Re-visioning Callas on Twitter

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Callas and Werner Schroeter

Werner Schroeter, the régisseur whose films often celebrated Maria Callas, died earlier this month in Kassel, Germany.

Michelle Langford writes in a beautiful overview of Schroeter’s work:
A series of 8mm films dedicated to the opera singer Maria Callas, whom Schroeter greatly admired since being introduced to her music by his mother as a child, consist largely of still photographs of the singer. In these films, Schroeter displays a fascination for Callas’s face and her gestures through a rhythmic montage of still photographic images. At one point in Callas Walking Lucia (1968), Schroeter rapidly montages a series of photographs of Callas in the role of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor in order to animate her dramatic cry.
Beyond these early films, Callas haunts much of Schroeter’s work, which returns incessantly to themes of mortality, theatricality in its many guises, consuming quests for beauty, and “the cult of the diva.”

The clip shows a television tribute to Schroeter.

The Schwules Museum in Berlin has an exhibit devoted to Schroeter’s work, scheduled to run through the end of June. (I hope to see that exhibit, and I ask my kind readers please to send prayers, good vibes, or just happy thoughts to help my trip come about!)


Callas and assonance

A Swedish imp, armed with Photoshop and a nose for the absurd, offers irreverent looks at Baudelaire, Dante, Zarah Leander, Medea, and many others, including (yes) Maria Callas.

(Thank you, darling Ulrika!)


Callas and Fiorilla II

1950 was an epic year in Maria Callas’s career. According to Frank Hamilton's invaluable chronologies, at one point, in the space of six days (between February 23 and 28), she sang two performances each of Norma and Tristan und Isolde. She was twenty-six years old.

In October, shortly after singing Tosca two evenings in a row and a month before she undertook Kundry in Parsifal, Callas sang the florid comic rôle of Fiorilla in Rossini’s Il Turco in Italia in Rome, an excerpt from which appears above. In 1949, of course, she had won fame for singing Brünnhilde in Die Walküre and Elvira in I puritani in quick succession.

In her ghostwritten 1957 memoirs, Callas recalled the 1950 Turco performances:
While I was preparing myself under the direction of Maestro [Gianandrea] Gavazzeni in Rome to interpret this difficult opera, I had the opportunity to know better Luchino Visconti, who had previously complimented me. I remember my surprise at seeing a man of his distinction sit in attentively at almost all of the rehearsals, which lasted a minimum of three or four hours—and we rehearsed twice a day.
We will never know for sure whether the exploits of Callas’s early years in Italy hastened her vocal decline, but one thing is certain: Her unrelenting activities in 1950 (including a strenuous Mexican season) took their toll on her health. She was forced to withdraw from several high-profile engagements at the end of the year because of an attack of jaundice.

Earlier posts include music from Parsifal and an excerpt from Callas’s 1954 EMI recording of Il Turco in Italia.


Callas on rubbish bins

A friend in Brazil brought my attention to articles from Il Corriere del Veneto and L’Arena: The municipality of Zevio, the ancestral home of Callas’s husband Giovanni Battista Meneghini, now displays images of Maria Callas and the slogan “Zevio, the city of Callas” on benches, flower pots, and rubbish bins.

Meneghini’s family and various personalities (including Franco Zeffirelli) have objected, but a local bureaucrat defends the undertaking: “Its purpose is to remind everyone that this great artist lived in Zevio.”

A bit from the Corriere article:
Why not leave the benches and flower pots and simply remove the singer’s image from the rubbish bins? According to the mayor, it cannot be done: “Urban fixtures must be uniform in appearance.”*

[Another official] came up with a new proposal: “Music lovers and philanthropists, if they so desire, can donate a fixture to the city. A plaque will record their name alongside Callas’s countenance.” In effect, a “crumb” of immortality for those who contribute to re-equipping the streets with a bench or a flower pot. The question remains, though: Who would want to give their name to a rubbish bin?

*Translator’s note: Remember what Dr. McCoy said in Star Trek IV? “The bureaucratic mentality is the only constant in the universe.”
The issue, predictably, is further tangled up with electoral politics and perennial buffoneria. The mayor: “We were voted into office, in part, because our platform called for promoting the city in the name of Callas. I am even willing to print the singer’s image on signs welcoming drivers to Zevio to publicize the fact that the only house still standing in which Maria and Battista lived is here in Zevio.”

In the meantime, Giancarlo Tanzi, a collector of Callas memorabilia who lives in Munich, complains that Zevio has failed to make good on its promise to open a Callas museum to display the material he donated. “The city told me that the museum would open in June or September, without however specifying the year.” According to Tanzi, part of his collection (“photos and precious films”) was destroyed while stored in a garage.

The mayor’s reply: “We’ll open the museum in June or September. Well, as soon as the engineer submits the plans. In fact, if the plans don’t arrive in time, we’ll set up the museum on a provisional basis, just to get it open at last.”


Callas in Manon Lescaut

Maria Callas recorded Puccini’s Manon Lescaut in July 1957, though she did not approve the set for release until 1959, apparently because of concerns about her vocal form. Manon Lescaut is one of four rôles—along with Carmen, Mimì in La bohème, and Nedda in I pagliacci—that Callas recorded but never undertook on stage.

Years later, Callas wrote to her friend Cristina Gastel Chiarelli that she had been “irremediably tired” from the time of her La Scala Anna Bolena, which premiered in April 1957.

The first decade of Callas’s Italian career, which totalled only fifteen years, from 1947 to 1962, had proceeded at a scorching pace. It brought her triumphs, wealth, and also the crushing weight of celebrity.

A month after recording Manon Lescaut, Callas was caught up in the “scandal” of her withdrawal from a performance of La sonnambula in Edinburgh that she may or may not have agreed to give. Shortly thereafter she was dismissed by the San Francisco Opera upon asking to postpone performances on medical grounds. January 1958 brought the Rome Norma “walkout,” a situation in which Callas was blameless but savaged by the gutter press (in Italy, the press tout court). Later that year, she broke with both the Metropolitan Opera and La Scala.

Though “irremediably tired,” Callas managed to give some of her greatest performances in 1957, including Bolena and the Cologne Sonnambula. The Act I duet from Manon Lescaut presents no great vocal challenges (in contrast to the Act IV aria), and Callas fills Puccini’s music with grace, sensuality, and the dewy glow of youth. The recorded sound, alas, is harsh, and Giuseppe di Stefano bellows, but we would be poorer without this Manon Lescaut.


Callas in Parsifal

Maria Callas sang the rôle of Kundry in Richard Wagner’s Parsifal five times in 1949 and 1950. It was in this opera that she first caught the attention of Luchino Visconti. He recalled:
The first time I saw Maria was when she was still enormous. She was half naked in the second act, covered with yards and yards of transparent chiffon—a marvellous temptress, like an odalisque… Every night she sang I secured a certain box and shouted like a mad fanatic when she took her bows. I sent her flowers. She was beautiful but fat on stage, commanding—her gestures thrilled you.
Renata Scotto laughed at the fat, graceless Callas before attending Parsifal but then, à la Kundry, was thunderstruck. “Little by little this voice had all the nature in it—the forest and the magic castle and hatred that is love. And little by little she not fat with bad skin and rich-husband-asleep-in-the-corner; she witch who burn you by standing there.”

As you can hear, Kundry was an extraordinarily congenial rôle for Callas. By some accounts, she was scheduled to sing it at La Scala in 1956 instead of Giordano’s Fedora.

As it happens, Marianne Brandt, who sang Kundry in the second performance of Parsifal in 1882, studied under Pauline Viardot. Brandt’s repertoire included Le Prophète, Lucrezia Borgia, La Favorite, Il trovatore, and other operas requiring a superb command of florid music.

Wagner is supremely ill-served by barkers, shouters, and vocalists lacking the musical polish (and elemental sensuality) of a Callas. She observed, correctly, “Wagner could never hurt your voice, if you know how to sing well.”


Callas in Carmen

The video shows Maria Callas singing music from Bizet’s Carmen at the May 1962 gala held at New York’s Madison Square Garden to celebrate the birthday of U.S. President John F. Kennedy. Callas seems to have been in indifferent voice, though it’s hard to be sure given the poor audio quality.

Marilyn Monroe also took part in the gala, at which she famously sang “Happy Birthday, Mr. President”.

At my re-visioning callas site, there is a photo of Monroe and Callas together along with keen and biting observations by the great Catherine Clément. Please take a moment to view the entire re-visioning callas slideshow.

It’s Maria Callas’s world

We just live in it!

Over the past month, people from some two dozen nations have visited this humble blog—a tribute to the enduring fame and prestige of Maria Callas and the indelible impact of her art.

Friendly greetings to readers from the United Kingdom, Israel, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Brazil, Greece, the Netherlands, Poland, Germany, Australia, Hungary, Italy, France, the United States, New Zealand, Iran, the Philippines, Guatemala, Belgium, Spain, Sweden, Russia, Mexico, Canada, and everywhere else.

Thank you for reading re-visioning callas, and please leave a comment or contact me: I would love to hear from you.


Callas in duet

Off-topic, but bear with me: Lady Gaga and Cathy Berberian. Separated at birth?

A diva with whom Callas was often paired throughout her career is Giulietta Simionato, who turns 100 years young in May. (Cent’anni ancora, Maestra!) With her plush voice, remarkable range, and bold temperament, Simionato was a worthy partner to Callas onstage and a sisterly friend to her offstage.

On December 7, 1955, both Callas and Simionato were in blazing form as they opened the La Scala season in Bellini’s Norma—still recalled as one of the greatest nights in that illustrious theatre’s history.

Listen and say a prayer of thanks.


Callas in advertising

In the virtuoso effusions of [advertising’s] highest form, the television commercial—which Jean Baudrillard calls the simulation of a communication which seems more real than reality—cultural signifiers of every kind are pulled loose and float around in a suspended space, which Baudrillard calls hyper-reality, where they sometimes attach themselves to commodities and sometimes to buzzwords… The commercial creates a subject in its own image, a dependent spectator, pure consumer, whose every desire is catered for on one condition: the price to be paid… Here traditional cultural values are not so much subverted as simply vaporized.
Michael Chanan, Musica Practica


Callas and the self

In a sense, a self resembles a wardrobe: we pick up bits and pieces of identity along the way and, as long as these elements fit and are suitably stylish, we will wear them for the time being.
James J. Dowd, “Aporias of the Self”


Callas and the paparazzi

The clip shows Maria Callas in late 1959, after she had separated from her husband, on her way to give a concert in Kansas City. Time reported on the concert in its November 9, 1959 edition.

Along with the clip, I offer you Callas’s 1953 test recording of “Non mi dir” from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, which she sang in Kansas City, and modern commentary on fame and its consequences.


Callas in Catalani

This has been a week of words, not music, at re-visioning callas. To remedy this situation, I offer you Callas singing “Ebben, ne andrò lontana” from La Wally by Alfredo Catalani—the aria featured in the 1981 film Diva by Jean-Jacques Beineix.

This 1954 recording is led by Tullio Serafin, and the photo shows Callas c. 1947.

Chag sameach and a blessèd Easter to all!


Callas seen by Maraini IV

This is the fourth and final installment of Dacia Maraini’s 2007 interview about Maria Callas. If you have not done so already, please read the previous installments.

Nowadays, we speak of Callas as if invoking a myth. But how does this myth overshadow the woman Maria?
Her case is a lucky one: Almost nothing is lost of Maria’s great talent. We have studio recordings, pirates, cinema, photographs, and many biographies. If she had lived even fifty years earlier, probably nothing would have remained of her. So she was fortunate—or rather, we were fortunate.

Nonetheless, a myth isn’t based on a person’s character but on what she accomplished in life. Paradoxically, to generate a myth, mistakes are all-important. A mythic figure usually makes flagrant mistakes, suffers greatly, betrays, and is betrayed. But deep down, there is an extraordinary talent, and Maria’s myth is certainly born of her extreme talent.

Her voice—which, to our great joy, we can hear again and again even in her absence—takes flight with the perfection of a bird who knows all secrets of the air and its currents, of clouds and the wind.

Were any characters in your novels inspired by her?
Yes. When I wrote Veronica Franco, Courtesan and Poet, a theatrical work based on a poet of the sixteenth century, I thought of her. Of course, the context is different, the story is different, the places far off, but Veronica’s character has something of Maria’s, indomitable and at the same time naïve and childlike.