Forget the Callas Legend

The reissued official Callas discography reveals the art that will last, which the diva's image often obscures

DIVAS come and go. Maria Callas is forever.
That, at any rate, is how it looks now, more than two decades after her death, at fifty-three, in her lonely Paris apartment. Though her glory years at La Scala, Covent Garden, the Opéra, and the Met lie some forty years back, sales of her recordings have never flagged. Indeed, so high has her stock remained that the industry giant EMI marked its centennial, last year, with a second CD reissue of the entire Callas discography as it was originally issued on Angel LPs. The company has included several live performances of unusual fare, previously available only on entrepreneurial labels. Remastered, repackaged, and accompanied by partisan yet judicious new commentary, the EMI cache runs to some thirty complete operas (including multiple versions of Lucia di Lammermoor, and La traviata, Callas specialties all), plus nearly a dozen recital discs. Unlike many vintage opera albums, which sell at budget prices, EMI's Callas titles still command top dollar.

Keepers of other flames fume about corporate greed and wish out loud that the public would light more candles for the icons they prefer: Renata Tebaldi, Joan Sutherland, Montserrat Caballé, Beverly Sills, or the undervalued Leyla Gencer, from Turkey. But Callas was never the invention of some publicity machine. Nor is her cult -- as some nay-sayers believe -- the unearned dividend of her private soap opera (the ill-fated romance with Aristotle Onassis) or professional blowups (remarkably few, actually -- a walkout here, a run-in there, all justified). True, in her lifetime a malicious, uncomprehending press splashed her across the front page. But at this late date all that matters is her supremacy as an artist. The danger for the future is that the legend will eclipse the work -- that new generations will take her greatness on faith alone.

My favorite Callas story, and the only one I will mention here, has not to my knowledge been reported before. The source is Sandra Warfield, an American mezzo-soprano who in the early fifties walked away from a promising career at the Met and started over in Italy. Her husband, James McCracken (soon to emerge as a world-class tenore di forza), was getting nowhere back home, and she hoped that he might get his break in Europe. At lunch one day next door to La Scala the young Americans spotted Callas, whose debut in the United States was imminent. Starstruck but collegial, the couple went over to cheer her on, saying how much everyone they knew was looking forward to seeing her. La Divina looked doubtful and said, "I hope they aren't expecting too much."

A listener approaching the Callas legacy probably expects an altogether different beast. Who has not heard of Callas the tigress, of the dazzle of her coloratura, the frequent squalls that beset her high notes? The mind pieces together a caricature of a Jezebel of the stage, chewing the scenery, goading the groundlings to a frenzy with mannerism, stopping the show with a drop-dead vocal display.

In fact the essence of her art was refinement. The term seems odd for a performer whose imagination and means of expression were so prodigious. She was eminently capable of the grand gesture; still, judging strictly from the evidence of her recordings, we know (and her few existing film clips confirm) that her power flowed not from excess but from unbroken concentration, unfaltering truth in the moment. It flowed also from irreproachable musicianship. People say that Callas would not hesitate to distort a vocal line for dramatic effect. In the throes of operatic passion plenty of singers snarl, growl, whine, and shriek. Callas was not one of them. She found all she needed in the notes.

As it happens, one of the first two opera albums I owned as a boy was her first recording for Angel: the 1953 Lucia di Lammermoor. (Unless noted, all recordings referred to are available on CD from EMI. The sound quality varies with the source materials but is generally state-of-the-art. Other material is obtainable on different labels, but caveat emptor: price, sound quality, and availability vary greatly.) In Donizetti's opera, derived from a romance by Sir Walter Scott, the heroine makes her entrance in a state of deep apprehension. She awaits her lover at their trysting place. She must warn him of impending peril. He is late. Adding to her dread, as she soon reveals to a confidante, is a recent brush with a ghost -- the spirit of a woman stabbed by her lover and left entombed in the very fountain near which Lucia now stands. "Quella fonte, ah!" she cries, launching the dreadful story: "Oh, that fountain!" Who could forget the chilly stab to the heart?

Years ago I collected a wide spectrum of Callas recordings. I wore out my LPs of Cherubini's Medea and taped her Carmen (a role she never sang onstage) from the radio. In a scene that anticipated Terrence McNally's play The Lisbon Traviata, a friend in college played me a pirate tape of the Triumphal Scene from Aida, breathless with anticipation for the climactic high E-flat that Verdi never wrote. Another friend introduced me to Callas the Wagnerian, floating through Isolde's Liebestod in Italian. In the seventies I witnessed the diva herself on the stage of Boston's Symphony Hall, on her rather sad final tour. Then, for ages, her albums gathered dust on my shelves. Not until the latest EMI reissue did I attempt a comprehensive survey. Now, after playing no fewer than forty-one of Callas's complete performances in quick succession (and in purposely arbitrary order), covering all the EMI titles plus exotica from other sources, I wonder more than ever at the gap between her image and her art.

IN a Callas performance no syllable of the text, no note of the score, went unexamined. Singers so attuned to dramatic nuance -- there are not many -- are liable to come across as nervous and infirm of purpose, like writers who italicize everything and thus stress nothing. Art means choices, as we all know: to play up A, we give up B. In defiance of this incontrovertible theory, Callas could on occasion sculpt a passage instant by instant without losing sight of her target. At the opening of Act Three of the studio recording of Medea, taped in 1957, she honed each word of the invocation of the gods of hell to an edge of ferocity. Her usual practice, though, was to set the mood and then place expressive accents sparingly. Lucia's frisson by the fountain was only that, and that was all it needed to be. In the part of the doomed Anne Boleyn, in Donizetti's Anna Bolena, Callas fired off bull's-eye zingers at Henry VIII, well aware that Anne is on thin ice, as the tremor in her anger showed. In the "Miserere" from Il trovatore she smiled at grief. The finale of Medea, in contrast, had to be tremendous, and so it was. In a live performance in Florence in 1953 Callas rode the last phrases as if they were tidal waves surging to the abyss. (The passage is a bonus track on the complete 1958 Dallas Medea, on Gala, an excellent budget label.)

However deep their gifts of sympathy and self-transformation, actors privileged to test themselves against a gallery of the great roles reveal over time the bedrock of their own hearts and souls. As the constant in Callas we discover a rare nobility, a proud, unflinching submission to fate. How apt, one might say: according to a dictum espoused notably by Puccini, the very essence of opera is to torture the heroine. But Callas never conveyed masochism, still less some cold-marble high-mindedness. The worlds of her heroines turn upside down in a moment, in many cases several times in short order. As Callas played them, they waste no time sniveling or frittering away their lives in second thoughts. Always her element was the unconditional.

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