When Maria Callas died unexpectedly in 1977, two portraits were found in her Paris apartment. One was of Elvira de Hidalgo, a leading opera singer who became Callas’s teacher in Athens between 1940 and 1945 and first identified her proclivity for the bel canto repertory, taught her the technique with exemplary thoroughness, and taught her above all how to study. The other portrait was of the legendary diva Maria Malibran, who was among the first to triumph in that repertory during the 1820s and 1830s. These were icons to the professional Callas. There were no pictures of friends, relatives, or lovers.
Though certainly never the sort of person given to sentimental gestures, Callas once took a special flight to Brussels to visit Malibran’s grave. In a way, she ought to have identified more closely with Malibran’s rival Giuditta Pasta, the greatest dramatic singer of her time. It was of Pasta of whom it was said that with three notes she could stir an audience to the depth of its being; it was for Pasta that Bellini wrote the role of Norma, the most important as well as the most frequent of Callas’s roles. But no doubt de Hidalgo spoke less of Pasta than of Malibran—another Spaniard, and a member of the formidable García family of singers and teachers to whom de Hidalgo could trace her artistic lineage.
Moreover, Malibran led what is called a “tempestuous” life, while Pasta’s life was orderly. Malibran broke with her domineering father and had two husbands and two illegitimate children by the time she died at the age of twenty-eight, as the result of incautious exertions following a riding accident. Her behavior on stage was unpredictable, but her appearance was always hypnotic. Pasta was dumpy. It is not surprising that a dozen books have been written about Malibran and only one, it seems, about Pasta.
Malibran biographies are still being written, the most recent of them in 1979:1 a bad omen for the bulging Callas bibliography. A dozen books about Callas had been produced even before her death, and that occasion signaled the preparation of many more. Arianna Stassinopoulos writes what seems to be designed as an official biography, bolstered by new information furnished by friends and associates, and supplemented by a fascinating collection of informal photographs. Sergio Segalini produces a conventional picture book, more comprehensive but less beautiful than the picture section of Callas, by John Ardoin and Gerald Fitzgerald, still the best general book on the subject.2 Steven Linakis, a cousin who fell out with her over her treatment of her mother, offers little more than a hostile memoir of the Callas he scarcely knew in later life. Pierre-Jean Rémy, on the contrary, follows in the well-trod footsteps of her many admirers and enthusiasts.
Rémy also has a special idea about the Callas phenomenon: for him this is to be construed as a myth of woman’s destruction by man. Off stage he sees her victimized by her husband, her agent Bagarozy, Bing, Onassis, Visconti, columnists, audiences, Rémy himself; on stage she ritually reenacts her destruction in the personae of doomed heroines such as Violetta and Tosca. That is not, however, the way the Callas performances felt, nor is it indeed the way Rémy describes them. There was another ritual in operation. Again and again a sick, furious, vocally insecure Callas faced truculent audiences and compelled their tribute; after Tosca jumped off the roof or Violetta coughed her last, Callas would return for her famous fifteen-minute ovations and flower bombardments. The fire that drove her was the fire to succeed, to triumph, to dominate. The relationship between Callas and the opera world is best described as one of mutual manipulation, and clearly this relationship offered great satisfactions to both.
The amazing thing is that a career so completely ruled by self-interest should have produced something as selfless as the revival of an entire musical repertory. Callas took the bel canto opera of Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini with the same inexorable seriousness that she brought to her drive to success; bel canto opera succeeded along with Callas. This revival was itself one of the main changes in the taste for classical music that took place in the postwar, early LP days, another being the flood of older music from the baroque period and back, and another the emergence of Mahler as the favored late romantic symphonist. Different opinions may be offered of the relative cultural significance of these changes. What is certain is that we are still living and listening under their joint influence.
Callas sang bel canto opera with a technical proficiency that few remembered having heard before, and with a dramatic conviction that no one remembered or had even conceived to be possible. The revival must be attributed squarely to her, even though it is true she had important help: from de Hidalgo, of course, and then from the veteran conductor Tullio Serafin and Walter Legge of EMI Records. It is also true that Callas did not limit herself to bel canto singing; no doubt her voice would have fared better if she had, but her voice and her very well-being were sacrificed to that truly awesome drive to success. Some of her most unforgettable roles, such as Cherubini’s Medea and Puccini’s Tosca, lay outside the bel canto repertory. But Tosca we have with us always, like the poor, like death and taxes; it was the authority of Callas’s great bel canto roles, her Norma and her Lucia di Lammermoor, that changed the working repertory of opera houses around the world. In fact nearly half of all the performances she ever sang were of bel canto works. They included some lesser-known ones (Bellini’s I Puritani and La Sonnambula) and others practically unknown (his Il Pirata, Rossini’s Armida and Il Turco in Italia, Donizetti’s Anna Bolena and Poliuto).
There is no word in the realm of sound corresponding to “vision,” but that was the quality Callas brought to the music of Bellini and Donizetti. In the 1930s and 1940s, this music was deprecated when it was thought about at all, compared invidiously to contemporaneous German music, operatic and nonoperatic, and dismissed as fatuous for the purposes of drama. Its melodies were thought vapid, its ornamentation trivial; it was not truly heard. Callas was convinced of the beauty of its every gesture and its every nuance, and was able to project this by means of an unfaltering attention to musical line. Much has been written about her perfectionism in sheer technique: this meant not only singing very fast and very high, but also controlling the tone quality of every note and connecting one note to another exactly as was needed to realize her unique expressive vision. Many singers command the art of molding a musical phrase. Callas’s art was not so much that of molding as of penetrating and possessing an entire melodic trajectory, an entire role, and ultimately an entire repertory.
Her accomplishment was essentially a musical one, then, though this was sometimes almost forgotten in the endless discussions of her qualities as an actress, the deterioration of her voice, and her temperament on and off stage. All of these were prodigious, but none more so than her musicianship. Only in 1954, when she seems to have faced the fact that she could not or would not husband her voice, did she begin cultivating those aspects of an opera singer’s art best described as histrionic (“histrionic” rather than “dramatic,” for in the deepest sense Callas’s use of her voice was the most dramatic thing about her performances). After losing about seventy pounds, she emerged as a supreme singing actress in productions put on for her by glamorous directors far beneath her in artistry. Stagecraft helped to sustain her magnificently as long as she still had some voice—but no longer. In 1969 she appeared as a non-singing Medea in Pasolini’s film, and in 1973 she directed a production of Verdi’s I Vespri siciliani in Turin; the film was no more than a succès d’estime and the directional venture a failure. Callas created character and drama with her voice, and magnificently supported what her voice created with her body. Without her voice she had no real resource.
She had no personal resource, either. The Stassinopoulos biography does not change the main outlines of the Callas story as it was known in her great days, though it adds many memorable details (e.g., Callas refusing to pay her father’s hospital bills in 1964: “I hope the newspapers don’t catch on. Then I’ll really curse the moment I had any parents at all. P.S. Please keep me informed and don’t let him die where I might be criticized.”) But Stassinopoulos does tell us about the retirement years, after Onassis left her and then after his death. Most of the time Callas sat around in her Paris apartment. Her favorite activity, “almost an obsession,” was listening to pirate tapes of her opera-house performances supplied by devotees from all over the world.
She was, in fact, the first great singer whose work has been preserved comprehensively, if not quite completely, on records and tapes. Therefore it is harder to write a futile book about Callas than about Malibran (though not impossible). There is even one distinctly useful book: The Callas Legacy by John Ardoin, which goes through the 110-odd surviving recordings one by one, providing brief analyses and appreciations, comparing the seven Normas recorded between 1950 and 1965, the five Lucias, and so on. She was never filmed or videotaped in an entire opera, for although of course the technologies existed in her time opera on film has never really caught on and opera on television has done so (with a vengeance) only very recently. Perhaps it is just as well. To the extent that her collaborations with the likes of Visconti and Zeffirelli foreshadowed today’s maddening fashion for utter willfulness in opera staging—
Director Y who with ingenious wit
Places the wretched singers in the pit
While dancers mime their roles, Z the Designer
Who sets the whole thing on an ocean liner,
The girls in shorts, the men in yachting caps—3
her histrionic contribution was equivocal. Not so her musical contribution. In opera it is the music that makes the drama—even, Callas showed us, in bel canto opera. Few if any performers have so significantly expanded the range of art experienced in their own and the following generations.
April 2, 1981
Howard Bushnell, Maria Malibran: A Biography of the Singer, foreword by Elaine Brody (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1979). ↩
Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1974. ↩
From Auden’s prescient Metalogue in The Magic Flute, English version by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman (Random House, 1956). ↩