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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.