Maria Callas, Four Decades On

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Many’s the person who can tell you what he was doing on November 22, 1963, when he heard the news.  Many more can tell you what they were doing on the morning of September 11, 2001.  And there are also quite a few who remember September 16, 1977, when the death of Maria Callas was announced from Paris.  I don’t say that these three events are of equal importance or of equivalent national significance, but I do say that they are days by which we orient ourselves to certain decisive transitions—losses that are ways of telling time and establishing perspective, even in chaos.  And I also say that the Kennedy story actually is related to the Callas one, in particular and pointed ways, as is indicated by the name Onassis.

The gunfire in Dallas and the crashing of four hijacked airliners are obviously more violent and more political than an individual heart attack overseas.  But the death of Maria Callas at the age of 53 touched a lot of people because she was held in singular regard for years as an extraordinary soprano in the operatic realm, as a leader in the revival of bel canto singing, as an actress of rare dramatic gifts, and as an international star of the lyric theater.  Maria Callas reminded many people that being a star is a state both exalted and degraded—a glorious burden, a curse, and even an affliction.  Her dramatic power was such that it was felt even when sensed only through the ear, and even during the recitatives that stultify the operatic experience when recited by others.  It was such that she appeared or starred in the film, not opera, Medea (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1969)—a perfect casting for her, though far from a perfect film.  Who else could be thought of as in a league with Euripides, or in sync with an infanticidal violence that is at once mythic, pagan, and spiteful?  A literal deus ex machina would have suited the character of Medea on film as well as it did in the original Greek tragedy—and it would have suited Maria Callas herself as well.

The remarkable voice of “La Divina”—a prima donna assoluta if ever there was one—had its imperfections, and those from the beginning.  “The Voice,” as she thought of it, had its own ways, and she had to live with them.  Because of her assiduous application of study and imagination, The Voice was her way out of a humble background and a frustrating situation as regarded her attractive sister and her neglectful, even unsympathetic mother.  The Voice would be a career, a moneymaker, and a ticket to the big time—and it would be a dead end, an agony, and a destructor as well.  The Voice set her up and then let her down, and if there was anyone to blame for that, the mirror had an answer.  The Voice got even with her for neglecting it because of her divisive goals.  The Voice wanted to be cosseted and fed, but the nearly blind Fat Girl wanted to look like Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday, which meant losing 62 pounds.  That seemed to be a bit much, even then.  One contradiction led to another.  The dreams of the woman were in conflict with the needs of the professional singer.  And there were other conflicts as well.

We must recall that, though born in Manhattan, the former Cecilia Sophia Anna Maria Kalogeropoulos was soon in Greece, just in time for the War and the Occupation by the Italian and German military.  There were phases of desperation, of near starvation, and even of collaborative and other strategies to secure food and minimal freedoms.  The bitter memories were always there to drive the girl toward the woman’s path.  Love, security, funds, and even nutriments had been lacking and absent and threatened, and would always be sought.  Lurid dreams of luxury, fantasies of café society, and even the companionship of Elsa Maxwell were not, after all, so far away.  The time would come when La Divina had so many stylish outfits and suits and shoes and hats and handbags and jewelry that she needed assistance in cataloging the lot.  But the one thing that needed the most care was The Voice, because without it, the swag was in jeopardy—but The Voice was one thing, and The Gift was quite another.  And that is why I am tired of reading about the flaws in The Voice—they were always there, and so what?  The fascination of Callas was never a merely technical matter, but the controlled presentation of something much larger and more impressive than a merely vocal impact.

That Maria Callas took much from her first important teacher, Elvira de Hidalgo, there is no doubt.  But what she took later from Tullio Serafin was even more, and shows us the difference between The Voice and The Gift.  (The Gift was not wrapped up in tissue paper with a pink ribbon around it.  She herself had another image for The Gift: “I’ll do everything I can so as not to dismount my tiger.”)  Maria Callas declared that meeting Serafin was a lucky break for her: “He taught me that in everything there must be an expression, there must be a justification, he taught me exactly the depth of music.”  And this was from the man who had worked with Rosa Ponselle in the 1920’s.  The Gift, and not The Voice alone, was what the esteemed conductor Carlo Maria Giulini encountered in 1951, as he conducted an opera (La Traviata) for the first time.  What he took away from the phenomenon says more to me than any other response: “For me, she was il melodramma—total rapport between words, music, and action.  It is no fabricated legend.  In my entire experience of the theater, I know of no artist like Callas.”  Maria Callas was not a machine that produced imposing sounds, but rather an instinctive, responsive, and thoughtful performer who gave all—fused in that unity of words, music, and action.

Think of the movement of her arms in the Mad Scene of Lucia. . . . When they went up—and she often moved them very slowly—they seemed heavy, not airy like a dancer’s arms, but weighted.  Then she reached the climax of a musical phrase, her arms relaxed and flowed into the next gesture, until she reached a new musical peak, and then again calm.  There was a continuous line to her singing and movements, which was really very simple.  Everything about her struck me as natural and instinctive, never intellectual.  She was extremely stylized and classic, yet at the same time human—but a humanity on a higher plane of existence, almost sublime.

So asserted the Italian stage director, Sandro Sequi.  His penetrating remarks remind us that we can see the process of embodiment or fusion or personification on film, as in her performance of “O don fatale” from Don Carlo.  When the words say and the music implies a thought or realization, it is externalized—it is more than sung, it is visibly acted out.  And strangely enough, we can hear this when the visible image is not there.  If everything is connected, then we can give up a sense or two!  In the land of La Callas, we play by different rules.

By making the operatic stage seem more real than reality, Maria Callas showed that she was much more than a mere vocal instrumentalist.  She somehow connected with the primordial beginnings of Greek tragedy and even hinted in her aura or synesthetic charisma at shamanistic practices.  She revealed the inner connections of actions, emotions, thoughts, and spiritual realities, as refracted through the prism of the stage, the force of language, and the power of music.  There are many who have had their say on La Divina, but the one I would have most wanted to hear from was Mircea Eliade.  He would have recognized a witch doctor and a benign and pagan ritualist when he saw and heard one—or so I fantasize, anyway.

To return then to my beginning, yes, I do recall what I was doing on September 16, 1977, as well as the other faculty of the former college who were around at that time, 40 years ago.  There was shock and regret and sympathy with that celebrity who lived, as it seemed, on stress, and who died, as it were, “like a man,” suffering an intolerable frustration.  She had become the singer who couldn’t sing, and the beloved who was no longer loved, as in some fraught melodrama.  So finally she seemed to have destroyed herself by the pursuit of impossible contradictions.  And the various professors took a great interest in listening to various of her recordings: Someone had a portable record player.

Of course, there were many recordings—LPs they were in those days.  One in particular, as it struck a musically attuned professor of political science, was I Vespri Siciliani, with which he had not been familiar; and he was fascinated with that.  He was amused that she had once sung Gilbert & Sullivan, as had he.  We joked about the line, “If you remain callous [Callas] and obdurate, I . . . ”  I remember him well and his stories about operatic experiences at Covent Garden—and the reminiscence I wrote about him later on.

But back in 1977, there were all the Callas versions of Il Trovatore and Norma and Lucia di Lammermoor and so on.  We all listened together at that one time, not individually at home—it was a communal observance.  She seemed to have been more than a star; she was a benefactor, and even somehow our friend.  And that was the way we said goodbye to Maria Callas, 40 years ago, with all due respect and surely with gratitude.  Those of us who survive to this day are still in touch with her in the only way we can be: We still listen to her, and we behold her sometimes on film and video—and what no one else can give, we never forget.       

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