Callas and intelligence

Since Maria Callas is patently more intelligent than anyone who has ever presumed to write anything about her, the definitive book on Callas will be written by herself or not be written.
The Musical Times (1961)
“The definitive book on Callas will… not be written.”

Oh, phew. That really takes the pressure off.

Bon week-end, peeps and tweeps. Listen to Callas singing Cilea. Back at you next week.


Callas and the sublime

Her voice was one of a kind—powerful but delicate, sensual and spiritual at the same time. It was a voice you could pick out from a thousand, one that made you think of grandiose landscapes, mountains and high Alpine lakes, with an echo of the deepest sea.
Dacia Maraini
I am translating a beautiful interview about Maria Callas with the writer Dacia Maraini. Maraini is a person of intelligence and integrity, in contrast to many people who have written about Callas. But I digress.

It struck me when I was typing the bit above that Maraini is describing the sublime—a Romantic or proto-Romantic notion of the sublime rather than a classical one, but the sublime nonetheless.

Read what the author of On the Sublime wrote about “sublime” versus “faultless” writers, and see if her or his words do not bring to mind Callas.
It is true that Bacchylides and Ion are faultless and entirely elegant writers of the polished school, while Pindar and Sophocles, although at times they burn everything before them as it were in their swift career, are often extinguished unaccountably and fail most lamentably. But would anyone in his senses regard all the compositions of Ion put together as an equivalent for the single play of the Oedipus?
On the Sublime (Περὶ ὕψους)
Eventually, I will offer you Maraini’s interview in several installments.


Callas tourism

Pilgrimage: A journey (usually of a long distance) made to a sacred place as an act of religious devotion; the action or practice of making such a journey.

Jared Paul Stern (oh dear) invites us to book passage for “a special Maria Callas Experience charter” this spring and summer on board the Christina O.

The yacht Christina, a floating palace of its day, belonged to Aristotle Onassis. Callas and Onassis reportedly became lovers on board in 1959. The boat changed hands several times after the tycoon’s death in 1975 and was renamed Christina O—eliding the name of Onassis’s daughter and the jaunty (scandalized?) nickname of his second wife—about ten years ago.

According to Wikipedia, she can be chartered for €45,000 to €65,000 a day.

Sean “Diddy” Combs recently cruised on the Christina O.

The more impecunious among us may prefer a tour of locations associated with Maria Callas in Verona (where she made her Italian début) and possibly also Zevio (where her husband had a family home) and Sirmione (where Callas and her husband owned a vacation home).

The site mentions a museum in Zevio displaying Callas memorabilia, “thousands of pictures, old records, magazines, dresses of the great singer.” As of late 2009, it was not yet open, though I may not have the latest information.

I offer you, as well, an article about Maria Callas and her dogs, with more than sixty photos, including the image you see here of Callas with her poodle Tea in Verona, c. 1954.


Callas in Il barbiere di Siviglia

Maria Callas portrayed Rosina in Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia at La Scala in 1956. It was one of her two comic rôles (along with Fiorilla in Il turco in Italia), and it was the greatest flop of her career.

The production, a revival, was without distinction and under-rehearsed. Carlo Maria Giulini admitted, “I conducted every performance with my head down so I wouldn’t see what was happening on stage.”

Nicola Rossi-Lemeni (the Basilio) recalled that Callas was “aggressive, a viper,” and treated Barbiere as a prima donna showcase rather than the ensemble piece that it is.

That said, when Callas recorded the opera for EMI in 1957, she had rethought the rôle of Rosina. As John Ardoin writes, the set finds her both “playful” and “sedate,” and Alceo Galliera (a fine, underrated maestro) conducts with brio.

Callas’s exchanges with Tito Gobbi’s Figaro sparkle with complicity and malizia.


Callas and Pasolini I

The caption reads: “Maria Callas and Pier Paolo Pasolini, departing for Paris en route to Mar del Plata, where they will present the film Medea. Callas and Pasolini avoided answering questions about their wedding, which some sources describe as imminent.”

(Pasolini, for those unfamiliar with the man and his work, was gay.)

Pasolini wrote several poems for and about Maria Callas. They are dense and gnarly. Following is my (wretched) translation of the closing lines of “Timor di me?” from the collection Trasumanar ed organizzar.

(“Timor di me?”—“Fear for me?”—are words from Leonora’s Act IV scena in Verdi’s Il trovatore.)
You give, you scatter gifts, you need to give,
But your gift was given by Him, like all;
And it is a Nothing, the gift of No one;
I feign receiving;
I thank you, sincerely grateful;
But the weak, fleeting smile
Is born not of shyness;
It is the dismay, more terrible, far more terrible,
Of having a separate body, in the realms of being—
If it is a sin,
If it’s not simply an accident; but in place of the Other
For me there is a void in the cosmos,
A void in the cosmos,
And from there, you sing.
At YouTube, you can watch a video of Callas performing Leonora’s recitative and aria from Act IV of Il trovatore (1958 Paris concert), including the bit beginning “Timor di me?”

She is not in top form, but she is surpassingly beautiful.


Callas in Madama Butterfly

The video shows Maria Callas in rehearsal for her only performances in the title rôle of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, which took place in Chicago in 1955.

(After her third Butterfly, on 17 November, she was served with a summons on behalf of her former associate Eddie Bagarozy, resulting in the infamous photo of her with “her mouth in a hyena-like snarl,” as Michael Scott wrote. It marked a turning point in her public image.)

Following you will find the end of Act I of Madama Butterfly sung by Callas and Nicolai Gedda under the direction of Herbert von Karajan, a recording also from 1955.


Callas and Dacia Maraini

In the early 1970s, Callas travelled to Africa with Pier Paolo Pasolini, Alberto Moravia, and Dacia Maraini. (Wow, wouldn’t you like to have gone on that trip?)

Maraini interviewed Callas, and I offer you a translation of part of the interview.

Which operatic character did you most enjoy interpreting?
Norma. That scold who understands everything but can do nothing. Perhaps she resembles me.

What rôle has religion played in your life?
I believe in a divine power, even if I don’t know its name. The stagecraft, the coups de théâtre of organized religion don’t appeal to me at all. But I wouldn’t be an atheist, because that would be a negative outlook. My only sanctimonious gesture is making the sign of the cross before I go on stage. It’s a habit, a superstition.

You were born Orthodox, yes?
Yes, and I’m still Orthodox, though not in a traditional way.

If you had to define your moral in a few words, what would it be?
I don’t hurt others, though it might be easy for me to do so. First, because I don’t want to—vengeance depresses me—and second, because I fear that the hurt would fall back on me. Sooner or later the ugly things that we do come back to haunt us. I love good manners; I hate hypocrisy. I’m kind with those who respect me. I don’t easily forgive those who lash out at me.


Callas and Isolde

Beauty can pierce one like pain.
Thomas Mann, Buddenbrooks

Maria Callas set down this recording of Isolde’s Transfiguration from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in November of 1949, a month before she turned 26.

To me, she is the most human and girlish of Isoldes, though her voice also has dark, liquid depths in which one can drown. Only an artist who has come to grips with Bellini can sing Wagner’s music with this degree of mastery. (The converse does not hold true, and this would have pained Wagner.)

Callas portrayed Isolde a dozen times between 1947 and 1950. It was one of her three Wagnerian rôles, along with Kundry in Parsifal and the Walküre Brünnhilde. The Transfiguration remained in her concert repertoire, and she reportedly considered reprising Isolde at La Scala in the early 1960s.

Not much Callas, mostly admin

Re-visioning Callas got a shout-out from Alex Ross of The New Yorker. I am humbled and grateful.

Thanks to a contact in Greece, I have more accurate information about the Omero Lengrini story. Look for a revised post (or a new entry) next week.


Callas and Fiorilla

During her opening aria, Fiorilla extols the virtues of promiscuity to a group of her friends. Not only does the flirtatious girl have an old husband, she also has a young lover and is soon to pursue the wealthy Turk. No one in Milan needed to be reminded that Callas herself had an old husband and while her fidelity was not in question at the time, she shared other qualities with the volatile Fiorilla. It made for all the more fun.
John Ardoin and Gerald Fitzgerald, Callas
Maria Callas portrayed Fiorilla in Rossini’s Il Turco in Italia in Rome in 1950 and at La Scala in 1955.

Her 1954 recording under Gianandrea Gavazzeni, questionable by today’s standards of philology, is nonetheless pure delight.


Callas de cire, Callas de son

The Musée Grévin in Paris opened in 1882. According to Wikipedia, its mirrored mirage room is “based on the principle of a catoptric cistula.” I was heretofore unfamiliar with the structure, which appears in both The Phantom of the Opera and Borges. (Note to self: Must read and watch more closely.)

Maria Callas is one of the wax figures in the Musée Grévin. Bejewelled, she is shown (anachronistically) with the designer Jean-Paul Gaultier as she delightedly applauds a couture sketch. He seems pleased, perhaps a bit embarrassed, by her approbation.

Does Callas stand in for Madonna c. 1989 (Blond Ambition)? (Gaultier as Biki really makes no sense.)

In the early 1970s, Gaultier worked in Paris. In 1976, a year or so before Callas died, he showed his first collection for women. Perhaps their paths crossed.

The time seems ripe to meditate on Serge Gainsbourg’s song “Poupée de cire, poupée de son,” made famous by France Gall. The lyrics teem with puns and doubles entendres. My quick-and-dirty translation offers a small, tendentious selection of them.
I’m a wax doll, a sound doll.
My heart is recorded in my songs.
Wax doll, sound doll,
Am I better, am I worse, than a fashion doll?
I see life through candy-pink glasses.

My records are a mirror
In which everyone can see me.
I’m everywhere at once,
Smashed into a thousand pieces of voice.

Around me, I hear the rag dolls laughing,
Those who dance to my songs…
They surrender to a yes, to a name.
Love isn’t only in songs.

Alone, sometimes I sigh.
I say, “What good is it,
To sing of love without reason,
Knowing nothing of boys?”
I’m nothing but a wax doll, a sound doll,
Beneath the sun of my blonde hair…

But one day, I will live my songs…
Without fear of boys’ heat…


Callas and Omero Lengrini

In recent years, the most sensational trouvaille in the realm of Callas biographies—one now widely accepted as true—has come from Nicholas Gage.

In Greek Fire: The Story of Maria Callas and Aristotle Onassis (2000), Gage claims that on March 30, 1960, Callas gave birth to a “secret son” by Onassis, Omero Lengrini. (For Gage, “Lengrini” is the pseudonym under which Callas registered at hospital, while the name “Omero” commemorates an uncle of Onassis.) This child was supposedly conceived in August 1959, at the start of Callas’s relationship with Onassis.

According to Gage, Callas insisted that the child be delivered a month early by caesarean section to present Onassis (away on a cruise but due back in early April) “with a fait accompli.” The premature infant died within hours.

I’ve not arrived at a final conclusion, but Gage’s story has never made sense to me. He accepts Meneghini’s claim that Callas was in the early stages of menopause in 1957 and received a year-long series of injections to stave it off.

From there, Gage spins a long string of suppositions, starting with the notion that the injections “almost certainly” were estrogen hormones. Then, all emphasis added:
If Maria had been receiving these injections regularly for at least a year (and perhaps two) beginning in May 1957, then by the time she slept with Onassis in August of 1959, she might have been superfertile.
Gage asserts that a French journalist who interviewed Callas in person in what would have been her seventh month of pregnancy failed to notice her condition. He also claims, inaccurately, that after December 1959, Callas “would not appear in public for the next several months.” In fact, she was photographed on several high-profile occasions in both Milan and Paris as late as mid-February.

A certain “Nina Foresti,” whose site I commend to all, has the photos to demolish Gage’s tale. Nina also publishes Omero Lengrini’s complete birth certificate, which indicates that he was the son of one Mario Lengrini and spouse. (I’ve not yet verified the full birth certificate; Gage offers only partial documentation and claims that Omero’s parents were not identified.)

Nina’s site also includes embedded video of Callas, radiant and glamorous, arriving at the 1960 Cannes Festival, some six weeks after allegedly losing a nearly full-term baby.

Other evidence that argues against Gage’s account:
  • Photographs from the sixth or seventh month of Callas’s supposed pregnancy show her as slim and wasp-waisted as ever—and the idea, put forth by Gage, that a singer’s strong abdominal muscles could hide an advanced pregnancy is ludicrous.
  • In Gage’s book, Onassis’s former masseuse reports that Callas had a scar in the lower part of her abdomen. Gage presents this as evidence of a caesarean birth, but Callas’s 1948 appendectomy could have left such a scar.
  • Gage surmises that Callas rushed the delivery because she “feared having [Onassis] see her swollen and nine months pregnant.” Yet the scar from a c. 1960 caesarean delivery itself would have been quite disfiguring.
  • Many authors (Stassinopoulos, Petsalis-Diomidis, Gage himself) reproduce photographs of Callas wearing a bikini, long after the supposed birth, with no evidence of a caesarean scar.
  • If Callas were intent on concealing a pregnancy, why on earth would she have chosen to give birth in Milan, where paparazzi followed her every move and camped out on her doorstep?
  • Nina Foresti lists engagements for late 1960 that Callas negotiated during her supposed pregnancy and notes that she was back in the recording studio months after Omero Lengrini died. Nina concludes, and I concur: “If this woman gave birth to a son who died shortly thereafter… in light of what she undertook in those months [of 1960], she is not a courageous woman: She is a monster.”
  • Finally, by all accounts, Callas wanted nothing more than a child. The idea that she would endanger her baby’s life for reasons of vanity is grotesque. (And what does it mean, to present Onassis “with a fait accompli”? That he might have pressured her to abort a nearly full-term fetus? That idea is both grotesque and hateful.)
I am not prepared to say that Callas never fell pregnant or never gave birth, only that Gage’s tale has more holes in it than Emmentaler. The one longtime Callas friend with whom I have discussed this subject mused that Callas, at some point, hypothetically, could have given birth, but knew nothing of the events related by Gage.

You can learn more about the Omero Lengrini controversy at the Divina Records site, where two articles by Brigitte Pantis argue strongly against the hypothesis that Omero Legrini was Callas’s son.


Callas in La traviata I

Video footage of Maria Callas in La traviata, shot in Lisbon in 1958.

Much of the video is unrevealing: Act IV is very dim indeed, and Callas barely moves, as befits a woman whose life and strength are ebbing away. However, at Flora’s party, take note of the moment when she sets eyes on Alfredo, starts, turns away, then composes herself to respond to Douphol—and the way she listens during the tense exchange between Alfredo and Douphol.

A word and a tear for Don Alfredo (Kraus), shown here at the beginning of his career. I was privileged to see and hear him in many of his greatest rôles, and I cannot imagine his ever being surpassed for grace, romance, and musicality. May he rest in peace in the bosom of Abraham.


Callas remembered

Over the years, much ink has been spilled about the relationship between Maria Callas and Aristotle Onassis. I believe that even today, moralistic outrage over Callas’s “scandalous” behavior motivates some part of the abuse still hurled at her.

It is interesting, then, to read this recollection of her by a Catholic priest—Father Vittricio Mabellini, associated with the Centro culturale francescano Rosetum of Milano, at which Callas cut the ribbon during the opening ceremony in 1957.

He took to visiting her home in via Buonarrotti.
Slowly, I began to understand why Maria Callas asked for my prayers with such great insistence and was so keen to confide in me: She was something of a prisoner in her own home, and no great atmosphere of affection reigned there. Her husband was 33 [actually, 26 or 27] years older than she, and their relationship was more formal and exterior than anything else.

She had a proud character, and I never saw her really happy. At most, a smile or a nod. In short, the air was heavy in that home. Let us not forget, then, that Maria Callas was a Greek woman, Mediterranean, thirsty for affection and true feelings.

I say these things not to take a certain position vis-à-vis this woman of whom so much has been said, for good and for ill. I am simply relating what were, at the time, my direct impressions.
From Ricordo di Maria Callas, Edizioni Rosetum (1992).