Maria Callas: A Dozen Heresies (I)

Having provided my thoughts on such singers as Birgit Nilsson, Shirley Verrett and Beverly Sills, I’m herewith turning my attention to the singer who is widely considered the prima donna assoluta del mondo, Maria Callas.

While Sills was a phenomenon in her day, the Callas phenomenon has proven even bigger and far more durable. When I first came to opera in the mid-1970s, she was already a legend. I recall news of her death, and I recall being puzzled when I took her second recording of Norma out of the Beverly Hills Public Library, popped on the cabaletta to “Casta diva”…and utterly failed to understand what all the fuss was about.

I got an better aural glimpse of what made Callas legendary when I attended the first of many Metropolitan Opera standing room lines (to hear Die Frau ohne Schatten with Leonie Rysanek, already a huge favorite of mine.) Those were the days of cassette recorders, and I vividly recall someone playing the famous E-flat Callas interpolated into the Triumphal Scene of her Mexico City Aïdas. Someone (else, I think) played bits of Callas’ 1952 Armida as well, and, even through the sound (I wasn’t used to pirate recordings as yet) I couldn’t but be impressed.

I needed another couple years before I hit my Callas Phase in earnest, and, I’ll confess it, the then-new Arianna Stassinopoulos biography influenced me considerably. I suppose the book was in places something of a trashy novel that used the names of famous people for its characters, but I was more interested in the opera stuff than I was in the Onassis stuff anyway, and the book does give a sound chronology of Callas’ operatic career. The book led me to discover the recordings, and the recordings led me to discover things about opera singing I hadn’t realized as yet. Many were the “aha!” moments I had listening to Callas and realized just how much feeling and emotion could permeate a musical phrase.

While Stassinopoulos wrote about things Callas did onstage, what I kept coming back to were the recordings that captured Callas’ unique emotion-soaked response to the music. I couldn’t see Callas, obviously, but I felt that everything I needed to know about her was there, in the grooves of Angel’s occasionally wonky pressings of her records.

That was quite a few years ago. Since then, a cult of Maria Callas has mushroomed, one which, I feel, has increasingly lost track of what she was all about, much to opera’s general detriment. While I do still admire Callas tremendously, and had a great time listening to her early live recordings while preparing this article, I’m no longer sure about her sacrosanct position in the pantheon of divas.

And, in any event, heresy is the inevitable consequence of sacrosanctity. Herewith, then, a dozen heretical thoughts about the great Maria Callas.

  1. Callas wasn’t the greatest singer ever

As far as pure singing goes, there were definitely greater vocalists than Callas, although even Callas herself admitted that. Names like Tetrazzini, Ponselle, Flagstad and Sutherland come to mind. Even among what can be called singing actresses, there were others in the same class as Callas. One need look no further than her contemporaries Rysanek or Astrid Varnay to find examples of comparable greatness. The idea that Callas was the One and Only is overinflated.

I can go that one further by attesting that, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to prefer Tebaldi to Callas. (To paraphrase something Churchill never said, if you’re twenty and don’t love Maria Callas, you don’t have a brain; if you’re forty and don’t love Renata Tebaldi, you don’t have a heart.) This isn’t the place to write extensively about Tebaldi, but the idea that Callas was a great actress and that Tebaldi was a zombie who made pretty sounds is a tedious and untrue bromide. There is no shortage of feeling or emotion in Tebaldi’s performances, which place everything you need to know about her characterizations where it belongs: in the voice.

The same just so happens to be true of Callas.

That Callas was a very great singer, there can be no doubt. But that one must put everyone else aside for her doesn’t strike me as realistic. Geraldine Farrar once said that, when evaluating singers, you had to put Ponselle and Caruso in a class apart, so extraordinary were their gifts. One could perhaps add Callas to that august company, although Farrar, who died in 1967 and could easily have heard Callas live, never, as far as I know, did. Indeed, I’m not sure that Farrar wouldn’t have preferred herself to Callas as a singing actress.

Why should the prima donna assoluta del mondo reputation have developed, then? Talent, certainly, although that doesn’t account for all of it. Callas’ not-so-private life was a factor as well, thanks to her liaison with the Richest Man in the World and that liaison’s collision course with the latter’s plans to marry the widow of an American president. Were it not for Callas’ extra-musical fame, her musical fame would probably not have become what it did. I don’t for a minute suspect that Callas began her liaison with Aristotle Onassis as a publicity stunt; but its press value didn’t hurt her reputation, even now that Onassis is largely forgotten. Onassis hardly helped Callas’ operatic career, but he certainly did a lot for her reputation.

  1. She ruined her voice by singing parts that were too light for her

Callas ruined her voice.

For some reason, people have trouble admitting that. While there are singers who are widely acknowledged as having destroyed often great instruments (Beverly Sills, Katia Ricciarelli, Carol Neblett), there are other singers (Montserrat Caballé, for example) about whom that is not as readily admitted. Callas is one of the latter.

One of the interesting aspects of Callas’ endlessly fascinating vocal self-immolation is that she did it by singing roles that were too light for her.

I realize that reverses the received wisdom that you ruin a voice by singing roles that are too heavy, but Callas was, without a doubt, a dramatic soprano whose home terrain ought to have been the roles she sang early in her career: Gioconda, Turandot, Norma, Aida, Abigaille and even her Wagner roles. Her early recordings, especially the series of broadcasts from Mexico City, show what a huge voice it was, and huge voices need to be let out and be huge. Yes, she had an upper extension, but just because you have an E-flat doesn’t mean you should sing Lucia. Just ask Birgit Nilsson.

Callas began singing at a very early age, and her technique, especially as regards the equalizing of the registers, was questionable from the start. Her teacher, Elvira de Hidalgo, was clearly not a master voice-builder. Callas also had put quite a bit of mileage on her instrument in the earliest years of her career in Greece, singing at a very young age heavy roles like Tosca and Santuzza, and then mixing them with such lighter coloratura fare as Laura in Millöcker’s Der Bettelstudent.

None of that was good for the instrument, but most singers can survive a few mistakes during their salad days. Callas’ big mistakes lay in the main part of her career when she turned to assignments such as Lucia and Amina, roles for which her very dark sound was wrong in the first place. De Hidalgo, herself a coloratura soprano, may have encouraged Callas to follow in her footsteps, but, while you can perhaps squeeze your feet into shoes that are a size too small, walking in them is going to be excruciating and will end up damaging your feet. That’s what Callas did: all those Lucias meant reining in a naturally huge voice and artificially lightening it by interfering with the support mechanism. (This is most evident in the echo effects in her recording of the Dinorah Shadow Song.) John Ardoin, in The Callas Legacy, a book that influenced a whole generation’s appreciation of Callas’ recordings, often speaks of Callas’ “little girl voice,” one of the results of the squeezing of her vocal feet into overly tight shoes. Ardoin may admire its expressive possibilities, but it wasn’t healthy for the voice.

Before Callas’ career began in earnest, she signed a contract to sing a number of performances of Turandot in 1946 with Eddie Bagarozy and his wife as impresarii. (An infamous lawsuit eventually resulted from the broken contract.) A few years later, Mrs. Bagarozy allegedly commented that she was dismayed by how much smaller Callas’ voice had become. That seemed to be a continuing process as the voice declined. The instrument, even on the earliest EMI recordings from 1953, is notably smaller (Ardoin would probably say “more compact”) than what was heard in Mexico in 1950 and 1951. That’s a definite sign of vocal ill-health.

  1. Her best performances were captured in Mexico

Callas sang three seasons in Mexico City, and ten thrilling broadcast recordings of those performances have come down to us. Callas unleashes a rock-solid, huge and vibrant sound on the kind of dramatic soprano repertoire to which her voice was suited: Aïda, Trovatore, Norma and Tosca. She also sang Traviata, an opera that has successfully been sung by spinto and dramatic sopranos, and which did afford legitimate play for her E-flat. As for her first Lucia in 1952, it shows her early attempts at squeezing her feet into those tight vocal shoes, while the only Gildas of her career show a combination of that trend and the musically illuminating idea that the role might belong to the type of voice generally understood as a Verdi soprano.

Perhaps the finest Mexico performance of all is the 1951 Aïda, in which the instrument almost literally takes flight. She has a wonderful cast around her, and, of course, there’s the epic (for once the word isn’t overused) interpolated E-flat at the end of the Triumphal Scene.

Moreover, pace John Ardoin and received wisdom, the Mexico broadcasts do not show us an immature artist feeling her way into her roles. Callas made her stage debut as early as 1941 (in the supporting role of Beatrice in Suppé’s Boccaccio), and had sung her first Toscas in 1942. By the time she got to Mexico, she had four years of her Italian career under her belt, and she had already appeared in most of the roles she sang at the Palacio de las Bellas Artes. She was a seasoned professional by that point, and even the otherwise rough and ready 1950 Trovatore that she largely prepared on her own is the work of a finished singer. Phrase after phrase is illuminated as if anew, and she’s in such good voice that she cheekily sneaks in a couple of extra E-flats. Her salad days were firmly behind her by 1950.

Yes, certainly, she would refine her interpretations further, but vocal security and interpretive subtlety need not be inversely proportional. There are singers (consider Sutherland or Giulietta Simionato) who needed time to mature before they hit their prime; there are others (Varnay, for example) who had it all from the start. Callas was one of the latter. Yes, the 1964 studio recording of “Ritorna Vincitor” is remarkable for its subtlety and insight, but, when I want to hear Callas at her finest in Aïda, I’m going to return again (and again) to the 1951 Mexico performance.

  1. The weight loss was the coup de grâce for Callas’ voice

Callas had no concept of vocal hygiene: one of the things that makes the Mexico performances so exciting is how unsparing she is of the voice. We don’t know the extent to which she overused the voice when she was in Greece, but, once she got to Italy, although she was singing the right repertory at first, the roles were very heavy and she was singing them perhaps too often and too generously.

She was thus misusing the voice even during her best period, singing on vocal capital rather than interest, and mixing in overly light roles as early as 1948, when Tullio Serafin irresponsibly convinced her to sing three performances of Puritani right on the heels of a run of Walküre. Although she sounds terrific in Mexico, she was by then already pushing her vocal luck, even in the right repertoire, which she was increasingly often mixing with the likes of Konstanze, Lucia, Gilda and Elvira. For someone who would later say that her voice wasn’t an elevator, she certainly took it up and down for a lot of trips in the early 1950s. The voice was, therefore, already something of a time bomb by 1952.

And then the weight loss set the bomb off.

One needn’t be heavy to sing (Anja Silja proved that you can look great in a leather miniskirt, be loud enough to sing Wagner, and have a fifty-plus year career), but, if you’re entire vocal technique is based upon considerable corporal substance supporting the tone, taking that substance out from under the voice is going to throw the instrument off-kilter. Callas is hardly the only singer to have had a weight loss affect the instrument: Renata Scotto’s voice changed when she went through her major weight loss, and, more recently and with greater publicity, Deborah Voigt undermined her vocal apparatus with a massive weight loss (and gastric bypass surgery.)

In a culture that even in the 1950s was obsessed with waistlines, Callas’ weight loss was hailed as something nearly miraculous. (Note that, by 1953, Callas was already famous enough for the weight loss to be newsworthy.) There was thus ample encouragement for her to maintain her newly svelte figure, but the voice was never the same. (Try this experiment: line up all your recordings of Norma and play the final aria from each in chronological order. You’ll discover that the voice is shockingly different – smaller, more wiry, weaker and less steady – when you get to the 1955 La Scala performance.)

Callas could, perhaps, have relearned to sing with a less substantial supporting counterweight, but she seems never to have done that, perhaps figuring that there was no sense in tampering with phenomenal success. Nonetheless, while she might not have lasted twenty-five years singing the way she did in Mexico, the voice would certainly have held up for more than the seven years it lasted once she became a fashion plate.

  1. She suffered from anorexia nervosa

I am surprised that no one else has suggested this, even with all the forensic psychological speculation about Callas. The hypothesis, however, fits the facts and sheds some light on the rest of her character.

The first evidence supporting the anorexia hypothesis is the rapid weight loss that confounded observers at the time. People opined that Callas had swallowed the head of a tapeworm or indulged in other crash diets of the period. A simpler explanation for the weight loss is that she just stopped eating. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf was one of the witnesses who recalled that all Callas ate was “raw” meat. You certainly will lose weight on that diet, which is deprivational and in keeping with the non-eating habits of an anorectic.

Moreover, Callas became, not just thin, but exaggeratedly so, and did everything she could do to make herself look thinner. Consider her ballerina-style costumes for Sonnambula, to say nothing of the Biki neo-New Look creations with their extremely full skirts and other details designed to dramatize her tiny waist. She dressed like a woman preoccupied with her own thinness.

On a medical level, years of self-starvation could explain the low blood pressure from which she suffered. She may also have damaged the vocal apparatus as the result of years of purging (although, admittedly, not all anorectics purge.)

Moreover, much of what we know about Callas psychologically fits the picture of an anorectic: the insecure woman craving approval and grasping for control in the midst of a life that seemed increasingly out of control. (Eating disorders are more about control than they are about food.) Indeed, if the eating disorder was a response to losing control over the voice (her personal life circa 1953 was relatively stable, so that probably wasn’t the problem), there may well have been a vicious cycle of starvation harming the very thing she was trying to control.

Although the term “anorexia nervosa” was coined as far back as 1873, even a glimmer of understanding of the disease would take a century to emerge, much of it in the wake of the death of another highly gifted singer, Karen Carpenter. Nobody surrounding or observing Callas in the 1950s would have been aware of eating disorders, so it’s hardly surprising that Callas’ anorexia went undetected at the time. Whether she’d have been willing to get help even if it had been diagnosed is a question I leave to other armchair psychologists.

  1. The voice was irrevocably wrecked by the end of 1959

Of the many reasons given for Callas’ retreat from the operatic stage at the end of 1959, most of them are related to her personal life, her liaison with Onassis, and, in some of the more fanciful retellings of her story, her need to live out her destiny as a woman. An alternate reality not often acknowledged is that the voice was shot.

For Callas in 1959, living out her destiny as a woman was a much easier alternative to trying to forge on with a voice that, far from being merely recalcitrant, was irrevocably in tatters. Prolonged misuse had turned what had been a great instrument at the beginning of the decade into a shadow of its former self. On top of that, she had by that time burned a large number of her professional bridges; her final performances took place in Dallas, hardly a major operatic capital. She must have realized she’d reached the end of the road and that changing directions was pretty much her only option.

The idea floated in 1960 that she would sing one opera a year and spend the rest of her time playing hostess onboard the Christina was impracticable: you can’t be an opera singer four weeks a year. Still, it was an attempt at managing the reality that the voice was finished without having to admit it publicly in so many words.

Callas no doubt found the high life attractive. On top of getting to spend time in unbounded luxury with the people collection Onassis had onboard his yacht, Onassis probably did bring some combination of love and sex into Callas’ life, powerful attractions both. Moreover, the part of her that thirsted for publicity must have been pleasantly surprised to discover that she could get more press attention by sailing on the Christina than she ever did by singing opera, and that she had become an even greater celebrity than she’d been when she still had to sing for her supper.

  1. 1964-65 was a failed comeback

Between the end of 1959 and the London Toscas of 1964, Callas sang only a highly sporadic number of concerts and an even more sporadic number of stage performances at La Scala: four vocally extremely fragile appearances in Poliuto in 1960 and a few practically voiceless Medeas the following season. There were also performances of Norma and Medea in Epidaurus, a spot definitely and safely off the operatic radar. She was thus in semi-retirement and singing just enough to keep her name before the public. When she stepped up her professional activities onstage and in the recording studio in 1964, she was attempting a comeback.

And it failed.

Although Callas clearly wanted to pick up the broken thread of her career, the instrument was no longer willing. Yes, she was able to will herself through Tosca in London, Paris and New York, but the Paris Normas of 1965 proved something of a personal Waterloo. She didn’t even finish what became her last performance of the role, cancelled all but one of her ensuing scheduled performances of Tosca in London, and never appeared on stage again.

She must have realized that she had no future left in opera, as her vocal problems extended far beyond an upper register that was no longer reliable. The entire vocal mechanism was hobbled, so that, even if she’d been willing to switch to mezzo-soprano assignments, she lacked the voice for Amneris as much as she lacked the voice for Aïda.

Sadly, she clearly still thought of returning to the stage one day, and projects that fizzled were vetted until practically the end of her life (she apparently had even been offered the role of Mme de Croissy for the Met’s premiere of Dialogues des Carmélites in 1976.) She did make a return to the recording studio in 1969 with an instrument she’d obviously worked on and that was somewhat better aligned but even more fragile than it had been five years earlier. Those 1969 sessions led nowhere; the less said about the 1973-74 concert tours with di Stefano, the better.

Stay tuned. Further heresies will follow shortly.

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