memorializing is now under way. By the company’s estimate, more than three million people have viewed the Swarovski-sponsored jewels show, most recently seen in Japan—where, as it happens, Callas last sang in public: November 1974, Sapporo, the terminus of her dismal “comeback” tour. A thirtieth anniversary exhibit opens this week at La Scala, with film screenings and displays of costumes and photos. 2007 has been the official Year of Maria Callas in Greece, her ancestral land, where an admirer stole one of her dresses from the Italian Cultural Institute in Athens, then mailed it back. In 2000, Callas-worship took perhaps its most morbid turn, as some 500 lots of her personal effects—including foundation garments and Pyrex measuring cups—were auctioned off amidst mayhem in Paris. Items from her ex-husband’s estate are to be sold in Milan later this year.

Half a century after her greatest triumphs, Callas continues to define popular conceptions of opera. Her image has been used to hawk Apple computers, and her voice has been sampled in pop music—Enigma’s “Callas Went Away,” for example, through which flutter mournful samples of Callas in an aria from Massenet’s Werther. She has been the subject of defamation on Broadway (Terrence McNally’s Master Class) and hagiography at the movies (Franco Zeffirelli’s Callas Forever). Rufus Wainwright’s opera Prima Donna is based in part on Callas’s words and life.

As former Callas bootlegs have been rehabilitated, joining her official EMI catalogue, and as her EMI recordings have begun entering the public domain in Europe, she remains (by some estimates—EMI was unable to confirm this) the best-selling classical singer of all time. Nearly all she set down sounds dim and agèd compared with current-day marvels, but she is a heavyweight even on iTunes, where most (perhaps all) of her EMI recordings can be downloaded, including such ephemera as two test recordings she made in 1953 of “Non mi dir” from Mozart’s Don Giovanni.

As the decades separating us from Callas stack up, the obsession with the most intimate aspects of her life, material and artistic, grows more intense. In Greek Fire, his account of the soprano’s affair with the shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, Nicholas Gage alleged that, in 1960, Callas insisted that a “secret son” she was carrying be delivered by an early caesarean, so that Onassis would not see her “swollen and nine months pregnant.” As Gage tells it, the premature infant died as a result of Callas’s vanity. Whether or not his claims hold up (and there is evidence both for and against them), they speak to the moralistic fervor to see Callas get her comeuppance that burns even today.

In death as in life, Callas vexes and unnerves. Her voice could be wiry and sour, and her cancellations disruptive, but in hindsight, it seems that where Callas roused the greatest controversy was in testing the limits of tolerance for conspicuous female power. She was the girl who started with nothing and became the most celebrated musician on the planet—the heavy woman who willed herself into an Audrey Hepburn-like sylph—the artist who seemed to be able to sing any music written for the female voice. Fans and biographers claim that Callas wracked her voice when she (a) lost the weight and/or (b) dumped her dull but devoted husband for the rakish Onassis. How dare she? The Milanese public that crowned Callas queen of La Scala also, at the pinnacle of her greatness, smeared the outside of her home with feces. The chances she took and the heights she reached were apparently too much to bear.

Callas remains the standard by which other singers are judged. Today, some call the starlet Anna Netrebko “the Russian Callas,” inspired by the dark beauty and hyperkinetic stage manner the two purportedly share. But despite her reputation as a scenery-chewer, Callas was always spare and restrained in her movements. Instead, she burned with music’s inner fire—as shown in the DVD of her 1958 Paris concert, where she is often still and always mesmerizing. And while Netrebko has copped to showing up for gigs with her music unlearned, Callas was ever the diligent schoolgirl. As a teen, she was the first to arrive and the last to depart at her teachers’ studios. As an established star, she sometimes rehearsed for twenty hours at a stretch, studying scores and honing her slow, graceful gestures deep into the night.

Of all the Callas treasures from which one can choose—the La Scala Traviata from 1955, the Dallas rehearsal and Cologne Sonnambula from 1957, the EMI Verdi and mad scenes recitals, and the studio sets of Norma—I think that those 1953 test recordings from Don Giovanni may best represent what she was about. Callas sight-read the music (she had not prepared it in advance), so the interpretations lack her customary fire. But listen to the wonders that she was able to summon on the fly: poised, exquisitely tapered phrases, whistle-clean passagework, pinpoint-perfect staccatos, and a trill of instrumental neatness. They were fruits less of “genius” than of self-abnegating devotion to craft.

The performances remind us that, behind the glitter and the ever-shifting guises, there was a woman who served art with humility and love. The awe that Callas inspires today, thirty years after her death, is an echo of the awe that she herself brought to music.


Callas à l’enfer

Old news (link NSFH–not safe for humanity), it nonetheless freezes the blood.
I had a vision. I was in the front row at the Academy Awards with my mother, husband and son, and I won an Oscar for my role as Maria Callas,” says [Céline] Dion, 39, conjuring up the ill-fated Greek opera diva whose story haunts the Canadian siren.

“First, I speak English to thank the academy. Then I speak grec, Greek. Then some French to thank the people at home.” She pauses… “The faces of my mom, my husband, my son. Priceless. It is my best achievement as an artist.”
Bon, que dites-vous là au Québec ? Se retourner dans la tombe ? A retourner l’estomac ?


Callas in Macbeth

Her second selection is her opening scene in Macbeth. It begins superbly, but when the line rises to a high C that had rung out steely-sure at La Scala, her voice cracks, and for an instant she breaks character with an oddly coquettish, apologetic smile. Blink and you would miss it, but if you don’t blink it takes several moments before Lady Macbeth is back in focus.
Will Crutchfield, “The Story of a Voice”


Callas slideshow

Over at the main Re-visioning Callas site, you will find a slideshow of Callas images with words by and about her.

Enjoy, and please let me know what you think.