So, Amy Winehouse. Did you know that, back in 2008, the Daily Mail claimed that she imitated Maria Callas’s appearance? “[Winehouse’s] retro look of thick brows, heavy black liquid eyeliner and rouge lips appear [sic] to be inspired by the soprano’s iconic style which is almost identical.”
I have no idea whether this is true, or whether the late Ms. Winehouse even knew of Maria Callas. Still, others saw similarities. In an interview with PlanetOut, Linda Ronstadt said:
If I believed in reincarnation, I would firmly believe that Amy Winehouse is the reincarnation of Maria Callas. Maria Callas is such the ‘grand lady,’ and Amy is such a guttersnipe, and they both are so demonically talented.
Linda Ronstadt, by the way, is a huge Callas fan: “She’s the greatest chick singer ever. I learn more about bluegrass singing, more about singing Mexican songs, more about singing rock-and-roll from listening to Maria Callas records than I ever would from listening to pop music for a month of Sundays.”
Anyway, I wanted to post about Amy Winehouse for two reasons: one, because I think that she was a brilliant vocalist (how it hurts to write that “was”); and two, because she apparently was bipolar but refused medication.
I know many people who romanticize mental illness—who refuse to take medication for their conditions because “it will take the edge off [their] art.” I would counter that dead people don’t make art, edgy or otherwise. I know that gossipmongers expect booze or drugs to have killed Amy Winehouse. Their assumption may prove to be correct—though I urge everyone to remember that bipolar disorder itself, untreated, makes sufferers dramatically more vulnerable to addiction and all kinds of self-destructive behavior.
Along with mental illness, premature death is often romanticized—Bellini! Chopin! Mozart! To which I say: Verdi. Michelangelo. Tony Bennett—who turns 85 years young in August and has done so much surpassingly beautiful work since overcoming his own troubles with substance abuse some thirty years ago.
In the end, I think that the parallels between Amy Winehouse and Maria Callas are no more than skin deep. The producer Walter Legge sometimes wrote unkind things about Maria Callas and was ever the self-serving pig, but I believe that he was fundamentally correct when he wrote that Callas’s artistic decline coincided with her separation from Meneghini: “Her life with him had been built on community of interests, mutual respect, Spartan domestic economy, rigorous self-discipline and hard work.”
Read that last bit again: “rigorous self-discipline and hard work.” Twenty-hour days spent rehearsing Sonnambula with Visconti and Bernstein; years of rigorous dieting to transform herself into a vision of elegance. That—not “genius,” not madness, and certainly not self-harm in its many lurid varieties—is what made her Maria Callas.
Yes, Callas died before her time and may have had her own problems with pills at the end. Nonetheless, nearly half a century after her last appearances in opera, we’re still taking about her, still listening with awe to her considerable recorded legacy, still marvelling at all that she achieved between 1947 and 1965. What has Amy Winehouse left us? Two CDs, a few dozen unreleased tracks, and sickness at a life and an immense talent squandered.
To all who idealize mental illness and its many victims, I say go to hell.