Watch Classic Performances from Maria Callas’ Wondrous and Tragically-Short Opera Career

“Histri­on­ic” is not a word we often hear used as a com­pli­ment, describ­ing as it does over­wrought, the­atri­cal, melo­dra­mat­ic behav­ior we tend to frown on in every­day life. In the opera world, how­ev­er, one can right­ly praise a diva like the late Maria Callas for her “histri­on­ic pow­er.” Jason Vic­tor Ser­i­nus uses the phrase in an arti­cle on Callas for San Fran­cis­co Clas­si­cal Voice, and also writes of Callas’ “col­oratu­ra agili­ty,” “styl­is­tic authen­tic­i­ty,” “mes­mer­iz­ing stage pres­ence” and “increas­ing­ly scan­dalous behav­ior.”

That last descrip­tion refers in part to a break in Callas’ life and career in 1959 when she left her hus­band and man­ag­er Gio­van­ni Bat­tista Menegh­i­ni and took up with Aris­to­tle Onas­sis. That rela­tion­ship end­ed in heart­break, and after sev­er­al attempts to reclaim her for­mer glo­ry in the sev­en­ties, Callas’ own heart final­ly gave out: in 1977, she died of what may have been a drug-induced heart attack in Paris, her last years, writes Ser­i­nus, “a real tragedy of oper­at­ic pro­por­tions.”

We also, of course, think of anoth­er break in Callas’ life—with opera itself, which she left behind as her wide­ly-praised vocal abil­i­ty dimin­ished rather dra­mat­i­cal­ly in her 40s, an effect, per­haps, of rapid weight loss ear­ly in her career or—as crit­ic and voice teacher Con­rad Osborne spec­u­lates in an NPR pro­file—of a “lack of prop­er tech­nique to sus­tain her ambi­tious reper­toire.” And yet, writes NPR, it was Callas’ “imper­fec­tions” that “set her apart,” along with “her abil­i­ty to find the emo­tion­al mean­ing in a role.” But as much as Callas has been laud­ed for her “sen­sa­tion­al voice,” she has as often been derid­ed in pro­por­tion­ate­ly unflat­ter­ing terms.

Crit­ic Ter­ry Tea­chout describes Callas’ voice as one of “ugly beau­ty,” tak­ing a phrase from Thelo­nious Monk. The con­trast express­es the range of opin­ions crit­ics and audi­ences have held about Callas. While “much of what is writ­ten about her,” Tea­chout observes, “is the work of ador­ing fans whose wor­ship­ful prose is apt to make cool­er heads a bit queasy,” those cool­er heads have always found sub­tle and not so sub­tle ways of insult­ing her dis­tinc­tive voice or strik­ing looks. (“She con­trived through sheer force of will to per­suade audi­ences that she was a great beau­ty,” sneers Tea­chout, “with an even greater voice.”) Callas, in oth­er words, inspires devo­tion and vituperation—but no one sees her per­form and remains unmoved.

Was Maria Callas’ rise to fame a “con job,” as Tea­chout provoca­tive­ly alleges? Isn’t all great per­for­mance some­thing of a con? In any case, I doubt any­one could fool so many devot­ed opera fans into believ­ing in char­ac­ters as whole­heart­ed­ly as mil­lions have believed in Callas’ Rosi­na from Rossini’s Bar­ber of Seville (top from 1958), or in her Nor­ma from Bellini’s chal­leng­ing bel can­to opera (below it, from the same year). Were audi­ences unable to see through the range of her stun­ning per­for­mances in the two Ham­burg con­certs from 1959 and 1962 (fur­ther down)? Could no one dis­cern how flawed her Covent Gar­den per­for­mance, above, or her bravu­ra turn in the title role of Bizet’s Car­men, below, both from 1962?

Of course they heard the flaws. They were part of her appeal. NPR quotes Uni­ver­si­ty of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia pro­fes­sor Tim Page, who points to Callas’ “feroc­i­ty” and “inten­si­ty” in the role of Car­men. Before Callas, singers “would con­cen­trate only on nice melodies, pret­ti­ly sung. Callas’ Car­men was not nec­es­sar­i­ly very pret­ty, but it was thrilling.” At the height of her pow­ers, Callas brought a robust strength and per­son­al­i­ty to the opera that had been miss­ing from the form, and recov­ered, writes Ser­i­nus, “a host of bel can­to rar­i­ties that had ced­ed from the stage because of a decline in vocal tech­nique among then-liv­ing singers.”

Though Callas’ own tech­nique comes in for much critique—deservedly or not, I can’t say—no one can ever accuse her of timid­i­ty or con­ser­vatism in an are­na that demands courage and flam­boy­ance, that demands, in a word, “histri­on­ics.” The his­to­ry of 20th cen­tu­ry opera, Ser­i­nus writes, can right­ly be divid­ed “with the terms B.C. and A.C.—Before Callas and After Callas…. [Her] ascen­dance put an end to the era of bird­song col­orat­uras who chirped their way through florid mad-scenes with lit­tle regard for their emo­tion­al import.” If a cer­tain rough brava­do and self-con­scious self-fash­ion­ing is what it took to restore to so many roles their depth and grav­i­ty, so be it. Callas paid a price for her out­sized voice and life, and you can hear it in her weak­ened farewell per­for­mance, above, from 1973. But her ador­ing fans will for­ev­er be grate­ful to her for it.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Rare Video Cap­tures 29-Year-Old Luciano Pavarot­ti in One of His Ear­li­est Record­ed Per­for­mances (1964)

All the Great Operas in 10 Min­utes

85,000 Clas­si­cal Music Scores (and Free MP3s) on the Web

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.