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.

In accordance with the practice of the time, widely frowned on at present, operatic scores were often cut, sometimes to ribbons. As a result Callas was spared the repeat of a big tune that audiences would happily have sat through twice. Even if she and her conductors did not follow the letter of the score, they were nonetheless serving the composers faithfully: what Callas expressed once, she expressed completely; to repeat would have been to diminish. In a bel canto showcase, however, where the repeat serves as a springboard for embellishment, Callas delivered. "Ah, non giunge uman pensiero al contento ond'io son piena," the sleepwalker Amina sings at the close of Bellini's La sonnambula: "Human thought cannot encompass the joy that abounds in me." The melody is celestial the first time, but there is more to say. On the repeat the melody is still celestial, but scales ripple like streams of liquid light spilled down a staircase. From a declaration of ecstasy Callas moved to ecstasy itself.

The heroines Callas made her own do as they must and face the consequences. Medea kills. Lady Macbeth hounds her husband to murder. Forced to marry, Lucia stabs her bridegroom on their wedding night. Seduced and abandoned, Gilda, in Verdi's Rigoletto, takes the hit meant for her feckless lover. The courtesan of Verdi's La traviata is all heart; her counterpart in Puccini's Manon Lescaut has no soul. All these women play for keeps.

On the face of it, the all-important opening scene of La forza del destino would seem to demand a different frame of mind, but Callas proved otherwise. In this bleakest of Verdi's creations what triggers the "force of destiny" is Leonora's indecision. On the brink of elopement, she falters. Her father is killed on the spot. Through the unrelieved gloom and loneliness of the next several years the fatal mechanism thus set in motion also crushes Leonora, her lover, and the brother she holds dear. In my experience, it is Callas alone who has made sense of the vacillations of the opening scene -- and maybe the paradox is not so very deep. Leonora's fate, rooted in her nature (a Buddhist might speak of karma), is to tremble on the threshold. In this her tragedy begins. "Fatalità! Fatalità! Fatalità!" -- Leonora repeats the word in her last aria like a mantra. After years of solitary penance she prays for peace, her heart still heavy with the burden of a forbidden love she will not disavow. Building to the epiphany, Callas streaked her sound with tears; when she reached it, a sudden break in the clouds showed Leonora catching the radiance of things as they must be.

Most mysterious among her many gifts, Callas had the genius to translate the minute particulars of a life into tone of voice. Her Cio-Cio-San, in Puccini's Madama Butterfly, is a marvel. As the child bride of the first act, Callas worked in fragile, chiming timbres that she was able to maintain even in the swelling raptures of the love duet. In Act Two a veil of grief descends, but still her voice was the voice of a child. Only in the final scene, in the prelude to Cio-Cio-San's suicide, did Callas disclose her full, tragic richness. By way of contrast, consider the final act of La traviata, in which Violetta hangs on by a thread, singing in blanched sounds already brushed by death. For the thought of death, the singer had a quite different color, audible in the second studio Norma (1960) and in her Carmen. We hear it again in the Dallas Medea, where Callas fulminated in cries so clipped, so dark, so wild with rage, that they scarcely seem human.

Radical adjustments of vocal weight and color have their place in comedy; in tragedy they tend to smack of indecorum, like puffy wigs or putty noses. As the self-sacrificing slave girl Liù in Puccini's Turandot, opposite Callas in the role of the vindictive ice princess, the eminent German stylist Elisabeth Schwarzkopf showed how wrong things can go, piping in tones of laughable lily white. But with Callas, what has been called the little-girl voice never sounds like a trick. It conjures up a heart destined to know little of life yet open to the extremes of joy and sorrow. Callas used it to advantage for quite a few young innocents: Gilda, for instance, and Puccini's tubercular Mimì, in La Bohème, whose delight is to embroider flowers. She also used it -- and this was a stroke of genius -- at the close of Bellini's Norma, of all things. A warrior priestess who has broken her vows and slept with the enemy, the heroine redeems herself in death, voluntarily joining her lover at the stake. First, though, she turns to seek the forgiveness of her father, and here, in her first studio recording of the opera, from 1954, the soprano's voice of bitter experience takes on the shy candor of a trusting child. After what Norma has lived through, the vulnerability is touching in the extreme.

PEOPLE say that Callas was not good with words. She said so herself, but it was not true. Her interviews reveal a woman who chose exactly what she meant to say. (Tosca, she offered in a fine distinction, was not "hysterical" in the first act of the opera but "nervous.") Her speech in interviews is beautifully inflected, full of personality and nuance. But she could not speak onstage. In Macbeth and La traviata, Verdi required the prima donna to read letters in prose. Here, and only here, Callas overitalicized, improvising singsong speech patterns that sound amateurish and wide-eyed. When her singing days were over, Callas made a movie of Medea for Pier Paolo Pasolini, and it was a disappointment: her silences were blanks, waiting for support she knew would not come. With music playing, she was never at a loss.

An interviewer once asked Callas if she changed her view of a character from performance to performance. Her dry rejoinder: "Not very much." Individual accents were born in the moment, she conceded, but the basic plan was something she worked hard for and held on to. The comment is worth keeping in mind in view of the microscopic analysis to which her performances have been subjected. Fanatics disagree over the comparative merits of pirate tapes made months, days, or even minutes apart. Of course there are lessons to be learned from close comparison. Yet to my mind, parallel bar-by-bar and note-by-note analysis dissolves the majesty of a life's achievement in a wilderness of local effects. Worse, it deflects from a crucial aspect of Callas's work: the ability to project an interpretive intention whether the vocal apparatus was in perfect working order or not. In 1959, when Callas recorded Ponchielli's blood-and-thunder melodrama La Gioconda for Angel, the chancy line that strained from her throat when Gioconda's lover unexpectedly comes into view cannot be what Callas was aiming for. Yet what a discerning ear may register is the ethereal legato she clearly intended. Among the "official" recordings only the undersung, overacted final Tosca (1964) finds Callas bending her imagination to limitations in her technique.

People also say that Callas had a short career. Short? One chronicle tallies more than 600 performances of forty-one operas and operettas from April 2, 1939, to July 5, 1965. The earlier date was the debut of a fifteen-year-old student in Athens, stepping into the vocally challenging and emotionally draining part of the pregnant, excommunicated Santuzza in Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana. Within two years the Royal Opera of Athens had signed her as a professional. She was put to work in the quintessential diva role of Tosca and as Leonore in Beethoven's Fidelio, a part of fiendish vocal difficulty that also calls on spiritual resources of the highest order. The next major phase of her career began in 1947, when she sang Gioconda at the Arena of Verona. Callas's work (by no means always abundant or to her liking, and frequently offered at the eleventh hour) then took her up and down the boot of Italy, to Sicily, to Buenos Aires, and to Mexico City. Her London debut, as Norma at Covent Garden, came in 1952 and marked her launch into the empyrean. As noted, her official discography, on Angel, began in 1953, with Lucia di Lammermoor; apart from recitals, it ended with the 1964 Tosca.

That dozen years' worth of recordings is the body of work on which La Divina's claim to immortality principally rests. But should we stop there? What we might term the study collection -- the mass of live performances, recitals, rehearsals, interviews -- broadens the field markedly. To my way of thinking, even the most impressive of the recitals, either live or from the studio, adds nothing essential. What counts a great deal is the full-length operas captured live, a series running all the way back to 1949. The sound quality is sometimes deplorable: the microphones are not always where one would like; at times the prompter drowns out the principals. At least one recording put me in mind of Leonardo's Last Supper, so gnawed by inherent defects as almost to vanish before one's eyes.

Still, allowances should be made, especially when material gaps in the original Angel discography are being filled. Some of Callas's roles -- the worst loss may be her Elisabetta, in Verdi's Don Carlos -- are unrecorded. Happily, we have her incendiary accounts of Verdi's Nabucco (Last Supper quality) and I vespri siciliani (both on Golden Melodram), Rossini's Armida (Great Opera Performances), and Wagner's Parsifal (Melodram), not to mention, now on EMI, Verdi's Macbeth and Donizetti's Anna Bolena. Except for the Wagner, these document the singer's debut performances in roles she would perform as few as three and no more than a dozen times. Yet nothing about them suggests work in progress. As for the Wagner, it represents the only major surviving vestige of a road not taken: in her early years in Italy, Callas also ventured Isolde and the Walküre Brünnhilde. She sang Brünnhilde for the last time during the week she first appeared as Elvira, in Bellini's florid I puritani, after which the die was cast. Her most important role would be to revive the forgotten glory of bel canto.

The live recordings also shed light on her development as an artist. Of special interest, I think, is the material from Mexico City. An Aida from 1951 (Pantheon), for example, captures an artist far more conventional than the Callas we know, and the studio recording she made in 1955 places on no one's short list: quite apart from the top C in the third-act aria, which is notoriously harsh, the soprano shows no special identification with the character. I thought at first that the role was perhaps simply too schematic to have caught her imagination. But in Mexico she connected with the part as even its most admired proponents seldom do -- avoiding any hint of nostalgia, going straight to the core of Aida's despair. The emotion is writ large, perhaps partly in self-defense against a cast of brazen extroverts. In Callas's Aida, Mexico experienced as bold, intelligent, and ambitious an opera singer as the world has ever known. Still, this was not yet the Callas who redefined her art.

A FEW years later she lost weight. Before, she looked like an opera singer. After, she looked like Maria Callas. (At her gala debut in Paris in 1958 -- a program consisting of concert excerpts plus the fully staged second act of Tosca, performed before an audience including the President of the French Republic, Brigitte Bardot, and who knows who else -- her deep dark eyes, straight nose, upswept coiffure, and classic couture brought to mind the elegance of Audrey Hepburn; the live telecast is preserved as an EMI video.) Some speculate that the diet took a toll on her voice, leaving her with the frayed, unsteady high notes unkind listeners say could peel paint. Those whose ears are sharper know that her vocal problems started much earlier. But dwelling on her flaws, such as they were, is futile. They are beyond fixing.

More to the point is a different question: Did her self-transformation signal a transformation in her art? I think it did. In her international career, starting just about at the time of the studio Lucia of 1953 and two years after that Mexico City Aida, Callas not only went the limit with her own roles but learned to irradiate the entire world of any opera she appeared in. Donizetti's masterpiece could never again be dismissed as an old-fashioned exercise for canaries. Within the formal delight of coloratura arabesques and roulades Callas revealed imaginative expression, limitless and breathtakingly precise. Perhaps even more remarkable, her romantic glow gave substance to the sheer fantasy of Bellini's La sonnambula and I puritani. Her skipping staccato ascents in Bellini, no less than her heartsick, noble legato, unlock realms of sentiment we think we are too sophisticated to believe in, let alone experience. Though tragedy was her medium, her grasp of comedy was no less humane and complete.

Opera is a collaborative art. Without a handful of conductors and directors who recognized what Callas had to offer, she could never have transcended the medium as she did. When she was lucky, the accomplishments of colleagues onstage -- though sometimes in stark contrast to her own -- served the ends Callas strove for too. But among singers she had no peer.

Matthew Gurewitsch is a cultural essayist and lecturer in New York City.

Illustration by Vivienne Flesher

The Atlantic Monthly; April 1999; Forget the Callas Legend; Volume 283, No. 4; pages 98-104.