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Written in the stars (part 1)

The career of Maria Callas, from an unhappy childhood, to her brillant but all-too-brief stardom, to a lonely premature death, echoes much of what we have come to expect from our idols today. She was, says Michael Tanner, the last in the golden age of operatic Divas; but was she also among the first high priestesses in the self-destructive cult of modern-day celebrity ?

An operatic stars

Almost 40 years after her death at the age of 53, Maria Callas, is still the most celebrated of all operatic stars, male or female. Memoirs by her friends, enemies, family (the last two groups overlap heavily), secretaries, dress-maker and accompanist give an astonishing wealth of information about her life beyond the stage. Books about her singing, her rise to fame, her decline, her weight loss, her relationship with Aristotle Onassis, the cause of her death, the ‘forgotten years’ in Greece during the Second World War, were published in a flood which has abated but not ceased (though the number of people who saw and heard her in her prime is now rapidly dwindling). All her studio recordings are in the catalogue, many of her ‘live’ performances are available, some still on ‘private’ labels; more have been taken on by Warner Classics and made official. maria callas (1)

Callas remains enormously controversial, both as an artist and as a personality. Like certain other supreme performers,  those who love her art tend to think that she is the greatest singer on record; there are, however, a smaller but not unsubstantial number of opera lovers who find her voice ugly and trace her decline almost to the moment she first sang in public. Others simply think that her style of singing and (from the few videos we have of her) her acting have gone out of fashion, Almost more than with any other performing artist I can think of, it is impossible to separate Callas the artist from Callas the cult: a personality, a figure of tragedy, and someone destroyed by her neuroses and ambitions. Walter Legge, the celebrated producer at EMI who was in charge of most of Callas’s commercial recordings, wrote that she ‘had a superhuman inferiority complex’.

That seems to me accurate and the best, if partial, explanation of that incredible willpower, which led her both to her uniquely elevated stature and to her sad demise in Paris’s depressing luxury arrondissement. Her start in life was as lonely as her end: her parents got on badly and separated, so she was brought up by an unloving and ambitious mother, mainly in Greece. Her large, ungainly build as a  teenager was a source of great unhappiness. One of the few glimmers of hope in her life was her passion for music, which led to her determination to become a singer, never an easy career and especially not in Nazi- occupied Greece.

First years of her career

The bel canto repertoire in which she was to excel – Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti – wasn’t what first interested her: it hardly could have, since it was mostly unknown at the time. In the very first years of her career she tended to sing heavyweight roles, which she fairly soon relinquished: Isotta (Isolde in Italian), sometimes with a Tristan singing in German; Turandot, a short but taxing role; and some late Verdi, which later she only sang in the recording studio. It was only when her great mentor Tullio Serafin, who had been conducting since the start of the century, insisted that she learn the role of Elvira in Bellini’s I puritani that she found her métier, and her stunning rise to fame began. From then on in her life, everything took on a kind of mythic significance. She was fortunate enough to come to Walter Legge’s notice early in her career, when EMI wanted to create an impressive catalogue of Italian operas. From early 1953 onwards all her recordings were for EMI, with at least one, and often several, taped each summer when the opera houses were closed. Those recordings, above all the ones made in the years 1953-58, sealed her fame, together with the flabbergasting number of performances she gave on the world’s operatic stages, with scarcely a cancellation. She wasn’t keen on an understudy, such as the Turkish soprano Leyla Gencer, taking on a role for her. At this stage Callas was merely a famous opera star, like, for instance, Anna Netrebko today.maria callas (4)

The first step in the legend came in 1954, when she shed about 40 pounds of weight and re-emerged as a glamorous, idiosyncratically beautiful woman, expensively and elegantly dressed, emulating her heroine  Audrey Hepburn. As soon as she looked like a member of high society, she began to behave like one: she was happy to give vapid interviews to gossip columnists, and to embark on a round of exclusive parties. Nevertheless, her art always came first, and since her voice was always a recalcitrant instrument, she continued to work hard on it, until she was acclaimed as the prima donna assoluta del mondo. She had rivals, of course, though she refused to recognise them as such. Renata Tebaldi, who sang some of the same repertoire, unquestionably had a lovelier voice, but listening to it, Callas remarked, ‘Beautiful – but who cares?’ To put it briefly, she was more interested, only interested, in emotional truth, and not at all in making lovely sounds, though she could do that. Callas’s voice expresses above all pain, the noble endurance of suffering, with an intensity that makes receptive listeners feel that they are in the presence of great tragedy.

Tamara Gura (1)

Tamara Gura

Within a few moments of hearing her sing, it’s obvious that Tamara Gura was born to have a stellar career in opera. The young mezzo soprano has an absolutely natural ability to communicate through her voice, thrilling audiences with its velvety warmth, its expressive range of colours and its effortless coloratura. Born in the USA into a family of Polish-Italian descent, Gura took piano, dance and drama lessons as a child. Aged 13, she had a revelation: ‘My voice teacher gave me Italian art songs to learn along with arias from Carmen: I was hooked!’

Cura began training seriously as a singer, and having gained a degree, she won a Metropolitan Opera National Council Award. Then came an important career plunge: she moved to Europe, first to Switzerland to become a member of the Zurich Opera Studio, and then to Hamburg as part of their young artist ensemble. ‘I sang more than 150 performances in two and a half years,’ she recalls, ‘performing roles such as Zaida in Il turco in Italia with the amazing Christof Loy as director and Gymnasiast in Lulu with Peter Konwitschny. I also sang Pauline in The Queen of Spades and Sesto in Giulio Cesare, working with leading conductors such as Simone Young and Ingo Metzmacher. I learned an enormous amount in that short period of time and amassed tons of stage experience – invaluable for my development as a singer.’ Following Hamburg, Gura spent four years as a company principal with the Badisches Staatstheater in Karlsruhe in southwest Germany: ‘That’s where I debuted a large number of my core roles, in an incredibly supportive environment, especially Mozart and Rossini parts that I have gone on to sing in major houses like Hamburg and Dresden.’ Another particular benefit from being in Karlsruhe was the city’s Handel Festival, where she was able to develop roles such as Sesto (Giulio Cesare) and Radamisto.Tamara Gura (1)

It’s obvious that she adores Handel: ‘He’s a master teacher for singing because his writing is truly bel canto. He asks everything of his singers – long spun legato lines with the full deep sound of the mezzo voice, a round full middle register, easy access and flexibility to spring instantly into the high and low registers, as well as virtuosic and lightning- fast coloratura. It is a roller-coaster of feelings – emotional depth, fireworks, sensuality, grief, fury…’ Though she is passionate about Handel, the versatile mezzo resists being pigeonholed. Her Polish-Italian ancestry has given her a breadth of cultural references that stand in her in good stead as an opera singer. Still based in Germany, she is adept at languages, speaking Italian, German and French fluently. She explains: ‘I’m like a sponge with languages and also with learning in general.

I feed off the energy and people around me and from what I can learn from each new situation. It stimulates me to develop constantly as an artist and as a communicator.’ The need to communicate is an important driving force in Gura’s life, and she cites quite different types of singers as her influences. At one end of the spectrum is Nina Simone: ‘She connected so deeply when she sang and invited you to listen from a quiet and powerful place. I often listen to her during my warm-up for inspiration.’ Then there’s Pavarotti: ‘He dared to open himself up so much when he sang. The sound is so free, organic and unique.’ She also relished working with Brigitte Fassbaender on La Cenerentola at the Cuvilliés Theater in Munich last year, precisely because she found the great mezzo-turned-director ‘a wonderful communicator’. Having been entranced by Carmen when she was first introduced to opera as a teenager, Gura has just sung the role for the first time, in Darmstadt, where rave reviews highlighted her vocal maturity, dark timbre and beautiful tone.Tamara Gura (2)

They also honed in on her dramatic flair and immense physicality. She keeps fit as part of the job, having always danced (including tap dancing at a competitive level), and practices yoga regularly as well as working on posture as in the course of her everyday life. ‘As performers, we must have complete awareness of our bodies,’ she says. ‘A free voice that sings on the breath and not on the muscle is a powerful, beautiful and authentic vehicle for expression.’ Gura’s dedication to her singing career is paying off. This summer she makes her role debut as Olga in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin with Dorset Opera. Then comes Carmen again, plus more Handel, a composer she’d like to keep returning to throughout her career. Coloratura roles are a particular favourite for the ‘flexibility and joy’ they bring; hence L’italiana in Algeri in Weimar next season, Adalgisa in Norma the following.

Tamara Gura (Angelina)
Tamara Gura (Angelina)

She would love to sing Bellini’s Romeo as well as Strauss’s Octavian and Composer. ‘Opera reaches deep into my emotional capacities,’ she says. ‘I love the challenge – it’s constantly full of new discoveries. You have to follow the footprints that the composer and librettist left with an open and creative spirit. The exciting part is that you never know where it will lead you. It is like a great treasure hunt!’