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.


  1. This was absolutely exquisite. I bathed myself in your freshly elegant prose and learned a great deal,too, things that I hadn't known about la Divina. Thank you, Marion.

  2. Thank you so much. I am so grateful for your kind words! m