La Divina – Maria Callas

When I started this blog, which was all but a week ago, I was afraid that I would make it Maria Callas central.  I have resisted for a week, but now I must address the woman whom I think was the greatest musician of the 20th century.  You will notice that I say that about a lot of people, but Callas was truly special.  She was a dramatic soprano (she started out singing Wagner) who could make her voice do anything.  That is not to say that it was easy for her.  I get the feeling that every time that she went out on the stage, she was wrestling with her voice to see who would win:  the voice or Callas.

Many, many people comment on the early signs of a wobble in the upper register, and if you listen, it is there.  I think that Callas pushed her voice, which eventually resulted in the wobble that she denied having and that most people heard.  I personally don’t care.  I think that wobble or no wobble, this woman was a supreme artist.  In “Depuis le jour” from Charpentier’s opera Louise, just listen for the way in which she sings the word “délicieusement”.  That word is the whole aria.

The second aria here is from Bellini’s La Somnabula.  It is called “Ah, non credea mirarti”.  Amina, the heroine, is sleepwalking as she sings this aria.  Listen to the way in which Callas makes you believe that she really is sleepwalking.  This role was created by Giuditta Pasta, a great 18th century soprano from whom we have no recordings.  These bel canto, or beautiful singing, operas were resurrected specifically for Callas because it was felt that she was the only one who could sing them.  They require enormous breath control and the ability to sing both coloratura and long, long musical lines.

Depuis le jour

Ah, non credea mirarti

Once again, I have run into copyright problems concerning the translation.  You can find an accurate one here:

Depuis le jour in English

Depuis le Jour

Depuis le jour où je me suis donnée,
toute fleurie semble ma destinée.
Je crois rêver sous un ciel de féerie,
l’âme encore grisée de ton premier baiser!
Quelle belle vie!
Mon rêve n’était pas un rêve!
Ah! je suis heureuse!
L’amour étend sur moi ses ailes!
Au jardin de mon coeur
chante une joie nouvelle!
Tout vibre,
tout se réjouit de mon triomphe!
Autour de moi tout est sourire,
lumiére et joie!
Et je tremble délicieusement
Au souvenir charmant
Du premier jour
D’amour!
Quelle belle vie!
Ah! je suis heureuse! trop heureuse…
Et je tremble délicieusement
Au souvenir charmant
Du premier jour
D’amour!

Ah, non credea in English
Ah,non credea mirarti
si presto estinto, o fiore;
assasti al par d’amore,
che un giorno sol(o) duro

Potria novel vigore
il pianto mio recarti
ma ravvivar l’amore
il pianto mio, ah no, non puo.

Ah, non giunge uman pensiero
al contento ond’io son piena:
a miei sensi io credo appena;
tu m’affida o mio tesor.

Ah, mi abbraccia, e sempre insieme
sempre uniti in una speme,
della terra, in cui viviamo
ci formiamo un ciel d’amor

 

A little Background

Maria Callas, (December 2, 1923 – September 16, 1977), was a Greek American soprano, and one of the most renowned and influential opera singers of the 20th century. Many critics praised her bel canto technique, wide-ranging voice and dramatic interpretations. Her repertoire ranged from classical opera seria to the bel canto operas of Donizetti, Bellini and Rossini and further, to the works of Verdi and Puccini; and, in her early career, to the music dramas of Wagner. Her musical and dramatic talents led to her being hailed as La Divina.

Born in New York City and raised by an overbearing mother, she received her musical education in Greece and established her career in Italy. Forced to deal with the exigencies of wartime poverty and with myopia that left her nearly blind onstage, she endured struggles and scandal over the course of her career. She turned herself from a heavy woman into a svelte and glamorous one after a mid-career weight loss, which could have indeed contributed to her vocal decline and the premature end of her career.

The press exulted in publicizing Callas’s temperamental behavior, her supposed rivalry with Renata Tebaldi and her love affair with Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis. Although her dramatic life and personal tragedies have often overshadowed Callas the artist in the popular press, her artistic achievements were such that Leonard Bernstein called her “the Bible of opera” and her influence so enduring that, in 2006, Opera News wrote of her: “Nearly thirty years after her death, she’s still the definition of the diva as artist—and still one of classical music’s best-selling vocalists.”

Early life

Family life, childhood and move to Greece

Around the age of three, Maria’s musical talent began to manifest itself, and after her mother, Evangelia, discovered that her youngest daughter also had a voice, she began pressing “Mary” to sing. Callas later recalled, “I was made to sing when I was only five, and I hated it.”  George, Maria’s father, was unhappy with his wife favoring their elder daughter, as well as the pressure put upon young Mary to sing and perform.  The marriage continued to deteriorate and in 1937 Evangelia decided to return to Athens with her two daughters (Maria and her elder sister “Jackie”)

Deteriorating relationship with her mother

Callas’s relationship with Evangelia continued to erode during the years in Greece, and in the prime of her career, it became a matter of great public interest, especially after a 1956 cover story in Time magazine which focused on this relationship and later, by Evangelia’s book My Daughter– Maria Callas. In public, Callas blamed the strained relationship with Evangelia on her unhappy childhood spent singing and working at her mother’s insistence, saying,

Education

In the summer of 1937, her mother visited Maria Trivella at the Greek National Conservatoire, asking her to take Mary, as she was then called, as a student for a modest fee. In 1957, Trivella recalled her impression of “Mary, a very plump young girl, wearing big glasses for her myopia”.

Trivella agreed to tutor Callas completely, waiving her tuition fees, but no sooner had Callas started her formal lessons and vocal exercises than Trivella began to feel that Callas was not a contralto, as she had been told, but a dramatic soprano. Subsequently, they began working on raising the tessitura of her voice and to lighten its timbre.  Trivella recalled Callas as:

A model student. Fanatical, uncompromising, dedicated to her studies heart and soul. Her progress was phenomenal. She studied five or six hours a day..Within six months, she was singing the most difficult arias in the international opera repertoire with the utmost musicality.

Early operatic career in Greece

After several appearances as a student, Callas began appearing in secondary roles at the Greek National Opera. De Hidalgo, her second teacher, was instrumental in securing roles for her, allowing Callas to earn a small salary, which helped Maria and her family get through the difficult war years.

After the liberation of Greece, de Hidalgo advised Callas to establish herself in Italy. Callas proceeded to give a series of concerts around Greece, and then, against her teacher’s advice, she returned to America to see her father and to further pursue her career. When she left Greece on September 14, 1945, two months short of her 22nd birthday, Callas had given 56 performances in seven operas and had appeared in around 20 recitals. Callas considered her Greek career as the foundation of her musical and dramatic upbringing, saying, “When I got to the big career, there were no surprises for me.”

Main operatic career

In 1946, Callas was engaged to re-open the opera house in Chicago as Turandot, but the company folded before opening. Basso Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, who also was to star in this opera, was aware that Tullio Serafin was looking for a dramatic soprano to cast as La Gioconda at the Arena di Verona. He later recalled the young Callas as being “amazing—so strong physically and spiritually; so certain of her future. I knew in a big outdoor theatre like Verona’s, this girl, with her courage and huge voice, would make a tremendous impact.” Subsequently he recommended Callas to retired tenor and impresario Giovanni Zenatello. During her audition, Zenatello became so excited that he jumped up and joined Callas in the act 4 duet. It was in this role that Callas made her Italian debut.

Upon her arrival in Verona, Callas met Giovanni Battista Meneghini, an older, wealthy industrialist, who began courting her. They married in 1949, and he assumed control of her career until 1959, when the marriage dissolved. It was Meneghini’s love and support that gave Callas the time needed to establish herself in Italy, and throughout the prime of her career, she went by the name of Maria Meneghini Callas.

I Puritani and path to Bel Canto

The great turning point in Callas’s career occurred in Venice in 1949.  She was engaged to sing the role of Brünnhilde in Die Walküre at la Fenice, when Margherita Carosio, who was engaged to sing Elvira in I Puritani in the same theatre, fell ill. Unable to find a replacement for Carosio, Serafin told Callas that she would be singing Elvira in six days; when Callas protested that she not only did not know the role, but also had three more Brünnhildes to sing, he told her “I guarantee that you can”.  Franco Zeffirelli recalled, “What she did in Venice was really incredible. You need to be familiar with opera to realize the enormity of her achievement.

As with I Puritani, Callas learned and performed Cherubini’s Medea, Giordano’s Andrea Chénier and Rossini’s Armida on a few days’ notice. Throughout her career, Callas displayed her vocal versatility in recitals that pitched dramatic soprano arias alongside coloratura pieces, including in a 1952 RAI recital in which she opened with Lady Macbeth’s “letter scene”, followed by the “Mad Scene” from Lucia di Lammermoor, then Abigaille’s treacherous recitative and aria from Nabucco, finishing with the “Bell Song” from Lakmé capped by a ringing high E.

Vocal decline

There are many theories and ideas as to what let to Callas’s vocal problems in later years.  After all, she was 53 when she died, and many sopranos have gone on to sing well into their 60s and 70s.

Was it the early heavy roles that led to a weakness in the diaphragm?  Was it the light roles that hurt her voice?  Was it too much use of chest voice?  Was it early onset menopause?  Was it the rapid weight loss (approximately 80 pounds) that led to a loss of physical strength and breath support?

No one knows, and there is a cottage industry in dissecting Callas’s perfomances, her timbre, the alignment of her registers, and finally what she produces as art.  In my opinion, all of the above things may have played a role, but what really did her in was Ari Onassis.

Aristotle Onassis

In 1957, while still married to husband Giovanni Battista Meneghini, Callas was introduced to Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis at a party given in her honor by Elsa Maxwell after a performance in Donizetti’s Anna Bolena. The affair that followed received much publicity in the popular press, and in November 1959, Callas left her husband.  It is possible that Onassis offered Callas a way out of a career that was made increasingly difficult by scandals and by diminishing vocal resources.  In 1966, Callas renounced her U.S. citizenship at the American Embassy in Paris, to facilitate the end of her marriage to Meneghini.  This was because after her renunciation, she was only a Greek citizen, and under Greek law a Greek could only legally marry in a Greek Orthodox church. As she had married in a Roman Catholic church, this divorced her in every country except Italy. The renunciation also helped her finances, as she no longer had to pay US taxes on her income. The relationship ended two years later in 1968, when Onassis left Callas in favor of Jacqueline Kennedy. However, the Onassis family’s private secretary, Kiki, writes in her memoir that even while Aristotle was with Jackie, he frequently met with Maria in Paris, where they resumed what had now become a clandestine affair.

Callas spent her last years living largely in isolation in Paris and died of a heart attack at age 53 on September 16, 1977.