Silent Callas

These clips show Maria Callas’s curtain calls during and after Tosca and Norma, c. 1965. I suspect that they may be removed from YouTube before long, so view them while you can.

Update: The owner of this material has advised me that he has no intention of removing it from YouTube.

The first clip is silent, while the second has audio added.

There is a wonderful book by Paul Fryer, The Opera Singer and the Silent Film, which explores how Caruso, Chaliapin, and other singers, oddly, helped to establish silent cinema as a popular medium.

The silence in the first clip of Callas is an accident. Yet how much silent footage of Callas has survived—along with, yes, dozens of audio recordings shorn of visuals, which constitute, as Jürgen Kesting puts it, a “theatre of the imagination.”

Of course, these clips show us Callas as “Callas”—in some twilight world of identity, somewhere between “Callas” the public figure, Maria the woman, and the characters she was portraying.

Callas seen by Maraini III

This is the third (actually, the fourth) installment of Dacia Maraini’s 2007 interview about Maria Callas. Here is the preview, followed by part I and part II.

Tell us about Callas’s love for Pasolini. How did she love him?
They loved each other, but in different ways. She would have married him, but he wouldn’t have married her. She knew that he was a homosexual but believed that she could “redeem” him. Still, Pier Paolo never gave her false hopes. He never said that he would abandon his sexual habits. This love was a pious desire on Maria’s part. As usual, she preferred dreams to realities.

Did she ever sing in private—for example, for you and Moravia?
No, I never heard her sing behind the scenes. She never even hummed a song. She was very protective of her voice and always kept a scarf on hand even when it was hot. She was a singer through and through who knew the delicacy and fragility of the voice.

What did success and popularity mean to her? How did she bear them?
She seemed to take success as something natural, something that was her due given the magnificent voice that was nature’s gift to her. She knew her own worth as a singer, but only that. Otherwise, she was diffident.

When did you stop seeing each other?
When her “love story” with Pasolini ended. What’s more, she lived in Paris, and it was hard to meet up with her.

How did you learn of her death?
I heard it on the radio—early one morning when I got up and turned on the radio. I felt a sense of emptiness. I can’t say that she was a close friend, but we had spent time together in a spirit of affection.

From time to time she would ask me what I thought of Pier Paolo. I think that she didn’t understand him at all and feared disappointing him. Still, I never discouraged her, even if I thought that Pasolini never would have changed his inclinations on her account. Pier Paolo’s love for her was chaste, almost brotherly, even paternal. However, I thought that she had to discover this for herself. I wasn’t there to reproach her or warn her. She was adult enough.

The final installment will follow later this week.


Callas seen by Maraini II

Yesterday I brought you the first part of Dacia Maraini’s 2007 interview about Maria Callas. Here’s more from this interesting piece.

What was your relationship like?
She was reserved at first. Then, little by little, as she got to know me, she became affectionate. I remember her once confiding that she had always gotten everything wrong with men. She said that she had loved Onassis immensely, but that he had been brutal to her. Somewhat comically, she thought that she would convert Pasolini to heterosexuality. She was naïve and sometimes seemed like a little girl. Her love for jewels was that of a poor girl enchanted by a magic ring or dress.

What differences were there between her private behavior, with friends, and with the public?
There were enormous differences, if by “public” you mean opera audiences. She was free from uncertainty, shyness, fears; she was sure and sublime. But in private, with friends, she was awkward, though by nature she was a very controlled person, self-taught, who knew how to get by in life.

Tell us about the long trips that you took with Moravia, Pasolini, and Maria.
We took two long trips to Africa, both a month long, and one to Yemen. Wherever we went, Pasolini and Moravia would disappear when Maria was there. She was a queen, and that’s how they treated her. Heads of state came to greet her, planes and cars were put at her disposal. But she didn’t avail herself of them—on the contrary, she tended to resist getting involved with authorities.

She was used to luxury hotels, but she adapted even to hostels, which is what happened when we were travelling through central Africa in Land Rovers. We lodged where we could.

The funniest thing? Once, in a large hotel, I went up to tell her that dinner was ready, and I found her in a dressing gown, sitting in front of the radio. I thought that she was listening to an opera. To my surprise, she was listening, rapt, to one of Nilla Pizzi’s songs.


Callas seen by Maraini I

About a month ago, I promised you the entirety of the writer Dacia Maraini’s 2007 interview about Maria Callas.

For those unfamiliar with her work, Maraini is a keen observer of people and events and a gorgeous prose stylist. I have read only one of her works in English: The Silent Duchess (La lunga vita di Marianna Ucrìa), an unforgettable novel. (I reviewed it back in 1999, and please steel yourself, because my old site template is a horror.)

Maraini, who travelled with Callas and Pasolini, describes their meeting in the first part of the interview.

When did you meet Callas?
Pasolini introduced me to her one evening at dinner in a Roman trattoria. Of course, I knew her as an artist: I had heard her sing, and I admired her greatly. I had formed a different image of her having seen her on stage, where she seemed to be a panther. In private, she was shy and awkward. I took an immediate liking to her because of her shyness and awkwardness. There was nothing of the diva about her.

What kind of personality did La Divina have?
I realized immediately that she was a complicated person but also simple. She wasn’t an intellectual, and she was probably somewhat ashamed of this. She wasn’t well read. She trusted her instinct. She was extremely sensitive and highly intelligent, but hers wasn’t a systematic or rational intelligence. She was archaic: She thought that women should receive rather than analyze, love rather than reason.

As a result, she was very humble and fearful with Pier Paolo. Sometimes he would reproach her, very sweetly, for certain trite, even racist remarks that she had made unawares—like when we were in Africa, and she made certain less-than-anthropoligical observations. At his reprimand, she would shrink back like a snail into her shell and say, “You’re right, forgive me.”

She was also very worried about her body, which she considered malformed. She didn’t consider herself beautiful and tended to hide. Yet she was utterly beautiful. Still, she thought that she looked good on stage, not on a movie set. In fact, she wasn’t very natural during a shoot or with the cameras rolling. She had a natural understanding of acting, yet on the set she was simply someone doing her duty. She lacked spontaneity because she was ill at ease in front of the camera, which bore down upon her mercilessly.

I recently saw [Pasolini’s] Medea again, and I must say that one can sense her rigidity, her fear. In cinema, actors must know how to let themselves go, otherwise they become statues. And she was something of a statue in Medea, in both negative and positive ways. What I mean is, when she was only acting, she couldn’t recapture the freedom, the marvelous abandon she had when she was singing.

Further installments to follow.


Callas sings Bellini and Puccini

Update: As I suspected when I first posted this video, it was removed from YouTube. Dommage !

With thanks to Aprile Millo, who shared this link on Facebook, here are previously unknown-to-me snippets of Callas singing “Casta diva” from Norma and “Sì, mi chiamano Mimì” from La bohème.

The second clip is from 1959 or later, but I do not know the precise occasion on which these were filmed. I will continue my investigation, and reader comments are most welcome!



So, if you are wondering why I am late in publishing comments and even later in responding to them, it’s because Blogger doesn’t like my operating system.

My apologies, and rest assured that I am looking for a workaround.

Callas and fashion

I recall that one day she came to Hélène Rochas’s home wearing bright green pants and a sweater. It was appalling: She didn’t have the figure for pants. But it didn’t matter: The halo of her legend surrounded her. No one looked at her clothes. We saw a myth come to life. She wasn’t a brilliant conversationalist. One could sense the effort she made to be proper, her thirst for recognition. She sought to persuade the world that her elegance and distinction were innate. She surely never played a more difficult rôle.
Karl Lagerfeld
There is a set of Maria Callas paper dolls on the market! I will acquire it and tell you what I learn. Apparently, the set embraces both the “fat” and the “thin” Callas.


Callas in Rigoletto

Had Gilda remained an active part of [Callas’s] repertory, she might well have made the public revalue this role as it did Lucia. Again she uncovered an unsuspected dramatic dimension by making Gilda an innocent whom circumstance transforms into a woman. She fashioned the part at the outset as an ingénue, not a soubrette, using what has been termed her “little girl voice,” a sound frequently heard in her Sonnambula, Lucia, and even in parts of Traviata. This unmistakable sound was created by a brightening of her dark timbre with a very forward placement of vowels and with little of the covered mixture of vowels and consonants she used in weightier parts.
John Ardoin and Gerald Fitzgerald, Callas
For some reason I am fixated right now on Callas’s use of portamento. Even bitchy Walter Legge praises “the seemingly inevitable timing of her portamentos” and the way she “var[ied] their curve with enchanting grace and meaning.“

Yes. And doesn’t this 1955 “Caro nome” from Verdi’s Rigoletto spoil you for all other versions?


Callas interviewed by Mike Wallace

These clips (a 1973 interview rebroadcast after Callas’s death) have been making the rounds. They are interesting for a number of reasons:
  • Callas’s archness in her heyday versus her poise in 1973
  • Her responses to Edward R. Murrow (“I have never thrown anything at anyone, though sometimes…”) and to Sir Thomas Beecham (“I never threw anything at anyone—unfortunately…”)
  • Mike Wallace’s gotcha journalism
  • Small inaccuracies in the reporting (e.g. she did not leave Meneghini in 1958)
  • Callas’s calm and dignified response to Wallace’s invasive questioning
  • Her eloquence. One reads repeatedly that Callas was inarticulate, but in the 1973 interview, one hears the calm, reflective tone of the quotations in Maria Callas: Sacred Monster by Stelios Galatopoulos—quotations, truth be told, that to me have always been suspect, a little too tidy and polished.


Callas and Omero Lengrini II

Before coming down with the plague, I had promised an update to my first Omero Lengrini post.

Some of this information comes to me from a Callas scholar based in Europe, to whom I express my sincere gratitude.

Omero Lengrini’s complete birth certificate has been published, and a scan is available here. According to my source, the certificate indicates that the baby’s mother was “a woman who does not consent to be identified,” as Nicholas Gage reports. “Mario” (whose family name is illegible) is listed as a witness, not as the baby’s father.

I find the scan difficult to read and will not comment further on the birth certificate until I have had a chance to examine it directly.

The article in which the birth certificate is published was written by a Mr. Karl H. van Zoggel, who accepts Gage’s story of Callas’s “secret son,” albeit with so many changes, qualifications, and fishy sources (clinic staff who vouch for Callas’s undocumented presence some forty years after the fact) as to strain credulity.

Mr. van Zoggel also cites “very reliable” sources (unwilling to go on the record, it seems) who indicate that Omero Lengrini was buried in the Civico Cimitero of Bresso—while admitting, “Nevertheless, the burial register and documents at the cemetery do not state any inclusion of a baby in April 1960.”

I suspect that these “very reliable” sources are the same ones who have plastered the supposed fact of the Bresso burial all over the Italian press in recent years. (Some mention a cemetery in Bruzzano; Bresso, as I understand it, is part of Bruzzano, so this may be a case of two names for the same place.) What no one so far has explained is: Why, if Omero was her son, did Callas not have his remains moved when she sold her villa on via Buonarroti and took up residence in Paris in the early 1960s?

All this said, going back through the Callas literature, I note two mentions of a possible miscarriage, both of which predate Nicholas Gage’s Greek Fire (2001). Franco Zeffirelli in his autobiography (1986) mentions a rumor that Callas suffered a miscarriage, though the timeframe is not specified. Renzo and Roberto Allegri in Callas by Callas (I have the Italian edition, from 1997) state that she miscarried a child by Onassis in her fourth month of pregnancy, again giving no indication of when this might have occurred.

Neither Zeffirelli nor the Allegri duo is an unimpeachable source, but a miscarriage seems at least plausible to me. A full- or nearly full-term pregnancy that never showed, ending in an elective (!) Caesarean for reasons of vanity, resulting in the baby’s death, and followed closely by high-profile social and artistic appearances—all this seems not at all plausible to me.

A 2007 interview of Giovanna Lomazzi (PDF), a friend who travelled with Callas during the months when Gage says that Callas was expecting, makes no mention of a pregnancy. I find it surprising that the Repubblica journalist did not even raise the issue, given that the pregnancy by 2007 was treated as fact in the Italian press and always good for cheap thrills.

This is the last time that I intend to post about Omero Lengrini until I have examined the crucial documents myself and spoken at length with surviving Callas intimates in a position to know about a supposed pregnancy. (Needless to say, very few of them remain.)


Callas and Rufus Wainwright II

The July 2009 premiere of Prima Donna, the opera by the singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright, called forth an unusual amount of snark, particularly among people who were not in attendance. I suppose it’s inevitable that Wainwright—gifted, productive, with admirers all over the world—would gall those whose life’s work is to bitch and cavil.

I happen to consider Wainwright a genius, a melodist with the potential to rival Irving Berlin and Verdi. That said, I’ve yet to form an opinion about Prima Donna as a whole because I have neither seen nor heard it. (The reviews tell little.) The opera will have its North American premiere later this year in Toronto and plays Sadler’s Wells next month.

A voice-piano version of the final aria from Prima Donna, “Les feux d’artifice t’appellent,” is a cut on Wainwright’s forthcoming CD, All Days are Night: Songs for Lulu. He has indicated that Prima Donna is based, in part, on Maria Callas’s 1968 interviews with Lord Harewood, and that the famous photo of Callas looking out of a Paris window (above) was an inspiration for this aria.

Let’s clear up one thing right away: That photo, widely used by biographers to evoke the supposed misery and isolation of Callas’s last years, does not depict her at her apartment on avenue Georges-Mandel (at right) or at the end of her life. The ironwork and Callas’s blouse in the iconic image match those in the sepia-toned picture at left, which shows Callas at the Hôtel Ritz Paris. (See the Colonne Vendôme out the window?)

The two Ritz photos, interior and exterior shots, seem to have been taken at the same session, probably (this is a guess) around 1964, when Callas was recording, concertizing, still active on the operatic stage, and hardly a victim of futility and despair.

Still, as I read “Les feux d’artifice” out of context, Wainwright projects onto this image the sad, withdrawn, waiting-for-death Callas of legend: “Callas was imprisoned all alone in her apartment in the XVIe arrondissement” (Pierre-Jean Rémy). The plot of Prima Donna, set in Paris on Bastille Day in 1970, is convoluted and involves a diva’s lost voice, a comeback attempt, frustrated passion, and a gracious withdrawal à la the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier. The fictional timeline (last performance in 1964 or 1965) and various details (e.g. the diva’s ability to reach high notes offstage but not in performance) pointedly recall Callas.

As the opera ends, Régine Saint-Laurent (oy) has decided not to attempt a comeback and abandoned her dreams of love. She steps out onto her balcony and sings:
The fireworks are calling you:
Come down to the street!
The colors in the sky
Shine down upon the city,
The heavenly fire that was...
Come down to the street!
And love is no longer awaited.
Joy and happiness are everywhere.
All over Paris people are partying.
I stay. I watch.
Young men, come down with your mistresses.
Young women, make the most of the time that’s left.
I stay here. I look out of my big window.

The fireworks are over.
That didn’t last long.
For all its shimmering gorgeousness, “Les feux d’artifice” seems to me very dark. The overwhelming sensation is one of stasis—in the obsessive figure that underpins the aria; in Régine’s words (“Je reste. Je regarde… Je reste ici,” repeated and set at the aria’s climax); in the contrast between the singer, withdrawn, watching from her window, and the Parisians who heed the fireworks’ call and celebrate in the streets.

Even when Régine invites young people to seize the day, her words are hackneyed and faintly archaic (“vos maîtresses”) as if invoked without conviction—or, perhaps, quoted from one of her old rôles. What’s more, they are sandwiched between expressions of her immobility and implicitly call attention to her age and solitude. “Le feux du ciel qui fut” may be the sacred fire of music that once burned in Régine but now is spent.

When the fireworks end, all is silence. The music that accompanies Régine is shorn of its glitter and rhapsodic arpeggios. The aria’s last note is held an unusually long time—Wainwright consistently sings it thus in performance, suggesting that it is scored this way. It illustrates the word “longtemps” and, paradoxically, also the idea of finitude, sorely testing even a great singer’s breath and dying away in a whimper.


Callas and hallucinations

Am I hearing voices within the voice? But isn’t it the truth of the voice to be hallucinated? Isn’t the entire space of the voice an infinite one?
Roland Barthes, “The Grain of the Voice”

My voice is mere breath
that will die with the new day.
Adriana Lecouvreur
The Barthes quote is taken from a beautiful article by Michal Grover-Friedlander, “The Afterlife of Maria Callas’s Voice,” Musical Quarterly 88 (1). I commend it to you warmly.


Callas as bitch

But for most of us, there are some obvious associations with the word “bitch”: stiletto heels and dark, demimonde eyes…
Elizabeth Wurtzel, Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women


Callas in Gianni Schicchi

Maria Callas’s 1954 recording of Lauretta’s aria from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, part of her Puccini Heroines recital under Tullio Serafin, is a marvel. She never sang the rôle of Lauretta on stage. While Schicchi’s daughter has the opera’s hit tune, the baritone is the star of this intricate ensemble piece. It is hard to imagine Callas, who sang Santuzza in her teens and Fidelio at twenty-one, settling for such a small and relatively undemanding part.

There are several videos of Callas singing “O mio babbino caro” from her farewell tour. Her tone is raw and hollow, and her expression conveys barely suppressed desperation. The clips give no pleasure at all.

This 1965 version, recorded some six weeks before her farewell to the operatic stage, finds her in luminous form. Her use of portamento in the final phrases is pure enchantment, and something in her graceful, gentle way with the music surrounds the aria with the fragrance and glow of spring.

Watch her eyes, and see if any Schicchi could resist such a Lauretta.