Maria Callas (en grec moderne : Μαρία Κάλλας), mais de son vrai nom Μαρία Καλογεροπούλου (María Kalogeropoúlou), née à New York le 2 décembre 1923 et morte à Paris le 16 septembre 1977, est une cantatrice (soprano) américaine d’origine grecque. La Callas marqua profondément l’opéra au xxe siècle.
Ánna María Kekilía Sofía Kalogeropoúlou (en grec moderne : Άννα Μαρία Καικιλία Σοφία Καλογεροπούλου) naît à New York d’un couple grec émigré, le 2 décembre 1923. En 1929, ses parents simplifient leur nom en Cállas. Bien que son père dirige une pharmacie dans le quartier grec de Manhattan, la famille mène une vie modeste, ce qui n’empêche pas sa mère de rêver pour ses filles d’une carrière d’artiste. En 1937, après sa séparation avec le père de Maria, celle-ci et ses deux filles retournent habiter à Athènes.
Bien que trop jeune pour entrer au Conservatoire d’Athènes (elle n’a que 14 ans à cette époque), María y étudie le piano, puis le chant. Elle est l’élève de Maria Trivela, puis de Elvira de Hidalgo1, qui sera également sa confidente. Elle débute à 17 ans dans Boccace2 de Franz von Suppé. En 1945, elle part retrouver son père à New York. Sa carrière prend un tournant décisif lorsque la basse Nicola Rossi-Lemeni la présente au ténor Giovanni Zenattelo (1876-1949) venu aux États-Unis à la recherche d’une soprano pour chanter la Gioconda de Ponchielli aux arènes de Vérone en 1947. Emballé, il l’engage séance tenante. Le chef d’orchestre italien Tullio Serafin dirige l’ouvrage et peu à peu, décèle les extraordinaires possibilités de la jeune diva ; c’est lui qui fera de Maria « La Callas ».
Le 21 avril 1949, elle épouse, à Vérone, le patron d’une entreprise de briques et féru d’opéra, Giovanni Battista Meneghini. En juin 1959, elle rencontre l’homme qui bouleversera toute sa vie, Aristote Onássis, homme d’affaire fortuné. C’est en 1959 qu’elle deviendra sa maîtresse et c’est pour vivre pleinement ce nouvel amour qu’elle divorcera d’avec son époux avec grand fracas en octobre de la même année. Malheureusement pour elle, Onássis épousera Jacqueline Kennedy le 20 octobre 1968, ce que María considérera comme une trahison. Un enfant, Omerio Langrini, naîtra de leur liaison : né prématurément à Milan, il mourra quelques heures après sa naissance.
Entourée des plus remarquables artistes du siècle (Mario Del Monaco, Giuseppe Di Stefano, Boris Christoff, Georges Prêtre, etc.), María Cállas se produit sur les plus grandes scènes du monde (New York, Londres, Paris, Milan, Venise, Rome, Buenos Aires, Mexico) mais fait aussi la une des journaux tant par son caractère difficile que par sa rivalité mémorable avec Renata Tebaldi et ses querelles avec des directeurs d’opéra, dont celui de la Scala de Milan, Ghiringelli, ce qui lui vaudra d’être écartée du prestigieux opéra.
Retirée de la scène à partir de 1965, elle se consacre à l’enseignement et aux récitals, subissant de nombreux ennuis de santé. En 1971-1972, elle se consacre ainsi à la direction de Master classes à la Juilliard School de New York au cours desquelles elle prend soin d’expliquer, de détailler et de raisonner tous les rôles abordés par ses étudiants.
En 1973, Giuseppe Di Stefano (célèbre ténor, bien plus qu’un simple ami à cette époque) lui propose de faire une tournée internationale de récitals dont le but est de collecter de l’argent pour financer le traitement médical de la fille du chanteur. La tournée est un succès sur le plan personnel, mais un échec sur le plan artistique.
À partir de 1974, elle s’enferme dans son appartement parisien, au 36 avenue Georges-Mandel, s’enfonçant dans la solitude et écoutant inlassablement ses enregistrements. La mort d’Aristote Onassis en 1975 achève de la murer dans sa solitude.
Épuisée moralement et physiquement, elle meurt d’une embolie pulmonaire le 16 septembre 1977. Certains ont parlé d’un suicide (prise de médicaments).
Artiste maudite ?
De tessiture soprano, elle a abordé une large gamme de rôles allant du soprano lyrique voire léger aux rôles de soprano dramatique et reste dans les mémoires comme l’une des plus grandes cantatrices du xxe siècle, à la fois par le timbre très particulier de sa voix, son extrême virtuosité alliée à un phrasé comme à un goût parfaits et sa capacité à animer les personnages qu’elle jouait.
Si « la Cállas » demeure sans nul doute la cantatrice la plus célèbre de la seconde moitié du xxe siècle, sa renommée tient en partie à de mauvaises raisons. Sa vie privée, sa liaison avec Aristote Onassis, entre autres, ont fait la une des journaux à scandale à une époque où sa carrière était pratiquement terminée. Au-delà d’anecdotes sans intérêt, on oubliait tout ce qu’elle avait apporté à l’art lyrique à une époque où le public commençait à se détourner de spectacles conventionnels et routiniers. Sa technique transcendante lui permit d’aborder des styles aussi différents que ceux de : Giuseppe Verdi (Nabucco, Macbeth, Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, La Traviata, Un Ballo in Maschera, I Vespri Siciliani, La Forza del Destino, Aida, Don Carlo), Gioacchino Rossini (Il turco in Italia, Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Armida), Amilcare Ponchielli (La Gioconda), Gaspare Spontini (La Vestale), Vincenzo Bellini (Norma, I Puritani, La sonnambula, Il Pirata), Luigi Cherubini (Medea – qu’elle incarna dans le film de Pasolini), Donizetti (Lucia di Lammermoor, Poliuto, Anna Bolena) , Giacomo Puccini (Tosca, Turandot, Madama Butterfly, La Bohème, Manon Lescaut (les deux derniers uniquement en enregistrements studios)), Richard Wagner (Tristan und Isolde, Parsifal, Die Walküre), Umberto Giordano (Andréa Chénier, Fedora).
Une tragédienne qui réveille le jeu d’acteur à l’opéra
Elle fut la Lucia di Lammermoor, la Traviata, la Norma, la Tosca de sa génération, révélant, au-delà de vocalises maîtrisées avec insolence, les multiples facettes d’un personnage troublant, ce qui ne l’empêcha pas d’incarner Isolde avec la même ardeur. Pas de virtuosité gratuite ou d’hédonisme inconsidéré dans ses interprétations mais le souci constant de rendre la musique plus expressive et de restituer à une partition sa vérité musicale et sa vraisemblance dramatique en utilisant qualités et défauts d’un timbre de voix dont la pureté n’était pas la qualité première. Elle fut l’une des premières à montrer qu’à l’opéra on pouvait jouer comme au théâtre ou au cinéma et se servir de son physique (on se rappelle comment elle modela le sien, peu flatteur au départ) et de son corps. De ces rôles qu’elle a marqués à jamais, elle fit de véritables incarnations. Tout cela grâce à une intuition artistique sans faille, soutenue par un travail incessant. Cantatrice libérée des conventions, osant remettre à l’honneur des ouvrages négligés, modèle de rigueur et d’exigence, María Cállas a légué à ses successeurs une leçon qui n’a pas toujours été suivie.
Norma, dir. Serafin (2 versions studio: 1954/1960 EMI Classics) / dir. Gui, 1952 live (EMI Classics)
Il pirata, dir. Rescigno live 1959 New-York (EMI Classics)
I puritani, dir. Serafin, 1953 (EMI Classics, Naxos) / dir. Picco (Idis, Archipel)
La sonnambula, dir. Bernstein live Scala 1955 (EMI Classics) / dir. Votto, 1957 (live et studio) (EMI Classics)
Georges Bizet :
Carmen, dir. Prêtre, 1964 (EMI Classics) (qu’elle n’a jamais joué sur scène)
Medea, dir. Bernstein, live Scala 1953 (EMI Classics, Golden Melodram, Idis)
Anna Bolena, dir. Gavazzein, live Scala 1957 (EMI Classics)
Lucia di Lammermoor, dir. Serafin 1953 (EMI Classics, Naxos) / dir. Karajan, 1955 (EMI Classics, Idis) / dir. Picco (Archipel)
Poliuto, dir. Votto live Scala 1960 (EMI Classics)
Andrea Chénier, dir. Votto (EMI Classics)
Alceste, dir. Giulini (Golden Melodram, Idis)
Iphigénie en Tauride, dir. Sanzogno (EMI Classics)
Leoncavallo et Mascagni :
Pagliacci / Cavalleria Rusticana, dir. Serafin, 1954 (P) et 1953 (CR) (EMI Classics, Naxos)
La Gioconda, dir. Votto, 1959 (EMI Classics, Naxos)
La Bohème, dir. Votto, 1956 (EMI Classics)
Madama Butterfly, dir. Karajan (EMI Classics, Naxos)
Manon Lescaut, dir. Serafin (EMI Classics)
Tosca, dir. Cillario, 1964 (EMI Classics, Golden Melodram) / dir. Cleva (Living Stage) / dir. Mugnai (Fono Entreprise) / dir. Picco (Archipel) / dir. Prêtre, 1964 (EMI Classics, Naxos) / dir. de Sabatta, 1953 (EMI, Naxos) / dir. Votto (Archipel)
Turandot, dir. Serafin (EMI Classics)
Il Barbiere di Siviglia, dir. Galliera, 1957 (EMI Classics) / dir. Giulini (Idis)
Il turco in Italia, dir. Gavazzeni (EMI Classics, Naxos)
La Vestale, dir. Votto, 1954 (Andromeda, Golden Melodram, Idis)
Aïda, dir. Barbirolli (Golden Melodram, Testament) / dir. de Fabritiis, 1951 (EMI Classics, Archipel) / dir. Picco (Idis) / dir. Serafin (EMI Classics)
Un ballo in maschera, dir. Gavazzeni, 1957 (EMI Classics) / dir. Votto, 1956 (EMI Classics)
La forza del destino, dir. Serafin (EMI Classics)
Macbeth, dir. de Sabata, 1952 (EMI Classics)
Nabucco, dir. Gui, 1949 (Archipel)
Rigoletto, dir. Serafin, 1955 (EMI Classics)
La Traviata, dir. Ghione, 1958 (EMI Classics) / dir. Giulini, 1955 (EMI Classics) / dir. Santini (Fifty Five, Regis, Warner)
Il Trovatore, dir. Karajan, 1956 (EMI Classics) / dir. Picco, 1950 (Archipel) / dir. Serafin (Idis)
I vespri siciliani, dir. Kleiber (Archipel)
Ainsi que de nombreux disques de récitals, compilations et live.
En 2007, dans son album D’elles, Céline Dion a rendu hommage à Maria Callas, dans la chanson la diva, où Maria Callas et Céline Dion interprétent en duo l’air de la Bohême de Puccini
En septembre 2007, 30 ans après sa mort, EMI publie ses enregistrements : un double-CD rassemblant ses plus belles interprétations, une Intégrale de ses enregistrements en studio, ainsi qu’un DVD comprenant des interview de Maria Callas et des extraits filmés de représentations auxquelles elle avait participé. Le 16 septembre 2007, la France rend hommage à la diva : la Mairie de Paris invite les parisiens à se rassembler autour d’un écran géant pour regarder Maria Callas à la scène et la télévision française diffuse de nombreux reportages pour montrer à quelle point elle était une musicienne et une femme exceptionnelle.
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Maria Callas (Greek: Μαρία Κάλλας) (December 2, 1923 – September 16, 1977) was an American born, Greek dramatic coloratura soprano and perhaps the best-known opera singer of the post-World War II period. She combined an impressive bel canto technique with great dramatic gifts. An extremely versatile singer, her repertoire ranged from classical opera seria to the bel canto operas of Donizetti, Bellini, and Rossini, and further, to the works of Verdi and Puccini, and in her early career, the music dramas of Wagner. Her remarkable musical and dramatic talents led to her being hailed La Divina.
Born in New York and raised by an overbearing mother, she received her musical education in Greece and established her career in Italy. Forced to deal with the exigencies of wartime poverty and with myopia that left her nearly blind on stage, she endured struggles and scandal over the course of her career. She turned herself from a heavy woman into a glamorous one after a mid-career weight loss, which might have contributed to her vocal decline and the premature end of her career. The press exulted in publicizing Callas’s allegedly temperamental behavior, her supposed rivalry with Renata Tebaldi, and her love affair with Aristotle Onassis. Her dramatic life and personal tragedy have often overshadowed Callas the artist in the popular press. Her artistic achievements, however, were such that Leonard Bernstein called her « The Bible of opera », and her influence so enduring that, in 2006, Opera News wrote of her, « Nearly thirty years after her death, she’s still the definition of the diva as artist—and still one of classical music’s best-selling vocalists. »
According to her birth certificate, Maria Callas was born Sophia Cecelia Kalos at Flower Hospital in Manhattan on December 2, 1923 to Greek parents George Kalogeropoulos and Evangelia « Litsa » (sometimes « Litza ») Dimitriadou, though she was christened Maria Anna Sofia Cecilia Kalogeropoulou—the feminine form of Kalogeropoulos—(Greek: Μαρία Άννα Σοφία Καικιλία Καλογεροπούλου). Callas’s father shortened the surname Kalogeropoulos first to « Kalos » and subsequently to « Callas » in order to make it more manageable.
Family life, childhood, and move to Greece
George and Evangelia were an ill-matched couple from the beginning; he was easy-going and unambitious with no interest in the arts, while she was vivacious, socially ambitious, and had held dreams of a life in the arts for herself.The situation was aggravated by George’s philandering and was improved neither by the birth of a daughter named Yakinthi (later called Jackie) in 1917 nor the birth of a son named Vassilis in 1920. Vassilis’s death from meningitis in Summer 1922 dealt another blow to the marriage. In 1923, after realizing that Evangelia was pregnant again, George made the unilateral decision to move his family to America, a decision which Yakinthi recalled was greeted with Evangelia « shouting hysterically » followed by George « slamming doors ». The family left for America in July 1923 and settled in the Astoria neighborhood in the borough of Queens.
Evangelia was convinced that her third child would be a boy; she was so disappointed by the birth of another daughter that she refused to even look at her new baby for four days.Around age three, Maria’s musical talents began to manifest themselves, and after Evangelia discovered that her youngest daughter also had a voice, she began pressuring « Mary » to sing. Callas would later recall, « I was made to sing when I was only five, and I hated it. »George was unhappy with his wife favoring their elder daughter as well as the pressure put upon young Mary to sing and perform. The marriage continued to deteriorate and in 1937 Evangelia decided to return to Athens with her two daughters.
Deteriorating relationship with mother
Callas’s relationship with Evangelia continued to erode during the years in Greece, and in the prime of her career, it became a matter of great public interest, especially after a 1956 cover story in Time magazine which focused on this relationship and later, by Evangelia’s book My Daughter—Maria Callas. In public, Callas blamed the strained relationship with Evangelia on her unhappy childhood spent singing and working at her mother’s insistence, saying,
« My sister was slim and beautiful and friendly, and my mother always preferred her. I was the ugly duckling, fat and clumsy and unpopular. It is a cruel thing to make a child feel ugly and unwanted. . .I’ll never forgive her for taking my childhood away. During all the years I should have been playing and growing up, I was singing or making money. Everything I did for them was mostly good and everything they did to me was mostly bad. »
In 1957, she told Norman Ross, « Children should have a wonderful childhood. I have not had it—I wish I had. » On the other hand, biographer Pestalis-Diomidis asserts that it was actually Evangelia’s hateful treatment of George in front of their young children which led to resentment and dislike on Callas’s part. However, according to Callas’s husband and her close friend Giulietta Simionato, Callas related to them that her mother, who did not work, pressured her to « go out with various men », mainly Italian and German soldiers, to bring home money and food during the Axis occupation of Greece during World War II. Simionato was convinced that Callas « managed to remain untouched », but Callas never forgave Evangelia for what she perceived as a kind of prostitution forced on her by her mother. In an attempt to patch things up with her mother, Callas took Evangelia along on her first visit to Mexico in 1950, but this only reawakened the old frictions and resentments, and after leaving Mexico, the two never met again After a series of angry and accusatory letters from Evangelia lambasting Callas’s father and husband, Callas ceased communication with her mother altogether.
Callas received her musical education in Athens. Initially, her mother tried to enroll her at the prestigious Athens Conservatoire, without success. At the audition, her voice, still untrained, failed to impress, while the conservatoire’s director Filoktitis Oikonomidis refused to accept her without her satisfying the theoretic prerequisites (solfege). In the summer of 1937, her mother visited Maria Trivella at the younger Greek National Conservatoire, asking her to take Mary as a student for a modest fee. In 1957, Trivella recalled her impression of « Mary, a very plump young girl, wearing big glasses for her myopia »:
« The tone of the voice was warm, lyrical, intense; it swirled and flared like a flame and filled the air with melodious reverberations like a carillon. It was by any standards an amazing phenomenon, or rather it was a great talent that needed control, technical training, and strict discipline in order to shine with all its brilliance ».
Trivella agreed to tutor Callas completely, waiving her tuition fees, but no sooner had Callas started her formal lessons and vocal exercises than Trivella began to feel that Mary was not a contralto, as she had been told, but a dramatic soprano. Subsequently, they began working on raising the tessitura of Mary’s voice and to lighten its timbre.Trivella recalled Mary as « A model student. Fanatical, uncompromising, dedicated to her studies heart and soul. Her progress was phenomenal. She studied five or six hours a day. … Within six months, she was singing the most difficult arias in the international opera repertoire with the utmost musicality ».On April 11, 1938, in her public debut, Callas ended the recital of Trivella’s class at the Parnassos music hall with a duet from Tosca.Callas recalled that Trivella « had a French method, which was placing the voice in the nose, rather nasal… and I had the problem of not having low chest tones, which is essential in bel canto… And that’s where I learned my chest tones. »
Callas studied with Trivella for two years before her mother secured another audition at the Athens Conservatoire with the well-known soprano Elvira de Hidalgo. Callas auditioned with « Ocean, Thou Mighty Monster. » De Hidalgo recalled hearing « tempestuous, extravagant cascades of sounds, as yet uncontrolled but full of drama and emotion ».She agreed to take her as a pupil immediately, but Callas’s mother asked de Hidalgo to wait for a year, as Callas would be graduating from the National Conservatoire and could begin working. On April 2, 1939, Callas undertook the part of Santuzza in a student production of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana at the Olympia Theater, and in the fall of the same year she enrolled at the Athens Conservatoire in Elvira de Hidalgo’s class.
De Hidalgo would later recall Callas as, « a phenomenon… She would listen to all my students, sopranos, mezzo’s, tenors… She could do it all. » Callas herself said that she would go to « the conservatoire at ten in the morning and leave with the last pupil… devouring music » for ten hours a day. When asked by her teacher why she did this, her answer was that even « with the least talented pupil, he can teach you something that you, the most talented, might not be able to do. »
Early operatic career in Greece
After several appearances as a student, Callas began appearing in secondary roles at the Greek National Opera. De Hidalgo was instrumental in securing roles for her, allowing Callas to earn a small salary, which would help her and her family get through the difficult war years.
Callas made her professional debut in February 1942 in the small role of Beatrice in Franz von Suppé Boccaccio. Soprano Galatea Amaxopoulous who sang in the chorus later recalled, « Even in rehearsal, Mary’s fantastic performing ability had been obvious, and from then on, the others started trying to find ways of preventing her from appearing. » Fellow singer Maria Alkeou similarly recalled that the established sopranos Nafiska Galanou and Anna (Zozó) Remmoundou « used to stand in the wings while Mary was singing and make remarks about her, muttering, laughing, and point their fingers at her ».Despite these hostilities, Callas managed to continue and made her debut in a leading role in August 1942 as Tosca, going on to sing the role of Marta in Eugen d’Albert’s Tiefland at the Olympia Theater. Callas’s performance as Marta received glowing reviews. Critic Spanoudi declared Callas « an extremely dynamic artist possessing the rarest dramatic and musical gifts », and Vangelis Mangliveras evaluated Callas’s performance for the weekly To Radiophonon:
« The singer who took the part of Marta, that new star in the Greek firmament, with a matchless depth of feeling, gave a theatrical interpretation well up to the standard of a tragic actress. About her exceptional voice with its astonishing natural fluency, I do not wish to add anything to the words of Alexandra Lalaouni: ‘Kaloyeropoulou is one of those God-given talents that one can only marvel at.' »
Following these performances, even Callas’s detractors began to refer to her as « The God-Given ». Some time later, watching Callas rehearse Fidelio, rival soprano Remoundou asked a colleague, « Could it be that there is something divine and we haven’t realized it? »Following Tiefland, Callas sang the role of Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana again and followed it with O Protomastoras at the ancient Odeon of Herodes Atticus theater at the foot of the Acropolis.
During August and September 1944, Callas performed the role of Leonore in a Greek language production of Beethoven’s Fidelio, again at the Odeon of Herodus Atticus. German critic Friedrich Herzog who witnessed the performances declared Leonore Callas’s « greatest triumph »:
« When Maria Kaloyeropoulou’s Leonore let her soprano soar out radiantly in the untrammeled jubilation of the duet, she rose to the most sublime heights… Here she gave bud, blossom, and fruit to that harmony of sound that also ennobled the art of the prima donne. »
After the liberation of Greece, de Hidalgo advised Callas to establish herself in Italy. Callas proceeded to give a series of concerts around Greece, and then, against her teacher’s advice, she returned to America to see her father and to further pursue her career. When she left Greece on September 14, 1945, two months short of her 22nd birthday, Callas had given fifty-six performances in seven operas and had appeared in around twenty recitals. Callas considered her Greek career as the foundation of her musical and dramatic upbringing, saying, « When I got to the big career, there were no surprises for me. »
Main operatic career
After returning to the United States and reuniting with her father in September 1945, Callas made the round of auditions.In December of that year, she auditioned for Edward Johnson the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera and was favorably received: « Exceptional voice—ought to be heard very soon on stage ».Callas maintained that the Met offered her Madama Butterfly and Fidelio, to be performed in Philadelphia and sung in English, both of which she declined, feeling she was too fat for Butterfly and did not like the idea of opera in English. Although no written evidence of this offer exists in the Met’s records, in a 1958 interview with The New York Post, Johnson corroborated Callas’s story: « We offered her a contract, but she didn’t like it—because of the contract, not because of the roles. She was right in turning it down—it was frankly a beginner’s contract. »
When she attended President Kennedy’s birthday party at Madison Square Garden in May, 1963, she spoke with Jack Benny. « We’ve met before, Mr. Benny. Don’t you remember? » When Benny couldn’t recall, she explained, « I made my first radio appearance as a contestant on a Major Bowes Amateur Hour and you were one of the judges. I came in second because you were the only judge who voted for me. »
Italy, Meneghini, and Serafin
In 1946, Callas was engaged to re-open the opera house in Chicago as Turandot, but the company folded before opening. Basso Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, who also was to star in this opera, was aware that Tullio Serafin was looking for a dramatic soprano to cast as La Gioconda at the Arena di Verona. He would later recall the young Callas as being « amazing—so strong physically and spiritually; so certain of her future. I knew in a big outdoor theater like Verona’s, this girl, with her courage and huge voice, would make a tremendous impact. »Subsequently he recommended Callas to retired tenor and impresario Giovanni Zenatello. During her audition, Zenatello became so excited that he jumped up and joined Callas in the Act 4 duet.It was in this role that Callas made her Italian debut.
Upon her arrival in Verona, Callas met Giovanni Battista Meneghini, an older, wealthy industrialist, who began courting her. They married in 1949, and he assumed control of her career until 1959, when the marriage dissolved. It was Meneghini’s love and support that gave Callas the time needed to establish herself in Italy, and throughout the prime of her career, she went by the name Maria Meneghini Callas.
After La Gioconda, Callas had no further offers, and when Serafin, looking for someone to sing Tristan und Isolde, called on her, she told him that she already knew the score, even though she had looked at only the first act out of curiosity while at the conservatory. She sight-read the opera’s second act for Serafin, who praised her for knowing the role so well, whereupon she admitted to having bluffed and having sight-read the music. Even more impressed, Serafin immediately cast her in the role. Serafin thereafter served as Callas’s mentor and supporter.
According to Lord Harewood, « Very few Italian conductors have had a more distinguished career that Tullio Serafin, and perhaps none, apart from Toscanini, more influence ». In 1968, Callas would recall that working with Serafin was the « really lucky » opportunity of her career, because « he taught me that there must be an expression; that there must be a justification. He taught me the depth of music, the justification of music. That’s where I really really drank all I could from this man ».
I Puritani and path to bel canto
The great turning point in Callas’s career occurred in Venice in 1949. She was engaged to sing the role of Brünnhilde in Die Walküre at the Teatro la Fenice, when Margherita Carosio, who was engaged to sing Elvira in I Puritani in the same theater, fell ill. Unable to find a replacement for Carosio, Maestro Serafin told Callas that she would be singing Elvira in six days; when Callas protested that she not only did not know the role, but also had three more Brünnhildes to sing, he told her « I guarantee that you can. »In Michael Scott’s words, « the notion of any one singer embracing music as divergent in its vocal demands as Wagner’s Brünnhilde and Bellini’s Elvira in the same career would have been cause enough for surprise; but to attempt to essay them both in the same season seemed like folie de grandeur ». Before the performance actually took place, one incredulous critic would snort, « We hear that Serafin has agreed to conduct I Puritani with a dramatic soprano… When can we expect a new edition of La Traviata with baritone] Gino Bechi’s Violetta « After the performance, critics would write, « Even the most skeptical had to acknowledge the miracle that Maria Callas accomplished… the flexibility of her limpid, beautifully poised voice, and her splendid high notes. Her interpretation also has a humanity, warmth, and expressiveness that one would search for in vain in the fragile, pellucid coldness of other Elviras. »
Franco Zeffirelli recalled, « What she did in Venice was really incredible. You need to be familiar with opera to realize the enormity of her achievement. It was as if someone asked Birgit Nilsson, who is famous for her great Wagnerian voice, to substitute overnight for Beverly Sills, who is one of the great coloratura sopranos of our time. »
Scott asserts that « Of all the many roles Callas undertook it is doubtful if any had a more far-reaching effect. » This initial foray into the bel canto repertoire changed the course of Callas’s career and set her on a path leading to Lucia, La Traviata, Armida, La Sonnambula, Il Pirata, Il Turco in Italia, Medea, and Anna Bolena and reawakened interest in the long-neglected operas of Cherubini, Bellini, Donizetti, and Rossini. In the words of soprano Montserrat Caballé:
« She opened a new door for us, for all the singers in the world, a door that had been closed. Behind it was sleeping not only great music but great idea of interpretation. She has given us the chance, those who follow her, to do things that were hardly possible before her. That I am compared with Callas is something I never dared to dream. It is not right. I am much smaller than Callas. »
As with I Puritani, Callas also learned and performed Cherubini’s Medea, Giordano’s Andrea Chénier, and Rossini’s Armida on a few days’ notice. Throughout her career, Callas displayed her vocal versatility in recitals that combined dramatic soprano arias alongside coloratura pieces, including in a 1952 RAI recital in which she opened with Lady Macbeth’s « letter scene », followed by the « Mad Scene » from Lucia di Lammermoor, then by Abigaile’s treacherous recitative and aria from Nabucco, finishing with the « Bell Song » from Lakmé capped by a ringing high E in alt (E6).
Callas made her official debut at La Scala in I Vespri Siciliani in December 1951, and this theater became her artistic home throughout the 1950s. La Scala mounted many new productions specially for Callas by directors such as Herbert Von Karajan, Margherita Wallmann, Luchino Visconti and Franco Zeffirelli.
Callas made her American Debut in Chicago in 1954, and « with the Callas Norma, Lyric Opera of Chicago was born. »Her Metropolitan Opera debut in November 1956 was again with Norma, but was preceded with an unflattering cover story in Time magazine which rehashed all of the Callas clichés, including her temper, her supposed rivalry with Renata Tebaldi, and especially her difficult relationship with her mother. As she had done with Lyric Opera of Chicago, on November 21, 1958, Callas gave a concert to inaugurate what then was billed as the Dallas Civic Opera, and helped establish that company with her friends from Chicago, Lawrence Kelly and Maestro Nicola Rescigno.She further solidified this company’s standing when, in 1958, she gave « a towering performance as Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata and that same year, in her only American performances of Medea, gave an interpretation of the title role worthy of Euripides. »
In 1952, she made her London debut at the Royal Opera House in Norma with veteran mezzo soprano Ebe Stignani as Adalgisa, a performance which survives on record and also features the young Joan Sutherland in the small role of Clotilde. Callas and the London public had what she herself called « a love affair », and she returned to the Royal Opera House in 1953, 1957, 1958, 1959, and 1963 to 1965.It was at the Royal Opera House where, on July 5, 1965, Callas ended her stage career in the role of Tosca, in a production designed and mounted for her by Franco Zeffirelli and featuring her friend and colleague Tito Gobbi.
In the early years of her career, Callas was a heavy and full-figured woman, though she admitted to weighing « no more than 200 pounds. »Despite her zaftig figure, Meneghini and others considered her beautiful, but during her initial performances in Cherubini’s Medea in May 1953, Callas decided that she needed a leaner face and figure to do dramatic justice to this as well as the other roles she was undertaking:
« I was getting so heavy that even my vocalizing was getting heavy. I was tiring myself, I was perspiring too much, and I was really working too hard. And I wasn’t really well, as in health; I couldn’t move freely. And then I was tired of playing a game, for instance playing this beautiful young woman, and I was heavy and uncomfortable to move around. In any case, it was uncomfortable and I didn’t like it. So I felt now if I’m going to do things right—I’ve studied all my life to put things right musically, so why don’t I diet and put myself into a certain condition where I’m presentable. »
During 1953 and early 1954, she lost almost 80 pounds, turning herself into what Maestro Rescigno called « possibly the most beautiful lady on the stage ». Sir Rudolf Bing, who remembered Callas as being « monstrously fat » in 1951, stated that after the weight loss, Callas was an « astonishing, svelte, striking woman » who « showed none of the signs one usually finds in a fat woman who has lost weight: she looked as though she had been born to that slender and graceful figure, and had always moved with that elegance. »
Various rumors spread regarding her weight loss method; one had her swallowing a tapeworm, while Rome’s Pantanella Mills pasta company claimed she lost weight by eating their « physiologic pasta », prompting Callas to file a lawsuit.Callas stated that she lost the weight by eating a sensible low-calorie diet of mainly salads and chicken. Some believe that the loss of body mass made it more difficult for her to support her voice, triggering the vocal strain that became apparent later in the decade (see vocal decline), while others believed the weight loss effected a newfound softness and femininity in her voice, as well as a greater confidence as a person and performer.
Callas’s voice was and remains controversial; it bothered and disturbed as many as it thrilled and inspired. John Ardoin has argued that, like Maria Malibran and Giuditta Pasta, Callas was a natural mezzo-soprano whose range was extended through training and willpower. In 1957, Callas herself described her early voice this way: « The timbre was dark, almost black—when I think of it, I think of thick molasses », and in 1968 she added, « They say I was not a true soprano, I was rather toward a mezzo ». Michael Scott, however, argues that Callas’s voice was not a mezzo, but a natural high soprano.
Walter Legge stated that Callas possessed that most essential ingredient for a great singer: an instantly recognizable voice.During « The Callas Debate », Italian critic Rodolfo Celletti stated, « The timbre of Callas’s voice, considered purely as sound, was essentially ugly… yet I really believe that part of her appeal was precisely due to this fact. Why? because for all its natural lack of varnish, velvet and richness, this voice could acquire such distinctive colours and timbres as to be unforgettable. »In compensation for the lack of classical beauty of sound, Callas was able to change the timbre of the voice and her vocal color and weight at will and according to the role she was singing, essentially giving each character her own individual voice.
Maestro Carlo Maria Giulini has described the appeal of Callas’s voice:
« It is very difficult to speak of the voice of Callas. Her voice was a very special instrument. Something happens sometimes with string instruments—violin, viola, cello—where the first moment you listen to the sound of this instrument, the first feeling is a bit strange sometimes. But after just a few minutes, when you get used to, when you become friends with this kind of sound, then the sound becomes a magical quality. This was Callas. »
Vocal size and range:
In the years prior to her weight loss, Callas’s voice was a dramatic soprano, the sheer size of which was much commented upon, and there were no complaints about unsteadiness even in the most exposed passages.In a 1982 Opera News interview with Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge, Bonynge stated, « But before she slimmed down, I mean this was such a colossal voice. It just poured out of her, the way Flagstad’s did… Callas had a huge voice. When she and Stignani sang Norma, at the bottom of the range you could barely tell who was who… Oh it was colossal. And she took the big sound right up to the top. »In his book, Michael Scott makes the distinction that whereas Callas’s pre-1954 voice was a « dramatic soprano with an exceptional top », after the weight loss, it became, as one Chicago critic described the voice in Lucia,a « huge suprano leggiero ». In performance, Callas’s range was just short of three octaves, from F-sharp (F#3) below middle C (C4) heard in « Arrigo! Ah parli ad un core » from I Vespri Siciliani to E-natural (E6) above high C (C6), heard in the same opera as well as Rossini’s Armida and Lakmé’s Bell Song. After her June 11, 1951 concert in Florence, Rock Ferris of Musical Courier said, « Her high E’s and F’s are taken full voice. »In a French TV interview, Callas’s teacher Elvira de Hidalgo spoke of her voice soaring to a high E, but did not mention the high F.Although no definite recording of Callas singing high F’s have surfaced, the presumed E-natural in her performance of Rossini’s Armida—a poor-quality bootleg recording of uncertain pitch—has been referred to as a high F.
Callas’s voice was noted by Walter Legge and other experts for its three distinct registers. Her low or chest register was extremely dark and almost baritone-like in power, and she used this part of her voice for dramatic effect, often going into this register much higher on the scale than most sopranos. Her middle register had a peculiar and highly personal sound— »part oboe, part clarinet », as Claudia Cassidy described it—and was noted for its veiled or « bottled » sound, as if she were singing into a jug. Walter Legge attributed this sound to the « extraordinary formation of her upper palate, shaped like a Gothic arch, not the Romanesque arch of the normal mouth ».The upper register was ample and bright, with an impressive extension above high C, which—in contrast to the light flute-like sound of the typical coloratura soprano—she sang with the same full-throated sound as her lower registers.And as she demonstrated in the finale of La Sonnambula on the commercial EMI set and the live recording from Cologne, she was able to execute a diminuendo on the stratospheric high E-flat, which Scott describes as « a feat unrivaled in the history of the gramophone. »
The agility of Callas’s voice allowed her to sing difficult ornate music with ease and technical polish. In the words of Walter Legge, even in the most difficult florid music, there were no musical or technical difficulties « which she could not execute with astonishing, unostentatious ease. Her chromatic runs, particularly downwards, were beautifully smooth and staccatos almost unfailingly accurate, even in the trickiest intervals. There is hardly a bar in the whole range of nineteenth century music for high soprano that seriously tested her powers. » As part of her technical arsenal, Callas also possessed a beautiful and dependable trill in every vocal register.
This combination of size, weight, range and agility was a source of amazement to Callas’s own contemporaries. One of the choristers present at her La Scala debut in I Vespri Siciliani recalled, « My God! She came on stage sounding like our deepest contralto, Cloe Elmo. And before the evening was over, she took a high E-flat. And it was twice as strong as Toti Dal Monte’s! » For Italian soprano Renata Tebaldi, « the most fantastic thing was the possibility for her to sing the soprano coloratura with this big voice! This was something really special. Fantastic absolutely! ».
Though adored by many opera enthusiasts, Callas was a controversial artist. While Callas was the great singer often dismissed simply as an actress she considered herself first and foremost « a musician, that is, the first instrument of the orchestra. » Maestro Victor de Sabata confided to Walter Legge, « If the public could understand, as we do, how deeply and utterly musical Callas is, they would be stunned. ». Callas possessed an innate architectural sense of line-proportion and an uncanny feel for timing and for what one of her colleagues described as « a sense of the rhythm within the rhythm ». In addition, she had a particular gift for language and the use of language in music. In recitatives, she always knew which word to emphasize and which syllable in that word to bring out.
Michael Scott notes, « If we listen attentively, we note how her perfect legato enables her to suggest by musical means even the exclamation marks and commas of the text. »Technically, not only did she have the capacity to perform the most difficult florid music effortlessly, but also she had the ability to use each ornament as an expressive device rather than for mere fireworks.Soprano Martina Arroyo states, « What interested me most was how she gave the runs and the cadenzas words. That always floored me. I always felt I heard her saying something—it was never just singing notes. That alone is an art. »Callas’s singing of the bel canto repertoire « created a furor, not only because she sang the florid music with an accuracy unequalled since the days of Tetrazzini, but also because she undertook it with stunning weight of tone and breath of phrasing, so bringing to it a dramatic perspective. »Italian critic Eugenio Gara gave this summary of Callas’s musical artistry:
« Her secret is in her ability to transfer to the musical plane the suffering of the character she plays, the nostalgic longing for lost happiness, the anxious fluctuation between hope and despair, between pride and supplication, between irony and generosity, which in the end dissolve into a superhuman inner pain. The most diverse and opposite of sentiments, cruel deceptions, ambitious desires, burning tenderness, grievous sacrifices, all the torments of the heart, acquire in her singing that mysterious truth, I would like to say, that psychological sonority, which is the primary attraction of opera. »
Regarding Callas’s acting ability, vocal coach Ira Siff remarked, « When I saw the final two Toscas she did in the old , I felt like I was watching the actual story on which the opera had later been based. »Callas was not, however, a realistic or verismo style actress:her physical acting was merely « subsidiary to the heavy Kunst of developing the psychology of the roles under the supervision of the music, of singing the acting… Suffering, delight, humility, hubris, despair, rhapsody—all this was musically appointed, through her use of the voice flying the text upon the notes. »Seconding this opinion, verismo specialist soprano Augusta Oltrabella said, « Despite what everyone says, [Callas] was an actress in the expression of the music, and not vice versa. »Opera director Sandro Sequi, who witnessed many Callas performances close-up, avers, « For me, she was extremely stylized and classic, yet at the same time, human—but humanity on a higher plane of existence, almost sublime. Realism was foreign to her, and that is why she was the greatest of opera singers. After all, opera is the least realistic of theater forms. . . .She was wasted in verismo roles, even Tosca, no matter how brilliantly she could act such roles.
« Scott adds, « Early nineteenth-century opera. . .is not merely the anthetesis of reality, it also requires highly stylized acting. Callas had the perfect face for it. Her big features matched its grandiloquence and spoke volumes from a distance. »
In regard to Callas’s physical acting style, Sandro Sequi recalls, « She was never in a hurry. Everything was very paced, proportioned, classical, precise… She was extremely powerful but extremely stylized. Her gestures were not many… I don’t think she did more than twenty gestures in a performance. But she was capable of standing ten minutes without moving a hand or finger, compeling everyone to look at her. »Edward Downes recalled Callas watching and observing her colleagues with such intensity and concentration as to make it seem that the drama was all unfolding in her head.Sir Rudolf Bing similarly recalled that in Il Trovatore in Chicago, « it was Callas’ quiet listening, rather than Björling’s singing that made the dramatic impact… He didn’t know what he was singing, but she knew. »
Callas herself stated that in opera, acting must be based on the music, saying, « When one wants to find a gesture, when you want to find how to act onstage, all you have to do it listen to the music. The composer has already seen to that. If you take the trouble to really listen with your soul and with your ears—and I say soul and ears because the mind must work, but not too much also—you will find every gesture there. »
Callas’s most distinguishing quality was her ability to breathe life into the characters she portrayed,achieving this by purely musical means and within the stylistic framework set by the composer, never resorting to melodramatic extramusical excesses prevalent in verismo.She used her many voices to create a different voice for each role, and to make each sentiment pertinent to that particular role.Each character had her own joy, sorrow, hope, despair, love, and disappointment.Furthermore, Callas was able to portray—in no uncertain terms—unvarnished, burning hatred. This added yet another revealing—albeit uncomfortable—truth to her portrayals, especially of Norma and Medea.As Michael Scott states, at her best, in the 1950s, Callas’s « prodigious technical skills enabled her voice to reveal every nuance she desired to effect, articulating easily the most formidably difficult intricate music », making her unique among the sopranos of the 20th century.Ethan Mordden has said, « It was a flawed voice. But then Callas sought to capture in her singing not just beauty but a whole humanity, and within her system, the flaws feed the feeling, the sour plangency and the strident defiance becoming aspects of the canto. They were literally defects of her voice; she bent them into advantages of her singing. »Maestro Giulini believes, « If melodrama is the ideal unity of the trilogy of words, music, and action, it is impossible to imagine an artist in whom these three elements were more together than Callas. »He recalls that during Callas’s performances of La Traviata, « reality was onstage. What stood behind me, the audience, auditorium, La Scala itself, seemed artifice. Only that which transpired on stage was truth, life itself. »Sir Rudolf Bing expressed similar sentiments:
« Once one heard and saw Maria Callas—one can’t really distinguish it—in a part, it was very hard to enjoy any other artist, no matter how great, afterwards, because she imbued every part she sang and acted with such incredible personality and life. One move of her hand was more than another artist could do in a whole act. »
To Maestro Antonino Votto, Callas was
« The last great artist. When you think this woman was nearly blind, and often sang standing a good 150 feet from the podium. But her sensitivity! Even if she could not see, she sensed the music and always came in exactly with my downbeat. When we rehearsed, she was so precise, already note-perfect… She was not just a singer, but a complete artist. It’s foolish to discuss her as a voice. She must be viewed totally—as a complex of music, drama, movement. There is no one like her today. She was an esthetic phenomenon. »
During the early 1950s, controversy arose regarding a supposed rivalry between Callas and Renata Tebaldi, an Italian lyrico spinto soprano renowned for the ravishing beauty of her voice.The contrast between Callas’s often unconventional vocal qualities and Tebaldi’s classically beautiful sound resurrected an argument as old as opera itself, namely, beauty of sound versus the expressive use of sound.
This « rivalry » reached a fever pitch in the mid-1950s, at times even engulfing the two ladies themselves, who were said by their more fanatical followers to have engaged in verbal barbs in each other’s direction. Tebaldi was quoted as saying, « I have one thing that Callas doesn’t have: a heart »while Callas was quoted in Time magazine as saying that comparing her with Tebaldi was like « comparing champagne with cognac. No, with Coca Cola. »However, witnesses to the interview stated that Callas only said « champagne with cognac, » and it was a bystander who quipped, « No, with Coca-Cola », but the Time reporter attributed the latter comment to Callas.
These two singers, however, should never have been compared.Tebaldi was trained by Carmen Melis, a noted verismo specialist, and she was rooted in the early twentieth century school of Italian singing just as firmly as Callas was rooted in nineteenth century bel canto.Callas was a dramatic soprano, whereas Tebaldi considered herself essentially a lyric soprano. Callas and Tebaldi generally sang a different repertoire: in the early years of her career, Callas concentrated on the heavy dramatic soprano roles and later in her career on the bel canto repertoire, whereas Tebaldi concentrated on late Verdi and verismo roles, where her limited upper extensionand her lack of a florid technique were not issues.They shared a few roles, including Tosca in Puccini’s opera and La Gioconda, which Tebaldi performed only late in her career.
The alleged rivalry aside, Callas made remarks appreciative of Tebaldi, and vice versa. During an interview with Norman Ross in Chicago, Callas said, « I admire Tebaldi’s tone; it’s beautiful—also some beautiful phrasing. Sometimes, I actually wish I had her voice. » Francis Robinson of the Met wrote of an incident in which Tebaldi asked him to recommend a recording of La Gioconda in order to help her learn the role. Being fully aware of the « rivalry », he recommended Zinka Milanov’s version. A few days later, he went to visit Tebaldi, only to find her sitting by the speakers, listening intently to Callas’s recording. She then looked up at him and asked, « Why didn’t you tell me Maria’s was the best? »
Callas visited Tebaldi after a performance of Adriana Lecouvreur at the Met in the late 1960s, and the two were reunited. In 1978, Tebaldi spoke warmly of her late colleague and summarized this rivalry in her imperfect English:
« This rivality was really building from the people of the newspapers and the fans. But I think it was very good for both of us, because the publicity was so big and it created a very big interest about me and Maria and was very good in the end. But I don’t know why they put this kind of rivality, because the voice was very different. She was really something unusual. And I remember that I was very young artist too, and I stayed near the radio every time that I know that there was something on radio by Maria. »
Several singers have opined that the heavy roles undertaken in her early years damaged Callas’s voice.The mezzo-soprano Giulietta Simionato, Callas’s close friend and frequent colleague, stated that she told Callas that she felt that the early heavy roles led to a weakness in the diaphragm and subsequent difficulty in controlling the upper register.
Louise Caselotti, who worked with Callas prior to her Italian debut, felt that it was not the heavy roles that hurt Callas’s voice, but the lighter ones.Several singers have suggested that the heavy use of Callas’s chest voice led to stridency and unsteadiness with the high notes. In his book, Callas’s husband Meneghini wrote that Callas suffered an unusually early onset of menopause, which could have affected her voice. Soprano Carol Neblett once said, « A woman sings with her ovaries—you’re only as good as your hormones. »
Critic Henry Pleasants has opined that it was a loss of breath support which led to Callas’s vocal problems, saying,
« Singing, and especially opera singing, requires physical strength. Without it, the singer’s respiratory functions can no longer support the steady emissions of breath essential to sustaining the production of focused tone. The breath escapes, but it is no longer the power behind the tone, or is only partially and intermittently . The result is a breathy sound—tolerable but hardly beautiful—when the singer sings lightly, and a voice spread and squally when under pressure. »
Michael Scott has proposed that Callas’s loss of breath support was directly caused by her rapid and progressive weight-loss, something that was noted even in her prime. Of her 1958 recital in Chicago, Robert Detmer would write, « There were sounds fearfully uncontrolled, forced beyond the too-slim singer’s present capacity to support or sustain. »
While there is no filmed footage of Callas during her heavy era, photos from those years show a very upright posture with the shoulders relaxed and held back. All videos of Callas are from the period after her weight loss, and on these, « we watch… the constantly sinking, depressed chest and hear the resulting deterioration ».This continual change in posture has been cited as visual proof of a progressive loss of breath support.
Commercial and bootleg recordings of Callas from the late 1940s to 1953—the period during which she sang the heaviest dramatic soprano roles show no decline in the fabric of the voice, no loss in volume and no unsteadiness or shrinkage in the upper register.Of her December 1952 Lady Macbeth—coming after five years of singing the most strenuous dramatic soprano repertoire—Peter Dragadze would write for Opera, « Callas’s voice since last season has improved a great deal, the second passagio on the high B-Natural and C has now completely cleared, giving her an equally colored scale from top to bottom. « And of her performance of Medea a year later, John Ardoin writes, « The performance displays Callas in as secure and free a voice as she will be found at any point in her career. The many top B’s have a brilliant ring, and she handles the treacherous tessitura like an eager thoroughbred.
In recordings from 1954 (immediately after her 80-pound weight loss) and thereafter, « not only would the instrument lose its warmth and become thin and acidulous, but the altitudinous passages would to her no longer come easily. »It is also at this time that unsteady top notes first begin to appear. These changes gradually worsened during the 1950s, but the slimming of her voice did not affect her scenic portrayals or, at least not until about 1960, degrade the overall quality of her singing.
Or her performance of Norma in Chicago in 1954, Claudia Cassidy would write, « there is a slight unsteadiness in some of the sustained upper notes. but to me her voice is more beautiful in color, more even through the range, than it used to be ». And at her performance of the same opera in London in 1957 (her first performance at Covent Garden after the weight loss), critics again felt her voice had changed for the better, that it had now supposedly become a more precise instrument, with a new focus. Many of her most critically acclaimed appearances are from the period 1954–1957 (Anna Bolena of 1957, Norma, La Traviata, Sonnambula and Lucia of 1955, to name a few).
Callas’s close friend and colleague Tito Gobbi thought that her vocal problems all stemmed from her state of mind:
« I don’t think anything happened to her voice. I think she only lost confidence. She was at the top of a career that a human being could desire, and she felt enormous responsibility. She was obliged to give her best every night, and maybe she felt she wasn’t [able] any more, and she lost confidence. I think this was the beginning of the end of this career. »
In support of Gobbi’s assertion, a bootleg recording of Callas rehearsing Beethoven’s aria « Ah! Perfido » and parts of Verdi’s La Forza del Destino shortly before her death shows her voice to be in much better shape than much of her 1960s recordings and far healthier than the 1970s concerts with Giuseppe di Stefano.
Soprano Renee Fleming has stated that videos of Callas in the late 1950s and early 1960s reveal a posture that betrays breath-support problems:
« I have a theory about what caused her vocal decline, but it’s more from watching her sing than from listening. I really think it was her weight loss that was so dramatic and so quick. It’s not the weight loss per se… But if one uses the weight for support, and then it’s suddenly gone and one doesn’t develop another musculature for support, it can be very hard on the voice. And you can’t estimate the toll that emotional turmoil will take as well. I was told, by somebody who knew her well, that the way Callas held her arms to her solar plexus [allowed her] to push and create some kind of support. If she were a soubrette, it would never have been an issue. But she was singing the most difficult repertoire, the stuff that requires the most stamina, the most strength. »
Dramatic soprano Deborah Voigt, who lost over 100 pounds after gastric bypass surgery, expressed similar thoughts concerning her own voice and body:
« Much of what I did with my weight was very natural, vocally. Now I’ve got a different body—there’s not as much of me around. My diaphragm function, the way my throat feels, is not compromised in any way. But I do have to think about it more now. I have to remind myself to keep my ribs open. I have to remind myself, if my breath starts to stack. When I took a breath before, the weight would kick in and give it that extra Whhoomf! Now it doesn’t do that. If I don’t remember to get rid of the old air and re-engage the muscles, the breath starts stacking, and that’s when you can’t get your phrase, you crack high notes. »
Callas herself contributed her problems to a loss of confidence brought about by a loss of breath support, even though she does not make the connection between her weight and her breath support. Shortly before her death, Callas confided her own thoughts on her vocal problems to Peter Dragadze:
« I never lost my voice, but I lost strength in my diaphragm. … Because of those organic complaints, I lost my courage and boldness. My vocal cords were and still are in excellent condition, but my ‘sound boxes’ have not been working well even though I have been to all the doctors. The result was that I overstrained my voice, and that caused it to wobble. » (Gente, October 1, 1977)
Whether Callas’s vocal decline was due to ill health, early menopause, over-use and abuse of her voice, loss of breath-support, loss of confidence, or weight loss will continue to be debated. Whatever the cause may have been, her singing career was effectively over by age 40, and even at the time of her death at age 53, according to Walter Legge, « she ought still to have been singing magnificently ».
Scandals and later career
The latter half of Callas’s career was marked by a number of scandals. During performances of Madama Butterfly in Chicago, Callas was confronted by a process server who handed her papers about a lawsuit brought by Eddy Bagarozi, who claimed he was her agent. Callas was photographed with her mouth turned in a furious snarl. The photo was sent around the world and gave rise to the myth of Callas as a temperamental prima donna and a « Tigress ».
In 1956, just before her debut at the Metropolitan Opera, Time ran a damaging cover story about Callas, with special attention paid to her difficult relationship with her mother and some unpleasant exchanges between the two.
In 1957, Callas was starring as Amina in La Sonnambula at the Edinburgh International Festival with the forces of La Scala. Her contract was for four performances, but due to the great success of the series, La Scala decided to put on a fifth performance. Callas told the La Scala officials that she was physically exhausted and that she had already committed to a previous engagement, a party thrown for her by her friend Elsa Maxwell in Venice. Despite this, La Scala announced a fifth performance, with Callas billed as Amina. Callas refused to stay and went on to Venice. Despite the fact that she had fulfilled her contract, she was accused of walking out on La Scala and the festival. The Scala officials did not defend Callas or inform the press that the additional performance was not approved by Callas. Renata Scotto took over the part, which was the start of her international career.
In January 1958, Callas was to open the Rome Opera House season with Norma, with Italy’s president in attendance. The day before the opening night, Callas alerted the management that she was not well and that they should have a standby ready. She was told « No one can double Callas ». After being treated by doctors, she felt better on the day of performance and decided to go ahead with the opera. A bootleg recording of the first act survives reveals Callas sounding ill. Feeling that her voice was slipping away, she felt that she could not complete the performance, and consequently, she cancelled after the first act. She was accused of walking out on the president of Italy in a fit of temperament, and pandemonium broke out. Press coverage aggravated the situation. A newsreel included file footage of Callas from 1955 sounding well, intimating the footage was of rehearsals for the Rome Norma, with the voiceover narration, « Here she is in rehearsal, sounding perfectly healthy », followed by « If you want to hear Callas, don’t get all dressed up. Just go to a rehearsal; she usually stays to the end of those. »The scandal became notorious as the « Rome Walkout ». Callas brought a lawsuit against the Rome Opera House, but by the time the case was settled thirteen years later and the Rome Opera was found to be at fault for having refused to provide an understudy,Callas’s career was already over.
Callas’s relationship with La Scala had also started to become strained after the Edinburgh incident, and this effectively severed her major ties with her artistic home. Later in 1958, Callas and Rudolph Bing were in discussion about her season at the Met. She was scheduled to perform in Verdi’s La Traviata and in Macbeth, two very different operas which almost require totally different singers. Callas and the Met could not reach an agreement, and before the opening of Medea in Dallas, Bing sent a telegram to Callas terminating her contract. Headlines of « Bing Fires Callas » appeared in newspapers around the world. Maestro Nicola Rescigno later recalled, « That night, she came to the theater, looking like an empress: she wore an ermine thing that draped to the floor, and she had every piece of jewelery she ever owned. And she said, ‘You all know what’s happened. Tonight, for me, is a very difficult night, and I will need the help of every one of you.’ Well, she proceeded to give a performance [of Medea] that was historical. » Bing would later say that Callas was the most difficult artist he ever worked with, « because she was so much more intelligent. Other artists, you could get around. But Callas you could not get around. She knew exactly what she wanted, and why she wanted it. » Despite this, Bing’s admiration for Callas never wavered, and in September 1959, he sneaked into La Scala in order to listen to Callas record La Gioconda for EMI.Callas and Bing reconciled in the mid 1960s, and Callas returned to the Met for two performances of Tosca with her friend Tito Gobbi.
In her final years as a singer, she sang in Medea, Norma, and Tosca, most notably her Paris, New York, and London Toscas of January–February 1964, and her last performance on stage, on July 5, 1965, at Covent Garden. A television film of Act 2 of the Covent Garden Tosca of 1964 was broadcast in Britain on February 9, 1964, giving a rare view of Callas in performance and, specifically, of her on-stage collaboration with Tito Gobbi.
In 1969, the Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini cast Callas in her only non-operatic acting role, as the Greek mythological character of Medea, in his film by that name. The production was grueling, and according to the account in Ardoin’s Callas, the Art and the Life, Callas is said to have fainted after a day of strenuous running back and forth on a mudflat in the sun. The film was not a commercial success, but as Callas’s only film appearance, it documents her stage presence.
From October 1971 to March 1972, Callas gave a series of master classes at the Juilliard School in New York. These classes later formed the basis of Terrence McNally’s 1995 play Master Class.
Callas staged a series of joint recitals in Europe in 1973 and in the U.S., South Korea, and Japan in 1974 with the tenor Giuseppe Di Stefano. Critically, this was a musical disaster owing to both performers’ worn-out voices. However, the tour was an enormous popular success. Audiences thronged to hear the two performers, who had so often appeared together in their prime. Her final public performance was on November 11, 1974, in Sapporo, Japan.
Onassis and the final years
In late 2004, opera and film director Franco Zeffirelli made what many consider a bizarre claim that Callas may have been murdered by her confidant—Greek pianist Vasso Devetzi—in order to gain control of Callas’s US $9,000,000 estate. A more likely explanation is that Callas’s death was due to heart failure brought on by (possibly unintentional) overuse of Mandrax (methaqualone), a sleeping aid.
According to biographer Stelios Galatopoulos, Devetzi insinuated herself into Callas’s trust and acted virtually as her agent. This claim is corroborated by Iakintha (Jackie) Callas in her book Sisters, wherein she asserts that Devetzi conned Maria out of control of half of her estate, while promising to establish the Maria Callas Foundation to provide scholarships for young singers. After hundreds of thousands of dollars had allegedly vanished, Devetzi finally did establish the foundation.
In 2002, Zeffirelli produced and directed a film in Callas’s memory. Callas Forever was a highly fictionalized motion picture in which Callas was played by Fanny Ardant. It depicted the last months of Callas’s life, when she was seduced into the making of a movie of Carmen, lip-synching to her 1964 recording of that opera.
In 2007, Callas was posthumously awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
R.E.M. mentions Callas in their song E-bow the Letter from the album New Adventures in Hi-Fi.
Also, In 2007, the singer Celine Dion paid homage to Callas through her song, La Diva, which was based on a text by Denise Bombardier. In the song from Dion’s album « D’elles », Callas can be heard singing in the beginning and the end of the track; the end segment includes Dion mixing her voice with Callas.
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