Darling readers, Friday is Maria Callas’s birthday. Since I will be on the road, the celebrations are staring early!
Maria Callas was born in New York, New York 88 years ago, on 2 December 1923.
The wee moppet shown in the photo grew up to be the disquieting Lucia, the ferocious Medea, the diaphanous Amina, the heartrending Violetta, and the sublime Norma who haunts our dreams even now, nearly half a century after her final performances in opera.
I wrote about the uncertainty surrounding her birthdate in my essay “Re-visioning Callas,” and also discussed some of the reasons why she remains a controversial figure.
But this week, in honor of her birthday, let’s sidestep the feuds and the minefields and toast Maria Callas with a glass or two of champagne. (Those of us who don’t imbibe can raise a coupe of Martinelli’s or rosewater.)
To my mind, the musical equivalent of champagne is Rossini, so a short Callas and Rossini playlist follows at the end of this post. I also include “Les feux d’artifice” from Rufus Wainwright’s opera Prima Donna, which is based in part on Callas’s life. I’ve written elsewhere about why I think that Prima Donna may paint a mawkish and misleading picture of Callas’s days in Paris. All the same, I think that it is a loving and beautiful tribute to her.
In Italian, we say cent’anni (“a hundred years”) for someone’s birthday, but this expression is redundant and inadequate in Callas’s case, because she is immortal. Mutatis mutandis, the final verses of Ovid’s Metamorphòses come to mind:
And now the work is done, that Jupiter’s anger, fire or sword cannot erase, nor the gnawing tooth of time. Let that day, that has power only over my body, end, when it will, my uncertain span of years: yet the best part of me will be borne, immortal, beyond the distant stars. Wherever Rome’s influence extends, over the lands it has civilised, I will be spoken, on people’s lips: and, famous through all the ages, if there is truth in poet’s prophecies,—vivam—I shall live.
Rufus Wainwright, “Les feux d’artifice t’appellent”