Art & Voice i

Violetta 'La Traviata', La Scala May-June 1955

Elegance and Grace

MARIA CALLAS (1923-77)

My presentation to Shankill Classical Music Club on 05 December 2018 to mark the 95th anniversary of her birth

George Fleeton

THE presentation began with an interview with Bernard Gavoty recorded for French television in May 1965 when Callas was 41.

SHE came across as very honest in her self-analysis and very demanding on herself as a singing-actress.

A highly intelligent woman, an instinctive musician and a superb theatre actress - little wonder that, in so many of her stage appearances in opera, the performer frequently became the performance.

YET two months later, in July 1965, she sang her last opera Tosca at Covent Garden and the Callas vocal trajectory, which for almost twenty years had curved implacably across the esoteric world of opera, was gone, silenced; that was the day the Callas music died.

EVEN those of us who don’t know much about Callas recognise that she was a great stage actress and an outstanding operatic soprano: a combination of talents very rarely encountered any where opera has been performed in the last five decades.

AND, since her stage performances were few and far between after 1961, most of us today never saw her perform.

SO her unique reputation as an opera diva has been kept vibrant and immediate through her many recordings, all now available from Warner Classics, and they are not an incomplete encounter with her art and her voice, her elegance and her grace.

ONE aria - of which Callas was particularly fond, in that it gave her ample opportunity for vocal word-painting - was from La Wally, a forgotten opera by Catalani.  

PERHAPS in that aria Callas found some fleeting reflections of her own life, distanced from parental affections and having to go far away where hope became regret and sorrow ¹.

IN Callas’ career, about one third of her relatively short life, by far her most frequently performed role was Norma, in Bellini’s finest opera.

IN late May 1965, a matter of days  after that television interview, she sang Norma for the 92nd and last time;  but during the final performance in Paris the closing  scene was cancelled because she was indisposed, souffrante in  French.

THE writing on the wall, perhaps? - because all that remained was that single, final performance as Tosca in London some weeks later.

IN Casta Diva, Norma’s entrance aria, as the conflicted high priestess of the Druids in Roman-occupied Gaul she addresses the chaste moon-goddess in a languid, poignant prayer for peace.

A recording of Callas singing this was found in recent years and restored by EMI, but the original was in poor condition.

IT had been broadcast live on Italian television, on  New Year’s Eve 1957, right after the dress rehearsal - at Rome Opera - of the production of Norma which Callas (again souffrante) abandoned after Act 1 on opening night, just forty-eight hours  later, in the most controversial of circumstances ².

AFTER Norma, Callas’ second most performed role (63 appearances) was Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviaia.

GIVEN the extent to which Callas invested all the angst, trauma and despondency   of her personal life into the tragic roles she chose to sing on stage,  in productions which she dominated like no other dramatic soprano before or since, roles such as Norma, Violetta, Lucia, Tosca, Aida, Medea and  Turandot, she was able to set the bar of interpretation so high -  even for her near contemporaries such as Tebaldi, de los Angeles, Sutherland, Price and Sills -  that the best younger sopranos too of the last fifty years have struggled to convey the dramma per musica which defines both the greatest operas and Callas’ fully developed dramatic readings of their most demanding roles.

LA TRAVIATA is an excellent case in point; and whilst we have yet to unearth watchable film of Callas singing Violetta, the live audio recording of her performance in La Scala in 1955 is both complete and profound, and is by far Callas’ greatest Verdi performance on record, throbbing with controlled energy as she shapes and sculpts the heroine’s predicament with an intelligence of application, which has eluded everyone from Sutherland and Cotrubas to te Kanawa and Gheorghiu.

IN her final act 3 aria Violetta is near death; she knows it: tutto, tutto finì, as she says farewell to her past as a traviata - a woman who strayed - and asks God’s pardon ³.

BUT it is perhaps for her evolving interpretation of Tosca (37 performances) over a period of more than twenty years that Callas is best known and appreciated, in all quarters both within and outwith the rarefied circles of opera.

SHE first sang Tosca as a student in Athens, during the war, age 18, and Tosca was her very last performance in an opera, in London in 1965, as referred to earlier.

SIX times in her act 2 showpiece aria Vissi d’arte, she asks God ‘why /perché?’ is He treating her so cruelly; and six times her God is silent.

IT is an excellent example of the performer becoming the performance ⁴.

STILL with Puccini – who was not her favourite composer – about ten years earlier Callas had given just three performances in Madama Butterfly, at the Lyric Theater Chicago in November 1955.

WHILE no film recordings exist of her short-lived Cio-Cio San, fortunately for us she had already recorded Butterfly three months earlier in Milan, but I don’t think it is a collector’s item, as she is not at all well supported by her tenor and conductor;   so it is to Tebaldi, or Price, or Freni that we must turn for more definitive readings of this opera.

IN act 2, Cio-Cio San’s self-belief, her faith that Pinkerton will return to her one fine day, un bel dì, after three years incommunicado, is stirring, strongly felt and doomed.

INDEED her earlier her love duet with Pinkerton in act 1 was also more than tinged with sadness and foreboding ⁵.

We then watched part of a lengthy interview she gave to Lord Harewood, a conversation rather,which was recorded by the BBC in colour and with unique access to Callas’ apartment in Paris in April 1968.

BUT she didn’t seem entirely at ease, possibly because Lord Harewood, her friend of more than twenty years, was himself too restrained as an interviewer.

SHE hadn’t been doing anything much since that final London Tosca three years before and her somewhat bland analysis of her work in this conversation remains intriguing but unchallenged.

WHILE her most performed composer was Verdi (ten operas) and not - surprisingly – Puccini (three), Callas never performed in Bizet’s Carmen nor in Puccini’s La bohème, but her studio recordings of both operas - in Paris 1964 and in Milan 1956 respectively – most certainly are collectors’ items.

LA BOHÈME is accessible opera, it is Puccini at his peak and it is melodrama of the very highest quality, and her contribution to its lasting popularity is immense just on the strength of that 1956 recording⁷.

AS for Carmen, it is equally accessible and it is the strongest advocate of French culture in 19th century opera (even if the story is set in Seville).

CALLAS (not a mezzo) enjoyed singing the Habanera, Carmen’s entrance aria, set to dance music from Havana, and the Seguidilla, in triple-time dance music from Castille, and she included both pieces in some of her later concerts ⁸.

I had begun the presentation with a tragic aria from a lesser-known Italian opera and finished the music  content of the evening with a lighter aria from the second best known of Gounod’s operas Roméo et Juliette – a recording from 1961 but an example which we mustn’t shrink from  of the Callas  voice in irreversible  decline ¹º.

THIS in turn led to a short documentary which begged the question ‘Who precisely was this divina assoluta?’

FINALLY after two decades studying and teaching her art and voice, and after years writing about her and producing recitals of her songbook, for what ever they are worth these are my considered   reflections on the mystique, elegance and grace-under-pressure of the most iconic interpreter of Italian opera in the era of recorded music.

AT her peak, Callas’ charisma, her elegance and the melodrama embedded in her performances, came both from her physical presence and from her voice of a thousand colours as she painted vivid pictures of happiness, sorrow, rejection, fear and destiny, all sometimes within the same opera.

SHE shaded the poetry of the lyrics in ways which identify opera: its dramma per musica as first defined in the late 16th century by the Camerata Fiorentina.

HER breathing, phrasing, and pausing were impeccably nuanced, yet by age 35, 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.

MOST operas we attend are patently unrealistic, yet the voice, the queen of instruments, can paint human emotion and passion with unforgettable power and drama.

THE Callas ethos, indeed her raison d’être  I will try to summarise as follows: opera wins us over when the palpable tensions in the togetherness of music and verse, of plot and character, of singer and performance, of orchestration and mise-en-scène, become dramatically convincing before our sceptical eyes and ears, and when our disbelief is totally suspended the nett effect is the articulation of a shared human experience as our active and conscious watching and listening become part of the narrative unfolding before us.  

OVER 2,300 years ago Aristotle gave our interaction with such melodrama a name: ‘catharsis’ (a purification or release of emotion) and if you leave the opera house feeling elated, emotionally drained, with the music resonating in your head, you have been there and done it.

IF the spoken word could communicate as effectively and as unambiguously what Callas expresses in song, there would be little need to listen to her.

WITH her instrument, her intimate identification with character and with the music, she could draw a complete portrait of Norma, Violetta, Lucia, Tosca, Aida, Medea or Turandot in a matter of moments.

CALLAS had an extremely unhappy personal life but she cloaked it in a parallel life of performance, heaped with admiration and respect which prevails forty  years after her death.

HER singing, her on-stage persona, her incredible insights into the drama embedded in the music, her insatiable curiosity about her chosen roles and her profound study and preparation, her innate musicianship, her respect for the composers’ art and stage craft – all these elements were ultimately a Greek mask, both fierce and frail, volcanic and vulnerable, tragic and comic, and her personal life-long pain and angst which was hidden from public view by that mask  infused  and energised  her performances with a strength in depth and an incredible authenticity never seen or heard in opera before or since.

THE greatest singing-actress in the era of recorded music, the prima donna assoluta of mid-20th century opera-in-performance, was born 95 years ago in 1923 and she continues to change the way we understand and listen to opera today.


The following recordings were used to illustrate the presentation:

¹ ‘Ebben? Ne andrò lontana,

come va l’eco della pia campana…’

 - La Wally, Alfredo Catalani, 18

² ‘Casta Diva, che inargenti,

queste sacre antiche piante…

 - Norma, Vincenzo Bellini, 1831

 ³ ‘Addio, del passato bei sogni ridenti,

le rose del volto già sono pallenti…’

 - La Traviata, Giuseppe Verdi, 1853

⁴-⁷ ‘Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore,

non feci mai male ad anima viva!..’

 - Tosca, Giacomo Puccini, 1900

‘Un bel dì vedremo

levarsi un fil di fumo…’

 - Madama Butterfly, Puccini, 190

‘Sì. Mi chiamano Mimì,

ma il mio nome è Lucia…’

 ‘Donde lieta uscì  al tuo grido

d’amore torna sola Mimì…’

 - La Bohème, Puccini, 1896

‘L’amour est un oiseau rebelle,

que nul ne peut apprivoiser…’

 ‘Près des remparts de Séville,

chez mon ami Lillas Pastia…’

 - Carmen, Bizet, 1875

¹º‘Ah! Je veux vivre

dans ce rêve qui m’enivre…’   

 - Roméo et Juliette, Charles Gounod, 1867