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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.