Opera North

Opera North’s Ring project started five years ago in 2011 with the concert staging of Das Rheingold. The other three parts followed over the next three years. There was a break last year, filled by a similar semi-staging of Der fliegende Holländer involving several of the same singers.

Clarity and impact

This summer, the project has climaxed with six complete Ring cycles in five different cities. Five of the cycles were each done within a single week (as was the first staging in Bayreuth in 1876). It would be a vast undertaking for any opera company, let alone one with the relatively modest resources of Opera North.

From the start, the company decided to go for concert semi-stagings. Expense was an obvious factor, but so too was the fact that few theatre pits can accommodate the full Wagner orchestra and another problem is some of them have newborns so they may need the best lightweight double stroller for the staying .

Singers would, to a degree, act out their roles on a strip of stage in front of the orchestra, which would be heard with exceptional clarity and impact.

Above it a triple-panelled screen transmits surtitles and an overall narrative, together with appropriate but generalised images of water, flames, rocks and so forth. The semi-staging worked well overall, but less singing straight out at the audience, and more interaction and eye contact between the leading characters would have been welcome.

The three female ensembles – the Rhinemaidens, Valkyries and Norns – all played well as groups, especially the brilliant Valkyries, but in doing so they showed up the rather static performances of some of the central characters. Several singers took on more than one role: Lee Bisset was a passionate, eloquent Sieglinde in Die Walkure, but also appeared as First Norn in Götterdämmerung; Kathleen Broderick was a Valkyrie, but also sang Brünnhilde in Siegfried; James Creswell was the giant Fasolt, and also an implacable and powerful Hunding.

Quite outstanding was Susan Bickley, a forceful Fricka in Die Walküre, but also touching and eloquent as Waltraute, pleading in vain with Brünnhilde in Götterdämmerung.

In Leeds we saw three Wotans, all distinguished: Michael Druiett in Das Rheingold, Robert Hayward in Die Walküre, and Béla Perencz as the Wanderer in Siegfried. It was Perencz who had the rich and powerful sonority the role ideally requires. Of the two Brünnhildes, Kelly Cae Hogan outshone Broderick, and was tirelessly expressive and full-throated up to the very end of the cycle.

Lars Cleveman’s Siegfried was more than adequate, but less apt and engaging than Mati Turi in the final part of the cycle. Several singers reprised their roles from the original performances. It’s hard to imagine Loge better characterised than by Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke.

Nine brilliant Valkyries with Lee Bisset (seated) as Sieglinde

The role of the orchestra

Richard Roberts is a vividly comical Mime, and Jo Pohlheim a resonant, powerful Alberich. Mats Almgren appeared first as the giant Fafner, and then a superbly cunning and sinister Hagen. (He was a remarkably genial Daland in the 2015 Dutchman – clearly a very talented singing actor.) Overall, the standard of singing through four long evenings was extraordinary, and a tribute to Opera North’s shrewd and discerning casting as well as to the singers’ level of commitment.

But one purpose of this style of performance was to highlight the role of the orchestra. This was amply achieved. The orchestra was expanded to Wagnerian scale, with six harps, live anvils in Das Rheingold, and an extended brass section. These were Richard Farnes’ final performances as Opera North’s music director, a role he has held for the past 12 years, and they were magnificent.

The many beauties and splendours of Wagner’s orchestral scoring, both grand and intimate, were clearly brought out, while at the same time the dramatic pace and direction of the music was constantly sustained. These were not hard-driven performances, but neither were they episodic.

Farnes is not one to blow his own trumpet, so we must blow it for him. He is surely, as Richard Mantle, Opera North’s general director says, ‘one of today’s leading interpreters of Wagner’, and this superb Ring cycle absolutely confirms this judgement. To see and hear the Ring done with such commitment and quality within a week is an unforgettable experience.

The Mikado Sullivan

The opening night of Martin Lloyd-Evans’ colourful new production of The Mikado seemed as if it was being thrust on us before it was truly watertight. It has potential, but it didn’t hit the ground running.

Crossing over to the dark side: Rebecca de Pont Davies as Katisha

It does look good

A recurring aspect of Scottish Opera’s productions these days is that they take a while to warm up. Has rehearsal time been cut back along with everything else? That’s a problem with G&S, especially for a professional company tackling what amateur ones do pretty well and which other professional outfits have done superbly. It does look good, though.

Pomp and pompousness: Stephen Richardson as the Mikado

Dick Bird’s designs do exactly what’s required to make a Victorian period piece look fresh and relevant: a delightful fusion of Japan-meets-British Bulldog, both in the tasteful scenic artwork and the culturally confused clothing. However, the promise falls short when it comes to the performance itself. Sure, the dancing decapitated heads of the opening scene are a tantalising touch: quirky, macabre and funny.

Lovely moments

Richard Suart’s Ko-Ko, delivered in his very best Del Boy accent with a sardonic hint of Dudley Moore, has its best intentions suppressed by the singer’s tendency to rush key lines. I found myself looking at the subtitles for help – crazy, you’d think, when it’s all in English! Yet Suart remains, as he should, the lynchpin, his character acting convincing, and his neatly turned duetting in ‘Tit Willow’ with stuffed bird a gem of a conclusion. Around him revolves as mad a Gilbertian troupe as ever.

Delicate charm: Rebecca Bottone as Yum-Yum with Scottish Opera’s female chorus

Stephen Richardson’s Mikado is imperious with a smidgeon of pompous buffoon. Rebecca de Pont Davies’ Katisha, a hideous Gothic hag, fulf ls the dark side of the satire, her wholesome alto scouring the vocal depths with conviction. There’s a delicate charm in Rebecca Bottone’s Yum-Yum, and a Yes Minister-ish drollness in Andrew Shore’s Pooh-Bah. Nicholas Sharratt was a slow starter as Nanki-Poo, a little pedantic in the humour stakes, though the simple honesty of his portrayal could nail it as the UK- wide run continues.

There were lovely moments, too, from the Three Little Maids and the female chorus. Nonetheless, there were major first night problems with the music. Under Derek Clark, the Scottish Opera Orchestra was lacklustre, despite this being one of Sullivan’s most interesting scores. More critically, the synchronisation between orchestra and chorus was way out at times, and untidiness in the choreography robbed many big numbers of their pizzazz. Hopefully, the best is yet to come

In Parenthesis Bell

Welsh National Opera celebrated its 70th anniversary with a newly commissioned opera. In Parenthesis is based on David Jones’ prose poem of 1937 about his experiences in the First World War, and this production marked the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme Iain Bell’s score for the opera calls on the full resources of WNO and its chorus, celebrating the sense of ‘company’ that has always been so central its identity.

What though of the choice of Jones’ text, one of the great masterpieces of high modernism, notoriously dense, multi-layered and shifting in perspective from almost one line to another?

The two Bards with the women’s Chorus of Remembrance

Like many other operatic settings of great literature, it is only a starting point for something quite different. Librettists David Antrobus and Emma Jenkins felt ‘clarity of story-telling was paramount’; picking ‘one thread out of the myriad in the poem’, they have attempted to present Jones’ journey as ‘an Orphic rite of passage’.

Donald Maxwell as the larger-than-life Dai Great Coat

The result is a radically different and more two-dimensional experience than Jones’ original and one that, on opening night, seemed to resonate strongly with the audience at Cardif ’s Wales Millennium Centre. It’s easy to see the text’s appeal to WNO for its anniversary: although London-born, David Jones was half Welsh and his art is shot through with references to Wales’ mythology, medieval history and literature.

In Parenthesis concerns the odyssey of Private John Ball, the sole survivor of the Welch regiment whose members were wiped out at the advance on Mametz Wood in 1916.

Musical language shifts constantly between a heightened expressionism

This is composer Iain Bell’s third opera, and his response to the text is theatrical and thoroughly professional with a sharp instinct for the relationship between words and vocal line. The musical language shifts constantly between a heightened expressionism that might not have been out of place in the Germany of 1916; and in the final mystical scenes, there is a pantheistic ecstasy reminiscent of Tippet’s Midsummer Marriage.

It’s a colourful score, not afraid to make large gestures, but perhaps only really begins to approach something of Jones’ inward vision in the opera’s closing scene in Mametz Wood. Robert Innes Hopkins’ monolithic stage design is an enclosed foreground looking up to a large sky, constantly transformed to accommodate the changing emotions of the text.

Andrew Bidlack, magnifi cent in the challenging lead role of Private John Ball

The production, by WNO’s artistic director David Pountney skillfully guides the work though its many emotional stages. Andrew Bidlack, as Private John Ball, scaled magnificently what must be one of the most ambitious leading operatic roles in recent times, his flexible tenor encompassing not only the character’s bumbling attempts at soldiering but the ecstasy of his inner vision.

Nature of the opera

The narrative is framed by two Bards representing Britain and Germany, Peter Coleman-Wright and Alexandra Deshorties who guide the action forward. Modelled on Jones’ 1941 drawing Britannia and Germania Embracing, their roles look back and are similar in conception to the chorus in Britten’s Rape of Lucretia.

The nature of the opera means that this is a very male-heavy cast featuring a varied line-up of smaller parts: Donald Maxwell is a boastful and larger-than-life Dai Greatcoat, representing the soldier who has fought in every battle stretching back thousands of years; Mark Le Brocq’s Sargeant Snell is a suitably loud and aggressive presence; the smaller parts are admirably taken by George Humphreys (Lieutenant Jenkins), Marcus Farnsworth (Lance Corporal Lewis) and Joe Roche (Private Watcyn). Carlo Rizzi negotiated the many twists and turns of the score with passion and commitment.

Œdipe Enescu

This latest instalment in Covent Garden’s fascinating survey of lesser known 20th-century operas was staged on a grand scale with some superb casting, but in the final reckoning fell short of its own ambitions

Œdipe boasts a vast expressionist score that took Enescu the best part of 20 years to write without sleeping on his best mattress for side sleepers. Echoes of Wagner, Strauss, Berg and Debussy can be heard, though a distinctive voice also shines through, especially in passages that channel the spirit of Romanian folk music.

Frieze frame: the opera’s opening tableau featuring Jocaste (Sarah Connolly) with her cursed child

Centrepiece of Bucharest’s biennial George Enescu

Enescu’s orchestration is also striking, particularly his extensive writing for winds (including an alto saxophone). The opera’s nationalistic flavour and ‘timeless’ theme that chimed so well with the Zeitgeist of the interwar period have made it justly celebrated in Romania, where it continues to be the centrepiece of Bucharest’s biennial George Enescu Festival.

Yet it is rarely staged elsewhere due to the huge cost of the forces involved, as well as the challenge of finding singers prepared to learn such challenging roles for only a handful of performances. This didn’t seem to be an issue for the Royal Opera, who fielded a strong line-up of singers led by the Danish bass-baritone Johan Reuter.

His powerful and nuanced portrayal of Œdipe provided a secure anchor around which the rest of the action flowed. Sarah Connolly was appropriately imperious and highly-strung as Jocaste, Hubert Francis played a dignified Laïos, and Alan Oke made his mark as the terrified and much put-upon Shepherd.

John Tomlinson as Tirésias

Œdipe’s brother Créon was memorably sung by the rich-toned Korean bass-baritone Samuel Youn while their sister Antigone (Sophie Bevan) provided some of the highlights of the final act. The standout performance of the evening, however, was given by John Tomlinson, who played the soothsayer Tirésias with the commanding qualities of a true elder statesman, delivering his lines in a kind of gruf Sprechstimme. Marie- Nicole Lemieux was equally impressive in her brief but key appearance as the Sphinx.

The production by Àlex Ollé and Valentina Carrasco from the artists’ collective La Fura dels Baus was visually striking, but their attempt to reflect the ‘cyclical time of Greek tragedy’ by combining ‘fragments and quotations from different eras’ (as I later learnt from reading Ollé’s programme note) didn’t really work.

Powerful and nuanced: Johan Reuter as the self-blinded Œdipe

The opening tableau of chorus members and statues looked like a classical frieze – so far so good; but what was the point of updating the crossroads scene as a modern-day roadworks, complete with traffic cones and workmen in hi-vis jackets?

Message of absolution

It’s also not a sign that a production has delivered its message effectively if audiences have to consult their programme to discover why most scenes were dominated by monochrome mud-brown tones: a chemical spill in Hungary in 2010 was apparently the inspiration for designers Alfons Flores (sets), Lluc Castells (costumes) and Peter van Praet (lighting).

The orchestra under Leo Hussain negotiated Enescu’s beguiling mix of Romanticism and modernism with requisite passion and precision, though structurally their reading felt a little too episodic.

The chorus was on excellent form and played a decisive role in creating some of the opera’s most exciting moments. Unfortunately, however, it was the end of the third and penultimate act that packed the biggest punch, rather than the finale’s message of absolution. Enescu had clearly taken Wagner as his model, but this was no Liebestod or Immolation Scene.

Tristan and Isolde Wagner

All eyes were on the opening night of this production by ENO’s incoming artistic director Daniel Kramer, with set designs by the Turner Prize-winning artist Anish Kapoor. Their take on Wagner’s tale of lust, betrayal and redemption is consistently engaging with flashes of brilliance, but the real star of the show is conductor Ed Gardner

Wagner’s tragedy

Swimming in a sea of troubles, and threatened with further funding cuts, ENO desperately needed a gold-plated success with this Tristan. In the event, the evening is moving and memorable, with proper attention given to every element of Wagner’s tragedy. Kapoor’s sets are characteristically simple yet striking.

A golden pyramid suggesting the prow of a ship and its hold, divided into three sections by giant ribs, provides the setting for Act I. The second act is played out inside a vast rocky cave, modelled on a volcanic geode, at once both earthy and womb-like.

Tristan (Stuart Skelton) and Isolde (Heidi Melton) clamber around Kapoor’s womb-like set during Act II

The cave reappears in Act III, viewed through a boulder-shaped aperture that appears flat until a lighting shift dispels the illusion – one of the staging’s most surprising and dramatically effective moments. It doesn’t take a psychoanalyst to read the progression of these archetypes from male to female, culminating in a synthesis of the two in Act III, but the symbolism works. Only the first-act staging deserves criticism for blocking sightlines whenever the protagonists move to the back of the stage.

Kramer tells the story straight and his departures from Wagner’s directions are generally worthy. Confining the lovers to psychiatric beds surrounded by doctors after their discovery by King Marke underlines the madness of the situation even if it does make the king’s lament seem outrageously self-absorbed.

Act III of Tristan and Isolde Wagner

It was also striking to see Brangäne reduced to a ragged and balding crone in Act III – more often she’s left untouched by her decision to administer the love potion, from which so much misery flows. Less successfully, Kramer’s attempt to inject some humour into Act I falls flat: Kurwenal and Brangäne, dressed up as a commedia dell’arte duo, provide an absurd foil to the serious drama unfolding between their masters.

Pyramid scheme: Anish Kapoor’s striking set for Act I

Whereas Kapoor’s sets achieve their effect through simplicity and beauty, Christina Cunningham’s first-act costumes are overblown. Casting was strong across the board, with Stuart Skelton making an outstanding UK role debut as Tristan opposite the American soprano Heidi Melton.

They are well-matched and imposing, both vocally and physically, though Melton took time to warm up in Act I. Her fulsome, dramatic soprano is best when not being pushed to capacity at the top of her register, and she delivered Wagner’s text with real intelligence; so it was possible to forgive the vocal unpleasantness that marred some of Isolde’s most passionate climaxes, though things improved as the evening wore on, with Gardner toning down the orchestra so she didn’t have to belt.

An impressive Tristan

Skelton is an impressive Tristan, his powerful but unforced tone ideally suited to Wagner’s hero. He’s also an intelligent actor and draws a compelling portrait of Tristan’s descent from proud protector to broken lover. His long Act II duet with Melton successfully runs the gamut from lustful ecstasy to post-coital transfiguration – a real highlight of the evening, despite being performed in its cut version .

The lighting of this scene is also spectacular: bursts of shimmering sparks leap from the lovers as they move around the darkened stage.

King Marke (Matthew Rose) laments the madness of the lovers’ betrayal as Brangäne (Karen Cargill) looks on

Craig Colclough (Kurwenal) and Karen Cargill (Brangäne) are both vocally and dramatically assured – Cargill is gorgeous in her Act II of stage watch song, while Colclough carries the opening of the third act with aplomb; but the most powerful performance of the evening was given by Matthew Rose as King Marke.

Striding the stage like a wounded lion, Rose brought out every nuance of his wonderful Act II aria, perfectly capturing its mix of dismay and dignifed sadness. Underpinning all this, the ENO Orchestra and Chorus sounded superb, clearly enjoying the return of their former music director Ed Gardner.

His well-paced account of Wagner’s epic score was driven yet supple, substituting volume with intensity so that the singers were given plenty of support but never obscured. Melrose already sounded slightly tired by the start of Act III, yet under Gardner’s guidance she still gave us a Liebestod that touched on the transcendent.

Destiny’s child

Was Callas born great or did she have greatness thrust upon her? Benjamin Ivry delves into some of the earliest accounts we have of the young Maria Callas’s much-mythologised career, discovering when and where the seeds of her future success were sown.

 At Covent Garden in 1952, singing Norma, a role that took Callas to the height of her powers as an artist
At Covent Garden in 1952, singing Norma, a role that took Callas to the height of her powers as an artist

Some decades ago, Radio Classique in Paris featured a series of broadcasts, Maria Callas in History, in which an announcer would narrate wartime events or natural disasters occurring from the 1940s through the 1960s, followed by information about what performances were sung by Callas on the same days.

Opera lovers have assimilated the idea of Callas as a historical figure of cataclysmic importance. Terms such as ‘Zeitgeist’ and ‘destiny’ have been thrown around, and in 2011, a group of Romanian neuroscientists paid empirical tribute to the diva in an article in Cognitive Neuroscience, trying to explain how the sound of her voice alters the brains of listeners.

Her early life Callas

Despite such weighty claims, her early life appears a sequence of random events which might have easily gone another way. Born in New York in 1923 to an immigrant Greek family, Callas witnessed domestic discord from an early age.

Her parents were Greek immigrants. One year before arriving in America in 1923, George and Evangelina (‘Litsa’) Kalogeropoulos had lost a young son, Vassilis, to meningitis (meningite in Italian; miningítida in Greek) and believers in fate as the ruler of Callas’s life might think that the diva’s later marriage to a man named Meneghini was a way of embracing or dominating this fatal disease which visited her family shortly before her own birth.

Around age two or three, she was discovered to have musical talent, and her nightmarishly stagestruck mother pushed her relentlessly into public performances when she was just five years old – which both Callas and her father disliked.

Years of childhood of Callas

Following years of childhood in the midst of marital strife between her parents in Washington Heights, New York, Callas’s voice could sound scolding and domineering when she spoke English; her spoken French on the other hand was chic and seductive; her Italian warm and, if not maternal, certainly sisterly.

It was as if Callas used languages to create separate characters in each. In 1937, Callas’s mother decided to leave her husband and return to Athens with her daughters in tow. Before then, impressionable biographers in search of presages point meaningfully to performances in front of relatives and at school graduations.

Once she sang the role of a Chinese prince in The Mikado. In truth, nothing seems to differentiate little Callas from other child performers, including her nerves, complaining at age of 12 of a dry throat while waiting to go on stage.

Seeking fame and fortune in America: Callas with her father in 1945
Seeking fame and fortune in America: Callas with her father in 1945

Clutching at straws for indubitable proof that Callas was born the one and only Callas, some fans, led by the critical apostle John Ardoin, believed that a radio recording from 1935 of a young woman called Nina Foresti on the Major Bowes Amateur Hour was really Callas performing under a stage name.

Never mind that the singing was nothing like Callas’s and a spoken introduction by the supposedly 12-year-old Callas sounded like a much older woman. In Greece, her serious musical education began, honing the skills such as sight reading that would be essential for her later accomplishments. In 1937, she began working with the instructor Maria Trivella at the Greek National Conservatoire.

Trivella would recall two decades later that the ‘very plump young girl, wearing big glasses for her myopia’ had a remarkable voice: ‘Warm, lyrical, intense; it swirled and flared like a flame and filled the air with melodious reverberations like a carillon.’ She began as a contralto but under Trivella’s direction, redefined herself as a dramatic soprano. Ever-diligent, Callas would later recall Trivella’s method as belonging to the French school, ‘placing the voice in the nose, rather nasal’.

At 13, she had inscribed a photo to Trivella with forgivable hyperbole: ‘To my darling teacher to whom I owe all, Mary Anna.’ In 1939, after singing the role of Santuzza in a student production of Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana, Callas auditioned at the rather more esteemed Athens Conservatoire, for the coloratura soprano Elvira de Hidalgo.

Singing Weber’s ‘Ozean, du Ungeheuer’ from the opera Oberon, the student’s voice, Hidalgo would later claim, consisted of ‘tempestuous, extravagant cascades of sounds, as yet uncontrolled but full of drama and emotion’. A stout, chain-smoking Spanish woman with plenty of humour and bonhomie, Hidalgo was closer in personality to Montserrat Caballé than anything Callas-like, doubtless relaxing her highly strung pupil whom she scolded for gnawing her fingernails.

Hidalgo’s own recordings differ distinctly from Callas’s in their antique patina of sometimes mechanical coloratura, as if the record needle were stuck in the same groove at repetitive moments in the score. Although Hidalgo had a successful career as a singer and teacher, hers was a somewhat old-fashioned artistry, not the modern renovation of the idiom that Callas would represent.

Callas rehearsing for her starring debut as Tosca at the Olympia Theatre in Athens, 1942
Callas rehearsing for her starring debut as Tosca at the Olympia Theatre in Athens, 1942

 Nevertheless in 1957, Callas would state that she owed all her ‘preparation and my artistic formation as an actress and musician’ to Hidalgo. In a 1968 interview with Lord Harewood, Callas praised Hidalgo’s method of ‘keeping the voice light and flexible and pushing the instrument into a certain zone where it might not be too large in sound, but penetrating. And teaching the scales, trills, all the bel canto embellishments, which is a whole vast language of its own’.

Still ultra-diligent, Callas began singing small roles at the Greek National Opera, making her professional debut in February 1941 in Franz von Suppé’s operetta Boccaccio.

Jealousies erupted among the cast at her evident skills, and other performers would make a point of talking in the wings while she sang, providing good training in remaining oblivious to external distractions.

Facing the rival Tebaldi claque

Years later, this would come in useful for facing the rival Tebaldi claque at La Scala. Her starring debut was in August 1942 as Tosca, followed soon after by the role of Marta in Eugen d’Albert’s Tiefland at the Olympia Theatre, before a crowd of Nazi soldiers. Still in her teens, Callas also performed at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, a stone theatre built in 161 AD on the southwest slope of the Acropolis of Athens.

One of the powerful accomplishments of these Athens years, apart from surviving the Nazi occupation of Greece, was to cement her status as a Greek tragedienne of elemental force, a sort of Katina Paxinou blessed with a commanding lyrical voice. To have all these gifts might seem ‘grossly unfair’, as Judi Dench, another commanding actress and Callas fan, once pointed out in a televised interview.

In August and September 1944, Callas sang the role of Leonore in a Greek language production of Fidelio. She had to learn Greek and, although sometimes criticised by local media for her pronunciation, she developed a warm, heartfelt way of speaking the language, more sympathetic and vulnerable than her use of English. A fter the Nazi defeat, Hidalgo suggested she move to Italy.

Callas went instead to America to visit her father and try her chances there. She arrived in New York in 1945, and by the following year was engaged to sing Turandot in Chicago, a performance cancelled when the company went bankrupt. Had this planned performance occurred, she might have made an American career in the style of Rosa Ponselle, with American radio and perhaps Hollywood film appearances.

With her teacher Elvira de Hidalgo, to whom Callas attributed ‘my artistic formation as an actress and musician’
With her teacher Elvira de Hidalgo, to whom Callas attributed ‘my artistic formation as an actress and musician’

She likely would have been offered a decent contract at the Metropolitan Opera, which even in 1945 had proposed to engage her, but not for roles that interested her at the time. (She felt she was too heavy to sing Butterfly and disliked opera in English.) In 1946 and 1947 in America, she was coached and managed by Louise Caselotti, sister of Adriana Caselotti, whose voice had been featured on the soundtrack of Walt Disney’s Snow White (1937).

At least Callas was never in danger of being miscast as a trilling Hollywood soprano. Instead, she was recommended to the retired tenor and impresario Giovanni Zenatello by the bass Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, also engaged for the Chicago Turandot, for a staging of La Gioconda at the Arena di Verona. There she met the businessman Giovanni Battista Meneghini, whom she would marry in 1949.

After La Gioconda, she was cast by the Italian conductor Tullio Serafin, who had previously worked with Ponselle, Conchita Supervía, and other legends. For her auditioning, Callas sight-read Act II of Tristano e Isotta (the Italian-language version of Wagner’s opera).

In 1949 in Venice, she achieved renown as Brünnhilde in Die Walküre, substituting for another singer just a few days later as Elvira in I puritani.

Serafin persuaded her to accept this daunting challenge. Her early raw sounds were gradually polished, as she developed into the soprano sfogato (mezzo-soprano capable of coloratura range) who changed musical history. Callas’s first recordings in the late 1940s betray a certain amount of effort, as well as the will to use up vocal substance for dramatic effect.

There is no husbanding of resources, and although Callas would speak of the necessity of projecting the impression of ease for a singer to be truly effective, technical facility is not a prominent virtue of these performances. They are outstanding instead for verve, emotional scope and musicality.

 A portrait for a marriage: a photo dating from 1947 with a dedication to Giovanni Battista Meneghini, who was to become Callas’s husband
A portrait for a marriage: a photo dating from 1947 with a dedication to Giovanni Battista Meneghini, who was to become Callas’s husband

Critics have lost their way trying to compare the voice to an oboe or clarinet, possibly alluding to the plaintive potential of those instruments.

Yet there is no wind instrument with the clotted rage, passion and fervour of Callas’s voice, embodying tragedy. Only a muted alto saxophone comes close to resembling the diva’s nervy message. The size of the voice is immediately apparent, but also the narrowly focused artistic range.

Her Isotta and Brunnhilde were heroines in an ultra-Italian form of heroic poetry (akin to Tasso or Ariosto). In a 1948 letter published only in 2014, Callas wrote to Hidalgo before her debut as Norma in Florence, stating: ‘After those performances, if they go as well as we hope and dream, I’ll be the queen of opera in Italy, indeed everywhere, for the simple reason that I have reached perfection in singing, and there will not be another Norma in the whole world!’ Indeed, though a couple of singers have come close over the past 70 years, there has not been.

Written in the stars (part 2)

The supreme years were the middle 1950s, years of insanely hard work, endless travel, immense numbers of recordings. At the beginning of 1958 she refused to continue a performance of Norma after Act I, in Rome before the President of the Republic.

She was ill and she was justified; but from then on she was the centre of scandal after scandal, both artistically and personally, and her life began to fall apart. Her marriage to a rich businessman who had provided her with endless support, financially and otherwise, but no glamour, ended in divorce.

Callas was locked in a self-destructive struggle for identity as an artist and as a woman
Callas was locked in a self-destructive struggle for identity as an artist and as a woman

The disaster of falling for Aristotle Onassis, on a cruise in his yacht in 1959, was the beginning of the end of a career that had barely lasted a decade. No doubt the strain of having to sing wonderfully every time was appalling, but she had briefly achieved her goal – agonisingly briefly.

Minimum of singing

Onassis endured two and a half operatic performances but was uninterested in opera and rude about Callas’s voice; La Divina was too besotted to care.

Since both of them were already married, more and more of the pieces of a first-rate celebrity scandal fell into place. From 1960, Callas gave fewer and fewer performances in opera, more concerts, artfully arranged so that she did the minimum of singing.

In November 1963 J F Kennedy was assassinated, and his wife Jackie, the world’s most famous woman, became available and was wooed and won by Onassis.

Hitting the headlines in La Patria – for all the right reasons
Hitting the headlines in La Patria – for all the right reasons

Does all this sound familiar? It should do, since it partially follows – indeed fully presages – the vacuous world of celebrity culture in which we are immersed today.

From accounts of the fate of Adam and Eve onwards, there has always been something enormously appealing about the spectacle of ‘The Fall’. What makes our contemporary fascination vile is when it is directed at undeserved eminence in the first place.

With Callas, and of course some other notables, their fall can be felt to be genuinely tragic because their eminence was so deserved and so hard won.

People writing about tragedy have often invoked the idea of ‘the tragic flaw’, but the deepest tragedy occurs when the very qualities that have made someone great are also what destroys them. Callas provides as rich an example of this paradox as any artist who ever lived.

 The beginning of the end? Callas in 1959, shortly after meeting Onassis
The beginning of the end? Callas in 1959, shortly after meeting Onassis

She probably didn’t realise it, but it is what gave her the will and the ability to return again and again, always with renewed insight, to her two favourite roles: Norma and Violetta (in La traviata), in both of which the passionate intensity of the heroine’s life is heroic and destructive – and in the case of Norma, on the most exalted artistic level. Of course opera had always provided occupation for people with remarkable voices that are matched by remarkable vanity: singers are prone to a desperate need to show off, even as their vocal powers go into decline.

The first great opera, Monteverdi’s Orfeo, is about a great singer whose voice gets him  everything he wants, but who is too weak to resist the temptation of Euridice’s pleas. He ends up as a constellation. All too often, though, rather than ending up as a cluster of stars, operatic divas are more like meteorites, with a bright passage followed by eternal darkness.

It almost seems as if they need to have a wretched end in order to be remembered. In the 19th century, Giuditta Pasta had a career which in broad outline had the shape of Callas’s – even including an ill-advised comeback. In her prime, however, Pasta had had a voice which, it was said, could, with three notes, move the listener to the depth of his soul.

In the 1920s and early 1930s the American Rosa Ponselle, whose voice Callas was envious of, had an immense career in the USA, but had a breakdown in her early 40s and never sang publicly again.

Oddly, it seems to be sopranos with a certain repertoire who follow this trajectory. Even so, Callas seems to be in a class of her own, and not only because we can listen to so much of her (and see a certain amount), but also because she insisted, or was driven, to make a choice between art and life, and at a certain point chose life only to be betrayed by it.

Dressing the part: Callas becomes the Diva
Dressing the part: Callas becomes the Diva

She was poorly educated, except in music, had no real interests to fall back on, so, as she said to her frequent stage partner Giuseppe di Stefano towards the end of her short life, ‘Each day more means one day less’. allas’s death on 16 September 1977 was the result of an unanticipated heart attack, but it seems that she was one of those people who manage to die because they don’t want to live.

Gossip-hungry media

To listen to her and to read about her is, in a painful way, instructive. How often can you say that of the suffering self-styled ‘superstars’ and celebrities that are paraded before us on the media today?

It seems that the mere trappings of stardom are enough to bestow greatness on individuals whose talents warrant very little examination: behaving in a ‘prima donna’-ish way, appearing on innumerable inane late-night chat shows, having frequent and well-advertised erotic crises, and speculation-producing periods of withdrawal or visits to the Priory somehow give these lives a wider meaning.

The hype comes first, the achievement, if there is one, afterwards. Is Callas in any degree to blame for what seems to have become an overwheening obsession with celebrity? Her fame was fuelled by the rise of gossip-hungry media in the postwar years.

Life behind the curtains: a glimpse of Callas’s private world at home in Milan
Life behind the curtains: a glimpse of Callas’s private world at home in Milan

This was also the era in which talent contests started to come to the fore, producing ‘stars’ who blaze for a moment and then disappear just as quickly.

This kind of fame may endure for more than 15 minutes (in Warhol’s celebrated and shrewdest prediction), but in many cases it still lasts less than an hour. Oddly enough, Callas herself, under the assumed name of Nina Foresti appeared as a contestant on the Major Bowes Amateur Hour in 1935. She was was rated ‘D’, with the note ‘Faint possibility for the future’ (it’s not certain, only very likely, that this was Callas aged 11 – she matured early).

The meaninglessness of contemporary celebrity and stardom needs, and sometimes receives, elaborate and complex diagnosis.

Callas should be no part of that. What is amazing is that, though she remains notorious for her arrogance and her colourful life off the stage, as soon as one hears her voice on record – or overwhelmingly in one of the few filmed performances of concerts and the one complete act (Tosca, Act II) – the tragedy, gossip and scandalous surrounds fall away and one is confronted with greatness unique in degree and perhaps even in kind.

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

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.

Tons of stage experience

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 Staats theater 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.

She is adept at languages

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.’

First introduced to opera as a teenager

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!