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.
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.
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.