A New Callas

Maria Callas Remastered: The Complete Studio Recordings, 1949–1969

Warner Classics
69 CDs, $274.99
John Franks/Getty Images
Maria Callas in Luigi Cherubini’s Medea, Covent Garden, London, 1959

Maria Callas converted me to opera. I am sure I am not unique in this, except in the particulars. In my early college years I immersed myself in recordings of the nineteenth-century symphonic repertory—Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Bruckner, the Russians—but for a long time I refused to listen to opera, would listen to an overture and then rush to change the record before the singing started. Then one day my roommate put the 1953 Tosca with Callas on the turntable and dropped the needle onto “Vissi d’arte.” I had no idea what she was singing, but near the conclusion of that imploring aria, as she comes to the end of the arching wordless phrase that soars from an A down slightly to a G, there is an audible intake of breath. She gasps—or is it a sob?

Maybe she misjudged her breathing, but I can no more assess it in such terms now than I could then. It sounded—it still sounds—to me like pure emotion. I didn’t need to know, at that moment, that Tosca was asking God why, despite all her devotion to art, to the Virgin, she was being forced to submit to the advances of the Roman police chief in order to save her lover from execution. That gasp—not a note, not even something musical—opened up an operatic world to me, a world of feeling pushed to an extreme, that in large measure became defined for me by Callas.

Yet if I hadn’t been hooked by a gasp, I would eventually have been hooked by her way with something else—a word, a phrase, an aria, an entire scene. For what made Callas a great singer was her fierce commitment to the voice as a means of dramatic expression. This must be stressed: her fame as an artist came not from gossip about her temper or her cancellations or her relationship with Aristotle Onassis. She was not great because of her “acting,” some mesmerizing physical gestures that we must trust those who actually saw her to verify. If that was primarily what she brought to her performances, she would be a dim legend by now. (The few extant videos of her that we have—mostly in recital—suggest rather how inward her identification with her characters was, how restrained her gestures onstage must have been.)

It is the other way around. Callas was a great actress because she was a great musician, because she understood that for a singer the drama is above all in the voice: in phrasing, in shaping the vocal line, in executing a perfect descending scale, in giving every word—even, or especially, in recitatives—its proper emphasis. Nothing is passed over, nothing ignored or slighted. (Listen, for example, to the monastery scene from Verdi’s La Forza del Destino: you need only to hear her…

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