More over-heated gush has been written about the Greek-American singer Maria Callas than about any other performer, with the possible exception of Greta Garbo. Given that Callas’s centenary has just occurred (2 December), we can expect much more of the same. Steven Knight is shooting a biopic, Maria, with Angelina Jolie, which one hopes will fare better than Franco Zeffirelli’s cringe-making version, Callas Forever (2002), which starred the unfortunate Fanny Ardant. Exhibitions in Milan and London have been dwarfed by the opening of a museum dedicated to the diva in Greece. A rather creepy sounding holographic concert is touring the world, following on from the exceedingly creepy Marina Abramovic’s 7 Deaths of Maria Callas, which has also been doing the rounds. All of which is operatic music to the ears of Warner Classics, for which she is still a major earner.
According to the legend, Callas revolutionised the operatic world by acting her roles as opposed to merely singing them. It was only after her, it seems, that singers were inspired to create characters rather than merely perform arias. As I have pointed out in these pages, this assertion would have surprised audiences who had experienced Feodor Chaliapin’s Boris Godunov, Mary Garden’s Melisande, or Lotte Lehmann’s Marschallin: all of them great singing actors who enthralled audiences long before Callas arrived on the scene. If the general level of acting on the operatic stage has become more adroit in the past sixty years, this has more to do with the rise in authority of the director from traffic cop to auteur than with Callas’s undoubted thespian abilities.
Callas is supposed to have single-handedly rescued the early nineteenth-century bel canto style of opera from the oblivion into which it had sunk by the middle of last century. While Callas was certainly a major force in its revival, its resuscitation was inevitable. As ‘classical music’ became more challenging and modern operas less popular, impresarios had to expand the repertoire from the Verdi, Wagner, Puccini axis, and the only option was to rediscover earlier works (by the likes of Cherubini, Spontini, and Bellini).
Although Callas had a fairly large repertoire, her stylistic range was remarkably small. She quickly dropped the German repertoire with which she began her career (roles such as Brünnhilde and Constanze) and concentrated almost entirely on Italian nineteenth-century opera, with the safely conservative verisimo style her only venture into the twentieth century.
And yet, move past the hype and play a recording and it’s easy to understand the enthusiasm. The first thing to grab the attention is the actual sound of the voice. Every great singer has an instantly recognisable voice. The Callas sound was uniquely hers, although many younger sopranos shortened their careers by attempting to emulate it. The strange, covered quality to her voice was not conventionally beautiful, and it took audiences a while to adjust to it, but her innate musicality, solid technique, and dramatic conviction won her an army of fans.
An early live recording of her Abigaille in Nabucco (Naples, 1949) shows her to be the finished article even at a relatively young age (she was twenty-five). In her big scena ‘Ben io t’invenni’, she carves her way through musical phrases, her voice dark with malice, ending this section with two stunning roulades. The voice lightens and softens when she recalls her lost love, and she attacks the cabaletta with commanding panache. But what one gets from the recording is not merely spectacular singing but a real sense of Abigaille’s character. One also gets what seems like a well-supported voice in peak condition, something that was not to last. Her recording of Isolde’s Liebestod, sung in Italian, has a glorious inwardness and proves Wagner can be sung in bel canto style. Move on to verisimo and as the fading Manon Lescaut her cries of ‘non voglio morir’ are searing in their intensity.
It is unfortunate that there is so little of her filmed performance. A few concerts and two versions of Act Two of Tosca. One is a rather cobbled together performance from a 1958 Paris concert, which has the Australian tenor Albert Lance as her Cavaradossi. The other is live from Covent Garden in 1965, at the very end of her career. Here once again confronted by Tito Gobbi’s well-seasoned Scarpia, she confirms her reputation as a physical as well as vocal actor, with many subtle touches. There is the shame-faced way she mutters the location of the Consul Angelotti and so condemns him to death, the slightly tremulously soothing tone as she lies to Cavaradossi when he asks her if she has betrayed the Consul, the look of horror on her face when she realises that the document of safe passage she needs is in Scarpia’s dead hand. All this achieved with a carefully husbanded voice.
From the mid-1950s, vocal problems had begun to appear. Given her unsteadiness on high notes, her producer, Walter Legge, told her that he should issue sea sickness pills with their latest recording. There is much debate about whether her vocal decline was caused by her drastic weight loss or by her increasingly hectic and much publicised private life. But there is no doubt that by the early 1960s her career was nearing its end.
After the London Tosca and a Paris Norma, the operatic career was over. Her attempted comeback tour with Giuseppe di Stefano was a disaster. She turned to film and was a very striking presence in Pasolini’s uneven Medea (1969), but that led nowhere. Her death in Paris at the age of fifty-three was claimed to be from a heart attack, but there have been constant rumours of suicide.
In spite of the hyperbole, Callas survives the legend. In the few years she was at her peak, she was a dominant force in opera. One hopes that the present hoopla will encourage new audiences to discover its riches.