Remembering Maria Callas at the dawn of the 2010/11 Operatic Season

Yesterday marked the 33rd anniversary of the death of one of the greatest singing actresses to grace the operatic stage, “La Divina,” Maria Callas. At the dawn of the new operatic season, with the Met Opening with “Das Rhinegold,” and the COC opening with “Aida,” I recall the spirit of this remarkable woman whose presence is sorely missed.  It’s interesting to watch how newspapers and magazines rarely remember her passing anymore, except for say Opera News or other subject based publications, when in retrospect Maria Callas was to Opera what Martin Luther King was to African American Civil Rights.  She brought a type of glamour and star quality to opera that had perhaps not been so blatant in the past.  Although she began her operatic career like many other singers, singing smaller roles and performing in studio recitals, her quick-wit, impeccable precision, and musical aptitude rapidly blossomed her into one of the most renowned and prestigious personages in musical history.

Not to date myself, but Callas died 11 months before I was born and so I feel a little let down that I never got to hear this tour-de-force while she was alive.  Even though, I retain infinite respect, admiration, and certainly devotion.  Callas had a voice that was unmistakable in its genetic makeup.  Although it may not be marked as the most beautiful voice to have existed, it was certainly an instrument of magnificent proportion, and frankly, I think it was beautiful (so there!).  The “squillo” she was able to create and the precision of her coloratura and stylistic understanding are models for any young singer and professionals alike.

We might also attribute Madame Callas with accolades for reviving Bel Canto.  Beginning with “I Puritani” in 1949, she ventured into “Lucia di Lammermoor,” “Il Pirata,” “La Traviata,” “Medea,” “Anna Bolena,” and many others.  It was her ability to sing these roles and also the larger dramatic roles that remain a remarkable trait of this singular artist.  As a result, many have attempted to categorize this voice and even criticize it (How dare you!).  Whether Callas was originally a “mezzo,” a “dramatic,” or a “coloratura,” is a rather trite manner of discussing this great artist.  What we should be recalling is that she was able to sing with a voice that was immediately recognizable and also capable of the most difficult technical feats, yet filled with emotion and possibility.  In the end, it is more often recounted that she “overdid it and therefore lost her voice.” I, for one, stand in complete opposition to those who feel that they have the right to criticize Callas or the reason for her vocal decline.  Frankly, I don’t think her “voice” declined at all.  It was more her heart and soul that were diminished and crushed by someone whom she desperately loved.  We cannot expect that a woman of this will, of this prowess, who took nothing lightly, would take such matters of the heart lightly.  This is what resulted in the tragic aftermath and premature passing of this great woman.

In my thoughts yesterday, as I listened to her in my car while commuting in and out of town, I was reminded of the affinity I felt for her and have always felt.  I loved her vigour, her fire, and her passion, so much so that I have always held developed these attributes in my own artistic character.  Likewise, I loved her pathos and her willingness to accept pain and know how to project the reality of it in her music.  Years ago, I met and sang for the great Fedora Barbieri, who often sang with Callas.  Although I respected Barbieri for her own contributions, I trembled at the fact that she had often stood and blended her voice with someone I admired so deeply.  I asked her, at that time, how Callas was, and she answered, “Eh, Callas era Callas” (Callas was Callas).  A perfect answer….she was simply that, CALLAS.  No other explanation is required.

“We miss you and you are remembered always”