I am reading Wayne Koestenbaum’s latest book, Humiliation. While I’m not so taken with it as I was with The Queen’s Throat, Jackie Under My Skin, or his Warhol monograph, I find it an absorbing and challenging read.
Early on, Koestenbaum offers a series of “fugues” on the subject of humiliation.
Humiliation, a topsy-turvy regime, involves a reversal: from top to bottom, from high to low, from exalted to degraded, from secure to insecure. The reversal happens quickly. Someone must be there to watch it happen, and to carry the news elsewhere.
The passage made me think of one of the most famous, or infamous, moments of Maria Callas’s career: the (first) interpolated E-flat in alt in the Aida Act II finale, sung in Mexico City in 1950.
John Ardoin writes that the manager of the Mexico City season possessed a nineteenth-century score of Aida showing that a soprano of the day had included the interpolated note and asked Callas to do the same. She at first demurred but then decided to sing the note, at her colleagues’ request, in order to humiliate the tenor Kurt Baum, who had been holding on to high notes to the annoyance of all.
And so she did.
And so I wonder: Who is humiliated here? At the time, Baum certainly seemed to be: he was furious and swore never again to sing with Callas (a promise he failed to keep). Or was Callas, the apparent humiliator, herself swept up in humiliation’s undertow, its topsy-turvy reversals? Walter Legge famously wrote of Callas that she was “vengeful, vindictive, malicious.” Legge offered no evidence to back up his claim, but maybe this E-flat, which rings on even now, more than sixty years after the fact, which once heard can never be forgotten, was all the corroboration that he needed.
(If pressed, I would vote for Verdi being the humiliated party, his beautiful opera reduced to a forum for gladiatorial antics.)
The note is strained and ugly, and I listen to it without pleasure, unconcerned with the truant Baum but humiliated, sixty years after the fact, on Callas’s behalf.