The Art & Voice 40th Anniversary Lecture

Maria Callas: Art & Voice

George Fleeton

This is the redacted text of my musical lecture given at the Istituto Italiano di Cultura in Dublin on 9th October 2017.

Quella sera abbiamo commemorato l’arte e la voce registrata di Maria Callas, morta quaranta anni fa a Parigi – la prima donna assoluta dell’opera italiana nel mondo.

Not one of Callas’ professional stage performances in opera, between 1947 and 1965, was sung other than in Italian; and that was by her own pre-ordained choice.

She did, though, include arias in French for many of her studio recordings, live concerts and broadcast recitals.

She was an extraordinary woman, one of the most famous people of the 20th century, whose personality was a paradox and whose instrument, her voice, was an enigma.

She sang about 40 roles on stage, in over 600 performances, across 18 years; yet by age 35, as we now know and, I believe, she suspected at the time (1959), her voice was on the edge of a precipice over which it fell in slow motion, taking a further six  years to hit rock bottom.

Callas was a penetrating musical actress, but equally a fragile vocal acrobat and, by the time of her badly judged, so-called world tour of 1973/4, she had become a ravaged singer.

Ironically, earlier, as she studied the writing on the wall, she was also beginning to relish, as her voice darkened, her new-found mezzo-soprano agilities, which alas were never to confirm, nor to consummate, beyond all doubt, what I describe as her fearless and peerless musicianship: la sua abilità musicale senza paura e senza pari.

What we remember today, and treasure on record*, is that unique confluence of supreme musicianship and sublime interpretation, which had never been seen or heard before her peak (in the 1950s) and - I venture - has not been seen or heard since, because Callas she did what no else had or has done: she gave characterisation and interpretation the same weight as singing the music, and frequently she, the performer, became the performance.

So whilst Callas was in an exceptional class of her own, she did not have the most beautiful voice in the history either of opera in performance or of opera on recordings.

At Covent Garden, in Puccini’s Tosca, on 05th July 1965, Callas sang her very last performance in opera, at age 41.

She lived, after a fashion, surviving rather, for a further comparatively aimless, empty and lonely twelve years, with her dogs and her adopted family: her two loyal and long-suffering domestic staff, Bruna Lupoli and Ferruccio Mezzadri who, in the chaos after her death in 1977, turned out to be her two best friends.

Sadly Bruna died in July, age 95, and never spoke publicly about the two decades and more that she had spent, morning, noon and night, with her mistress.

Initially Callas was, from 1947, the incomparable interpreter of bel canto opera; but over all her most performed composer was Verdi, ten operas, of which La Traviata was her favourite by far: the role of Violetta she performed on stage sixty-three times between 1951 and 1958.

Sometimes the Callas tone could be sharp and cutting, especially when she sang some of the more ferocious and outraged characters of 19th century opera, Norma for instance, Lucia, Medea or La Gioconda.

And when she was passionate or intense on stage, her voice often sounded strained, gritty, not under control.                 

Add that observation to a voice which was also invariably  flexible and proficient, though not without considerable effort on her part, and we begin to discern, and to understand, a great dramatic life force  at work - whose engagement with us, the watchers in the dark, was total, to whom commitment and musicianship were paramount, whose  strength of character informed the roles she chose to sing and to dominate dramatically - and we can appreciate how she, and all we have are her recordings, was never overshadowed by her nearest contemporaries such as Renata Tebaldi (†2004), Victoria de los Angeles (†2005), Joan Sutherland (†2010), Leontyne Price (now age 90) or Beverly Sills (†2007).

Archival film of Callas in performance is very rare: just a couple of hours of pearl and ebony moving images; and nothing new has been unearthed for over ten years; but what we have (with its fixed-angle cameras, minimal and unimaginative editing, few close-ups or reaction shots, inadequate lighting and mono sound recording) is fascinating; yet it only hints at what it must have felt like to be present that night in the opera house,  to be gathered up and swept into the drama unfolding musically before us.

Was it ever easier to suspend disbelief, to be transported beyond everyday time and space, ignoring the inadequacies of narrative, plot, character, costume, design - which are all part of theatre - when watching and listening to Callas?

Was it only Callas’ innate elegance and grace that was her signature and her passport to her credibility in the esoteric, elite world of opera?

If so, that may be why that rarefied art form was never the same again after the incomparable impact she had made on it with her volcanic yet vulnerable on-stage persona.

Callas sang and acted with every fibre of her being, drilling through to the essence of the music, and then conveying to us what she had found there, at its core, in ways not previously witnessed on stage or in studio, and rarely if ever surpassed since.

Unlike today’s glamorous and pampered song-bird divas, Callas had to struggle with her voice, as with a hostile antagonist, and on top of that, her performances were all too often a battle with knowledgeable audiences, particularly in Italy, which was not her native country, where hired claques could turn against her very quickly, and frequently did so.

Let me now summarise - I hope by way of helpful analysis - some of that paradox and enigma which I mentioned earlier.

Most operas we attend are patently unrealistic: we, and our times and our cultural output, have changed utterly, since the Monteverdi era and indeed since Puccini, as have our expectations of this connective art form, the 400 year old theatrical conceit of dramma per musica.

So why do we still spend nights at the opera, and willingly suspend our disbelief at what we encounter there?

Is it because operas, like films, are narrative machines? Is it the music? After all music is a specialised language, like poetry, more precise in its meaning than everyday prose, yet so many of us are already loosely familiar with the rhythms of opera and aware of some of its melodies.

In part, yes, if only because so many of us may be already loosely familiar with its rhythms, and aware of its melodies.

But I believe that our invitation to the opera is signed for us by the kings and queens of instruments, the voices, as they paint and sculpt shared human emotions and passions, with incredible, sometimes unforgettable power, in the context of theatrical drama.

Opera therefore wins over even the reluctant among us, when the tensions between the words and the music, the characters and the singers, become so dramatically convincing, that the end effect is the articulation and the sharing of common human emotions and experiences, in ways that only the voice in music can achieve.

Once captured by its magic, our watching and listening, our being there, become part of the narrative unfolding before us, as it is driven forward, and we are carried along, by other forces, to other times and other places which, through the music, take root in our collective imagination and heighten and enhance our emotions and responses.

If there is one word which defines Maria Callas and defies the attempts of all others to surpass her, in her artistic, interpretative and vocal achievements, it is surely the word ‘imagination’ and her applied imaginative impact on us and on both our collective and our personal  dreams and realities.

Behind all that, we know she had an extremely unhappy personal life, but she cloaked that in a parallel life of performance on stage, a professional existence informed and heightened by her unresolved personal angst.

So why does that paradoxical and enigmatic dual existence continue to attract more respect and admiration four decades later than it did when she was living those contrasting lives?

My conclusion for what it is worth, after many years studying her art and her voice, teaching, lecturing and writing about her, and producing concerts of her music, is as follows:

Callas’ voice, her on-stage persona, her unprecedented insights into the music she chose to sing or to record, her insatiable curiosity about her designated roles -  as she prepared them with inter alia her teacher Elvira de Hidalgo, her conductor Tullio Serafin, her director Luchino Visconti, her tenor colleague Giuseppe di Stefano – all these factors produced an  exceptional work ethic which included a profound focus on research and study, playing the full score on her piano at home, and learning everyone else’s music as a defence against her myopia, short-sightedness, when on stage.

All these factors are impressive in themselves, singly or when taken together and applied to one person.

But I am convinced they were ultimately a Greek mask which was fierce, but frail, volcanic but vulnerable, tragic and comic.

And I also believe that the personal life-long pain of private Maria, the woman behind the mask, infused, invigorated, the characters of Norma, Violetta, Lucia, Tosca, Aida, Medea, Turandot, Amina, Leonora and Elvira, as interpreted for us by Callas the public opera singer, and that unique and complex fusion of the private Maria and the public Callas, with its fathomless integrity and hallmarked authenticity changed irrevocably the ways by which we understand and appreciate opera today.

© georgefleetonmmxvii

* This year, by dint of Warner Classics’ re-mastered box set - Maria Callas Live: 42 CDs and 3 DVDs, with 20 complete operas (8 in studio, 12 live on stage) plus 5 filmed recitals - we now have invaluable access to  opera’s most iconic and influential singing actress.