Maria Callas, the mute singer

Pier Paolo Pasolini: The man who didn’t make Maria Callas sing…

It wasn’t his choice to take part in the great masquerade that transforms a woman into a female transvestite. In the case of opera singers, this masquerade is so powerful that it can ultimately destroy these (apparently cherished) live marionettes. It wasn’t his choice as a homosexual. In the world of opera, there swirls around divas a world of men who “adore” women, all the more and all the better when they are no longer women, but masks...

The singer, finally mute and yet shown, in her violence and her life. The singer finally set free from her song.
Catherine Clément, “La Cantatrice muette ou le maître chanteur démasqué”
Catherine Clément, the French philosopher and novelist, seems to inspire extreme reactions. Her beautiful screed, Opera: Or the Undoing of Women, is a fundamental, must-read text for me, yet scholarly friends for whom I have the deepest respect dismiss it as rot.

(OT, but please bear with me: For more than ten years, I have been looking for an English-language publisher for my translation of Clément’s beautiful novel La Señora, based on the life of Doña Gracia Nasi.)

Clément’s 1980 essay on Callas and Pier Paolo Pasolini, “The Mute Singer; or, the Master Singer Unmasked,” is brief and difficult. The title riffs on Eugène Ionesco’s “anti-play,” The Bald Soprano.

By not making (forcing) Callas to sing in his Medea film, Pasolini, in Clément’s view, avoided the “trap,” the “blackmail” (chantage), inflicted on her by others. In the French-speaking world, this is a familiar theme: Pierre-Jean Rémy, in Callas, une vie (1978), presented the soprano as a victim “forced” to sing first by her mother, then by Meneghini, and so forth.

Incidentally, the issue of Callas and film, Callas in film, is rich and filled with ironies. In Medea, her only feature, Callas not only does not sing but is actually mute for long stretches. Zeffirelli’s Callas Forever shows the soprano mourning her voice, trying (and failing) to bring it back to life. In Fellini’s E la nave va, the dead soprano’s voice is heard only when her ashes are scattered over the sea—as if her voice were being swallowed up by the depths along with her earthly remains.

And then there is the thorny issue, explored by Michal Grover-Friedlander and others, of dubbing. In contrast to French and Anglo-American films, Italian films (even those for Italian audiences) are often dubbed, evincing a blithe attitude toward the “integrity” of voice and person. It is a practice ultimately rejected by the fictional Callas in Callas Forever. In life, though, the Rome Opera's insistence that “nobody can double (dub) Callas” created mayhem for the soprano. (“To dub” and “to double” are the same word in Italian; “nobody can double Callas” are words that Callas cited, with bitterness, a decade after the 1958 Rome Norma fracas.)

There is more to be said, but it is 39°C today, and I need a nap. Back at you real soon.


  1. I've read Clement's book some years ago (here it was translated, literally, 'Opera, or the defeat of women'). It's really very interesting, and I'm sure I'll re-read it soon. (And I'll look for the Clement's essay you talked about!)

    By the way: "Nobody can double Callas!" is also a 'verse' in Daugherty's opera Jackie O.

  2. Dear José Luiz: Thanks, as always, for your comment. I did not remember that about "Jackie O," and I'm very grateful for the reminder. The essay may be published elsewhere, but I found it in "Pasolini Séminaire" edited by Maria Antonietta Macciocchi.