DVD EMI Classics DVB 3 38470 9. 1997
In Act I last time we related The Struggle Upwards, how Maria Callas prepared herself to fulfil her ambition of being a great opera soprano.
The life of an opera singer is founded upon a highly-trained and very powerful voice. But then, the singer has to learn a role (many songs, plus recitatives and/or dialogues) plus all the stage movements and the gestures and dramatic expressions that bring a personality to life. After all this preparation, there may be perhaps four or five performances in a row of one particular opera, to an audience of perhaps 2 or 3 thousand. If this is not filmed or recorded, all that creativity is lost to posterity.
When we look at Maria Callas’s career, it was not all that long, spanning 1947 to 1959, plus 1964 as a comeback year. It can be described in terms of the operas she sang, where they were, and how the audience reacted.
The Summit Years
Maria sprang to the attention of the opera world in December 1948: she was singing La Walkyrie in Venice (a dramatic Wagnerian role), where the Opera had also prepared Bellini’s I Puritani. But the soprano soloist for I Puritani fell ill just a week before the first performance, and the conductor asked Maria to take the role, although she had until then just read some of the arias. The soprano role of Elvira in I Puritani is one of the most demanding colaratura (very high) roles….. and incredibly, she learnt it and sang it well enough to be acclaimed (nobody noticing all the prompting for the dialogues!). After this extraordinary feat, she became in high demand.
Through the next years, she sang in Italy and outside (Mexico, Argentina, Rio de Janeiro), and finally conquered her place at La Scala in Milan, the most prestigious opera house in the world.
In 1952 she opened the season at the Covent Garden in London, and was credited with resuscitating opera in England. Not only was her voice magnificent at that time, but the audiences were caught up by her dramatic expression – she gave full expression to inner feelings and sentiments, translating into bold colours the conflict between rationality and respectability on the surface, and the primitive passions deeper down.
Through 53 she managed another conquest – slimming herself down from 90kg to a svelte 62 kilos, and she began dressing under the guidance of a leading Milan designer. She became a celebrity, being applauded in the street, giving autographs, constantly in the news. In 1956 she was contracted as a superstar by the Metropolitan opera, and began moving around in the international jet set.
It was in this context that in 1959 Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis resolved to conquer her, then the most celebrated woman of her time – a worthy target for his ambition. Even though Onassis was married with two children, he went to a performance of Maria’s at Covent Garden Opera, bombarded her with flowers and presents, and invited her and husband Meneghini for a cruise on his yacht Christina. Famous rich and powerful, Onassis was fascinated by Maria, and she fell passionately in love with him. During the cruise, Meneghini perceived he was betrayed – and even more so after it was ended, when he and Maria had retired to their country home in Northern Italy…… Onassis appeared and invited her away to join him. And she went!
And so was broken Maria Callas’ obsession with Opera, to which her life from 10 years old had been devoted (she was then 36).
The Sunset Years
In the shadow of Onassis, Maria had respite from the demands of performing and being a public figure, and her artistic activity diminished greatly (28 performances in 1958, 7 in 1960, 5 in 61, 2 in 1962).. The number of roles diminished, and now she sang just Norma, Medea and Tosca.
In 1964 “la Callas” made a comeback with a great Tosca at Covent Garden followed by an acclaimed Norma. In 1965 she sang in Paris, and returned to the Met with tremendous success. But the more she tried to sustain the legend of la Callas, the more responsibility she felt, and greater was the fear of failure. At the third performance of a Norma in May at the Met, her voice was below par and it failed at the end. Her relationship with Onassis also crumbled, particularly when he gave the Christina yacht treatment to Jackie Kennedy – and married her at end 1968.
In the 70s Maria tried to revive her career, and embarked on a world-wide concert tour with tenor di Stefano, giving concerts with piano accompaniment. Everywhere she was fêted and applauded, rapturously received, but it was plain she was no longer the great voice. She retired to her apartment in Paris, where she received occasional visits from friends and admirers, and let her life drift away until it ended in September 1977. She was 54.
la Callas and Maria
La Callas was the legendary soprano who in her youth performed the most amazing feats of vocal prowess, singing marvellously the most demanding roles of grand Opera. She brought to her roles not just wonderful singing, but gestures and expressions – particularly after she worked with Visconti. She explained in an interview – “Before you sing a phrase, you must always prepare it in your face – have it ready in your mind and then perform it – give it to the public. You should have the public read it in your mind and then actually hear it”. This fluidity of expression is clear in films of her concert performances. From phrase to phrase, her attitude and expression changes, lending interest and drama to what she is singing.
There is a sort of magnetism about this, about someone putting so many emotions on the line for us to share. In her great opera roles on stage, this is what hypnotized the public, and lead to the extraordinary acclaim she received. Unfortunately, there is scarcely any filmed performance of her onstage – just the second act of a Tosca at Covent Garden which was filmed for TV. But there is ample recorded work, throughout her career.
Through the film clips on this DVD “Passion Callas”, we can capture a flavour of what she was like. Somehow, she draws your attention even when she is just sitting looking – and her enormous eyes create an event when they switch their glance from one place to another!
But Maria the person had a life akin to one of the tragic heroines she portrayed, at the summit of her achievement embracing a relationship which eventually destroyed her. When we hear the extreme expressivity in her song, we can well feel grateful for the tremendous artist she was….. tempered by sadness for the person who never reached fulfilment.