On December 2nd, 2013 Maria Callas would have celebrated her 90th birthday. I have wanted, for a long time, to pay homage to this great artist and to touch on the characteristics , both personal and musical, that made up this remarkable performer.
Most of us never did hear Maria Callas in a live performance. What we know of her performing comes from listening to recordings, watching DVD’s and, of course, studying her work on YouTube. That in itself is amazing. Yet, she reigns, to this day, as perhaps the finest singer-actress of the 20th century and beyond. The mere mention of her name to this day, both by artists and the music-loving public, brings sighs of approval and wonderment.
I have chosen to quote many of Maria Callas’s statements in various interviews, believing her own words give us a better understanding of who she was as a person and as an artist.
What was it about Maria Callas that made her performances so powerful and exciting? Was it the voice itself?
“I don’t like listening to myself – I don’t like the kind of voice I have” she claimed In a 1969 interview in Paris. I find this amazing. i She confesses that in 1949, as a young singer performing in Perugia “I wanted to give up singing hearing myself.”
Many will honestly say that the first time they heard the voice, myself included, I was not taken with its quality. Being a Tebaldi fan from early childhood, the Callas voice was not as beautiful and round to my young ears. Yet, as time went on I began to understand that she put the voice at the service of the text and the music in a way that was direct, immediate, multi-faceted and, yes, unique. In studying her recordings you will hear that she uses a brighter and lighter color in singing the more girlish roles, i.e. Gilda, Rosina,etc. To the more heroic and dramatic roles she brought a vast palette of colors that conveyed the essence of the character being portrayed. It is as though she took the raw material (the voice itself) and moulded it into many shapes and colors.
She continues: “Even though I did not like my voice I learned to accept it and to be detached and objective. My voice is unique as is everyone’s. It is not how we sing but the uniqueness we bring – like the way we walk or talk…one’s own unique personna.”
EARLY STUDIES & EARLY CAREER:
Callas had one voice teacher – Elvira de Hidalgo, a well-known Spanish soprano in the the 20’s. Hidalgo speaks about those early days in this very same 1969 interview. “I knew when I met her first that she was unique — her dark penetrating eyes and her wide, full mouth”. She would come to my studio first thing each morning and stay right through my teaching day, listening to all the other lessons. She was inquisitive and wanted as much knowledge as I could give her. If I gave her a new aria one day she had it learned and memorized by the next lesson – often a day or two later. Her dedication was complete. ( Throughout her career Callas also attended all rehearsals in order to hear the orchestration, the other singers, etc.)
“I was always able to relax when Callas performed, unlike the anxiety I would experience in listening to my other students. I always felt at ease and comfortable, knowing she would sing beautifully.” (Hidalgo)
Early in her career she was singing Wagner. During that run she sang for Maestro Serafin who told her she would be singing “I Puritani” in a week due to the cancellation of the soprano. It was an enormous gamble but she had faith in the conductor and knew she could do it with his blessing. “Being young you have to gamble. I had not sung a bel canto role beforehand but was willing to take a chance.” Of course, the rest is history.
“Singing Wagner is much easier to sing than Bellini, Donizetti, Rossini, etc. One is not as exposed in the former repertoire as in the latter.” It was Callas who spearheaded the renaissance of this repertoire known as Bel Canto.
In a BBC interview with Lord Harwood she talks about learning a new role in this way:
“I choose a role based on the last act of that work. This I learned from Hidalgo, her teacher as well as Maestro Tulio Serafin, who made my career. Even if the 1st, 2nd, 3rd acts are interesting and the last act is weak I do not do the opera. I want to know that the characteristics of the heroine agrees with the music. This does happen frequently. Once I have accepted the role I learn it as a conservatory student — exactly how the composer wrote it – no more and no less”. She continues: “The embellishments chosen by the conductor must serve the expressions of the character – be they happy, sad, etc. Music must always have a flowing rhythm and that comes from having spoken the recitatives over and over to oneself. This I also learned from Maestro Serafin. This work never ends. After all of these preparations (the A.B.C’s) you can then take wing.” She adds: “It is like reading a letter, you must read between the lines.” It was the famous Italian Maestro Serafin, of course, who first recognized the musical and interpretive potential of this artist and was her guide into the bel canto repertoire.
Again in her own words from 1969 “A performer must understand the atmosphere of the piece – the hundreds of colors to choose from. It is all in the music. It is not only about singing, it is about interpreting.” Later on she comments: “If you seek applause you are cheating.”
“To be successful an interpretive artist must work 20 hours a day to be successful. When you think you have reached 100% you must then strive for 200%.”
“The voice is the main instrument of the orchestra – thus the word “Prima Donna”. We must understand the score intimately in order to be a part of the orchestra.” As a result she would color her voice according to the instrumentation of a specific aria, duet, etc. She was able to find the exact color for all human emotions. This came from her mode of preparation and, of course, her intimate knowledge of the whole score, not only her own role or vocal line.
In the famous 1969 Paris interview Visconti claims, in front of Callas who is sitting beside him on the couch, that her near-blindness was a good thing in that she was able to be in her own world on stage without being aware of the public or any other distraction. She agrees. It is also the reason that she learned every aspect of the score perfectly. She could barely see the conductor.
“Do you believe in repeating an aria a second time (i.e. ” Ah, Forse Lui” or “Addio del Passato” from La Traviata) she was asked?Her answer: “Never repeat – dont risk it a second time. We must be an instrument of the theater”. However, she agreed that in same operas repeating the main aria following a cabaletta is justified i.e. in “La Sonnambula”. She was not discussing, of course, the Handelian repertoire as she rarely, if ever, performed his operas.
“Always dig deeper to find what the composer wanted was Serafin’s advice to me. The ‘feeling’ musT be real – deep feeling always will be real. An interpreter’s first duty is to try to feel and recreate what the composer wanted. I would become the audience, the performer all at once in order to be faithful to this principle and to give it the breath of life”.
REVITALIZING AN OLD ART FORM:
“Opera has been dead for a long time now. Audiences change, of course, through the years and a bit of ‘twicking’ here and there is necessary but as long as we keep its dignity and emotional truthfulness the audience will be moved. Otherwise it is not giving pleasure. If music fails to agree to the ear – to soothe the ear – it has failed. Opera is not old-fashioned but often the interpreters are. We cannot modernize too much but we have to give it freshness in order to be credible to the eye and ear.
In the 1969 interview with the great director, Luchiano Visconiti, with whom Callas worked closely, the word “Perfectionist” comes up many times. The director repeats several times that perfection was her goal. She agrees to a great extent but claims that, not only in her art was she reaching for perfection, but in any other task she took on in life. She talks about her need to have everyone she worked with uphold the same high standards and that it is why she gained a reputation of being difficult to work with.
However, there is one statement she makes that is fascinating in the face of her Perfectionist goals: “Perfection does not exist. I don’t want my singing to be perfect. I thought my recording of Lady Macbeth was perfect as did my colleagues. It was vocally, but I had forgotten the character’s mood. Verdi asks for a particular color — dark, even acid-like. It was all in the music.”
In listening to her speak of her work ethic and her great drive to be as faithful to the composer as possible may lie one of the reasons for her demise. Who knows? She was relentless in trying to achieve more and more of what was in the music and text. But, as far as I am concerned, I am grateful she did persist in this goal. Although often described as difficult, she was a very humble servant of the creators and a true “interpreter” in the very best sense of the word. This often does take a toll as she later stated herself.
Again, it is in Callas’s own words that we understand the struggle she had in making her decision to stop singing around 1965.
“I would return home after a performance where the public applauded wildly, but I knew it was not up to my standard. My voice simply was no longer able to execute for me what I needed to say. It was a decision I had to make by myself alone and I had to be honest with myself.”
In the Paris interview of 1969 she admits that she has stopped performing and has returned “as a young conservatory student” to work with her one and only teacher, Hidalgo. She needed to learn from the ground up once again. She anticipates a La Traviata in 1970 with Director Visconti. However, the recordings of her Farewell concerts with tenor Giuseppe Di Stefano only too obviously prove that she was not able to return to the stage as “La Callas”, the most famous of opera singers in the mid-20th Century.
HER HERITAGE TO US:
Without Maria Callas and the intelligence of Maestro Serafin we may not have found the bel canto style and technique again. Each singer and teacher from the 1960’s on have benefited from the renaissance of these great works. Long may it live.
There are three interviews done in America at the time of her vocal and personal crisis. The most embarassing of all is with Mike Wallace who literally needled her relentlessly as to why she had to stop – did she lose her voice – did she like Jackie Kennedy, etc. Nothing was mentioned of her craft, her artistry, her great career. The other one is with Edward R. Murrow which is of the same type — mean-spirited and personal questions are asked that were completely out of place. In these interviews she becomes very uncomfortable and ill at ease. However, the interviews with Lord Harewood (BBC) and with Emilio Pizzi (Paris, 1966) and finally the interview from Paris in 1969 tells us so much more about this unique artist.
“I am embarrassed by compliments. I cannot have the same perception of myself as the public has. I cannot judge myself and I have a hard time realizing what I have done. But if you manage to persuade and to thrill the public then you have won.”
I think the following sums up for us all where the art and craft came from in the person of Callas herself:
“We serve this unique art – the music most of all. It takes a lot of worry and a lot of anguish. It was left to us as a heritage and we must carry it on against all odds – even at our own health’s cost.