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.


  1. Sublime as ever.

    Kudos on another achievement!


  2. Dearest of dear hearts: Thank you, as always, for your kindness and much-valued feedback. xxo, m