Archive for October, 2006

Puccini: Tosca – Maria Callas (1)


Puccini: Tosca (complete opera)
Maria Callas, Giuseppe di Stefano, Tito Gobbi
Chorus and Orchestra of La Scala, Milan. Conductor Victor de Sabata
EMI Classics ASIN: B000002RXZ Recorded 1953

Those who love Grand Opera will recognize this recording: Maria Callas (soprano) in one of her most famous roles, plus magnificent singing from Tito Gobbi (baritone) and di Stefano (tenor), with the La Scala Orchestra and de Sabata in fine form……a brilliant performance, full of passion, it is considered one of the great opera recordings. But can we, fifty-three years later, capture what it was that made Maria Callas one of the most famous singers of all time?

Not just the voice
Callas had a powerful soprano voice (that goes without saying) but also great flexibility and adaptability. She could (in her prime) sing high coloratura soprano roles, as well as heavy roles which demanded power in the middle and lower ranges. Her range was said to be an incredible three octaves. But beyond this she had so many ways of colouring her voice, changing its quality, putting in little inflections and accents, all being guided by the meaning of what she was singing. This we can still hear and appreciate today. We can also hear, apparently, times when her voice sounded strained and thin, particularly on the high notes. This attracted criticism from those who wanted pure song.

What really set her apart however, was the emotion she communicated, using particularly her facial expression and the movement of her hands. Carefully studied and rehearsed gestures conveyed the emotion of the phrase before the music got there; moreover, she was a consummate actress, living the role in all its dramatic intensity. This came straight across to audiences, who were simply magnetized by her presence, and were drawn into the passion of the role she was playing.

Her greatest roles were as a tragic heroine (usually in the principal role of an opera of that name) – Tosca, Norma, Medea, Lucia (di Lammermoor), and Violetta in La Traviata. These are “the summits of her creativity, thanks to the perfect joining of song and text, the music and words, the musical inflections and the dramatic purpose”……
But her life was also that of a tragic heroine.

The early years
Cecilia Sophia Anna Maria Kalogeropoulos (yes, that’s her!) was born in New York City in December 1923, second daughter of Greek immigrants. They changed their name to Callas in 1926. Her grandfather had been a fine singer in Greece, and her mother Evangelia encouraged her childrens’ contact with music and opera, even maintaining frequent piano lessons when times were hard in the Great Depression. Although her elder sister was charming and talented and her mother’s favourite, Maria by the time she was 10 could already attract attention with her voice. At 11 she won her first singing competition. Her mother transferred her ambitions of fame and wealth to be achieved through her children, and her love and approval for Maria was always conditional. Maria thought of herself as without qualities, and took refuge in eating, hearing opera, while there grew within her the desire to be a great star.

Mother and daughters left the US (and their father) in 1937, principally for Maria to receive a classical music education in Greece, and in fact she entered a Conservatory in Athens where she studied singing with Maria Crivella during the day – and at night, at home, she sang with the canary, matching him for trills and runs.

In 1939 (when her elder sister married) Maria was accepted as a pupil of Elvira de Hidalgo, distinguished teacher of opera singers, who had to stay in Greece during the War. Maria worked long hours with Elvira, extending her vocal range, learning gestures and movement on-stage, acquiring a meticulous technique, and repertoire through learning more and more music. According to Elvira, she was a star pupil, absorbing everything very rapidly, and showing spectacular process through very hard work. She sang her first role on stage in 1940. In 1941 the German Army occupied Athens, but hard life with a curfew did not detain Maria from studying. Her family even harboured two British soldiers on the escape route out of Greece (an offence subject to extreme punishment) and they day after they left (leaving obvious traces of their occupancy) a search party of Italian soldiers turned up at their house. Maria quickly sat at the piano and began an Italian aria, which so mesmerized the soldiers that they abandoned the search and stood round the piano, asking for more. They asked to come back the next day, but by then all traces of the British soldiers had disappeared.

In late 1941 Maria had her first leading role in the Athens Opera (in Tosca), repeated in 42, followed by Tiefland 43/44, and an unforgettable Fidelio in 1944. She knew how to give her personages such a mysterious quality of life, that the audience were carried into her world – and when Fidelio obtains the release of her beloved Florestan from prison, it was as if Greece were to be free of the Occupation, and the atmosphere became so charged and frenetic that the audience applauded, yelled, and threw their hats in the air…..

But when the occupying forces withdrew, Greece erupted into Civil War, and at the end of 1945, having made success with Greeks and occupying forces alike, Maria found herself shut out from Greek Opera.
So, leaving her family, Elvira and Greece, she went alone back to the USA.

The struggle upwards
After the pleasure of reuniting with her father, and being able to eat as much as she wanted again, Maria started the round of visits and auditions, to try and gain a place in the opera scene in the US. But she soon discovered that being the leading light of the Athens Opera didn’t count for much, and she met rebuff after rebuff. But in 1946 she received a call to audition for the New York Met, and was then offered two leading roles for the 46/47 season – in Fidelio and Madame Butterfly. And…. she turned them down!! It is not recorded whether it was having to sing in English in Fidelio, or the difficulty of fitting her 90 kilos into the role of the delicate Butterfly which had the more influence – but she refused what appeared to be a golden opportunity. Then she was taken under the wing of Eddie Bagarozy, an opera buff who started a project to revive the Chicago Opera – but this went bankrupt before the first night. Eventually she auditioned with an Italian tenor, Zenatello, who was contracting for the festival of Verona next year, and finally she landed a role…… and left the USA after 18 months without having had a professional engagement there.

In Verona, Maria was straightway taken under the wing of Giovanni Meneghini, who was interested in the woman as much as the artist, and who made it his job to be as protective and useful as possible. When rehearsals started for the festival, they were with conductor Tullio Serafin, a venerated figure, who supported, instructed and helped Maria in her singing and acting. The début in Verona was no earth-shaking success, even though a critic referred to the “very moving and personal quality of her voice”. And after the festival, the engagements did not appear.

In fact, Maria Callas was trying to enter a world which judged opera singing differently, by the purity and skill of the singing – while Maria adjusted her vocal art to the emotion she was expressing, looking for harmony with the persona she was bringing to life. Her triumphs would come …….. in our Act II (November 2006)

And in the meantime – Good listening!

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