My essay “Re-visioning Callas,” published in (the now-defunct) USItalia, won a Front Page Award from the Newswomen’s Club of New York, and represents the germ of my project.
Here is the judges’ citation: “Maria Callas died in 1977 at age 53, but her tempestuous legend lives on. This essay is written with the same extraordinary passion and fire that characterized the opera diva’s career. Offered up on the occasion of Callas’s 80th birthday, this article acknowledges but righteously dismisses the ‘petty, salacious lore’ of the woman’s private life and celebrates the performer’s extreme dedication to her art [and] her lasting gifts to music. Whether you agree or disagree, it’s a compelling, absorbing read from start to finish. Bravo!”
As many biographers have noted, Maria Callas’s very entry into this world is a matter of controversy. Some sources suggest she that was born on December 3; others say that she celebrated her birthday on December 2; and a few report that she favored December 4, the feast of Saint Barbara, a feisty young martyr and patroness of gunners. Not in dispute is that the New York-born soprano would have turned 80 this week, had death not taken her in 1977, when she was only 53. Predictably, her demise also continues to stir debate. Was it suicide, as her ex-husband Giovanni Battista Meneghini self-servingly maintained? Did she die addicted to barbiturates, as some have alleged, or from taking diet pills that dealt a fatal blow to her chronically weak heart? And why do we continue to ask such unseemly questions?
Beyond morbid curiosity, the answer touches on the types of stories we tell ourselves about Callas. They come in several varieties: Callas, the victim of her own overweening pride and ambition, who withered away and died when her voice gave out. The wicked, frivolous Callas, who threw away her career for the sake of the satyr-like Aristotle Onassis, then died of a broken heart when he married another woman. Finally, the Master Class/Sunset Boulevard variation, perhaps the current favorite: the diva as bitchy, pathetic queen, slavering over her former lover’s “big, thick, uncircumcised Greek dick” as time so ruthlessly passed her by. And what about Callas’s celebrated weight loss? Did she knowingly ingest a tapeworm? Subsist on espresso and diuretics? Surely some witchery was afoot!
Focussing on such dross is one of the many, insidious ways the largely male press has sought to trivialize the accomplishments of this disconcerting woman. Myself, I prefer a different set of stories. For me, the slimmed-down Callas is no mere fashion victim, but a woman who saw that biology wasn’t destiny and took action accordingly. I see the Callas who left her husband for Onassis as neither a trollop nor a “casta diva” who betrayed her art, but as a woman who had the courage to follow the imperatives of her heart even when they collided with the values by which she once lived. And her unruly, prematurely aged voice? Well, her career did last roughly thirty-five years (counting from her début, at age 15, in Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana), and few artists have adhered to as punishing a work ethic as Callas. As a girl, she was the first student to arrive at teacher Elvira de Hidalgo’s studio and the last to depart; and at the peak of her career, at La Scala, Callas, director Luchino Visconti, and conductor Leonard Bernstein put in twenty-hour days preparing Bellini’s La sonnambula. Such a level of activity may have been imprudent and unsustainable, but it was also the stuff of which surpassingly great art was made.
Among published work on Callas, the story that speaks most persuasively to me is Cristina Gastel Chiarelli’s Maria Callas (Marsilio). In contrast to nearly all other Callas biographers, Gastel Chiarelli knew the soprano well, over a period of many years. She tells movingly how she learned from Callas’s example: “My uncle, Luchino Visconti, held her up to me as a model of uncompromising hard work, force of will, tenacity, integrity, and character… A monstre sacre on stage, she was also a heroine capable of facing everyday problems with the same stubborn, indomitable spirit.” Gastel Chiarelli presents a Callas radically at odds with the unhinged virago familiar from other accounts: a woman who was sober, disciplined, and implacably honest with herself in life and art. Recalling the performer who made everything seem effortless on stage, she writes, “No one in the audience could imagine the fatigue, the tension, the overpowering emotions” that left Callas “with a profound emptiness” after her performances. “Everyone assumed that singing came very easily to her.”
Still, bookshelves groan with options for those who insist on more colorful treatments of Callas’s life. Pygmalion, Cinderella, Daedalus and his hybris brought low, Proteus and the ever-popular ugly-duckling-turned-swan: these are a few of the myths inevitably lurking just beneath the surface. Nicholas Gage’s Greek Fire (Knopf) all but accuses the soprano of infanticide, completing the Callas/Medea elision rampant in the tabloid press during her lifetime. (Gastel Chiarelli sums up this line of thought: “Callas-Medea… hated her mother, just as Medea was capable of killing her own children, her brother, and her rival for love of a mythical spouse, Jason-Success. For ambition she would commit any abomination, overturn the entire world.”) Iconoclasts, instead, can relish the gallantry of Michael Scott, who writes inMaria Meneghini Callas (Northeastern University Press) of the soprano’s sublimely beautiful Violetta in Verdi’s La traviata: “Up close, after a performance, all I could remember is how much acne and dandruff her Violetta had.”
No wonder Catherine Clément, in her magnificent screed Opera, or The Undoing of Women, rails against the “eulogist clowns” (“all men,” she notes) who began circling like vultures as soon as Callas died. How demeaning and impoverished their views of this great artist are! I propose that we reframe the issue: re-vision Callas, as it were, and focus on what really mattered to her. She was, after all, a proud and reserved woman, “brought up to believe that it was wrong to inflict one’s pain on others,” according to Gastel Chiarelli. Callas, she writes, “wished to be loved without invasions of her private life, though she spoke freely of herself when it could be useful to others. She detested pointless curiosity and was irritated by morbid affection and stupidity.”
How, then, can we fittingly remember Callas? We can recall the musician who re-shaped the operatic canon, revealing the musical and dramatic integrity of works (by Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, and others) once dismissed as mindless showpieces for canary-like singers. We can think of the artist who, in upholding the ideals of dramma per musica, drew to the opera house directors from the so-called “legitimate” theatre, crossly informing one such colleague who demurred, “I don’t want opera directors. I want directors.” Granted, there remain pockets of provincialism (New York, for example) where opera is seen as a concert in costume, an ingratiating timbre and loud high notes are mistaken for music making, and probing, high-minded productions are reserved for “respectable” (i.e. non-Italian) opera. Most everywhere else, though, Callas’s example continues to shape what audiences see and hear. This is true at the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro, where world-class scholarship, theatrical values, and musical prowess go hand in hand; in the best work of such singers as Juan Diego Flórez and Cecilia Bartoli; and at La Scala, where generations of artists (including Giorgio Strehler, Claudio Abbado, and Riccardo Muti) have tended the Italian operatic tradition with seriousness, love, and a spirit of discovery. Finally, we can remember the awkward little girl with a wayward voice who, through unsparing hard work, became an artist whose musicianship, glamour, and quest for dramatic truth transfix music lovers even now, some forty years after her last appearances in opera.
Some say that Callas was fated to die young, that her vanity would not allow her to outlive her beauty or the glory days of her career. Perhaps; but I can picture her as a grand, bejeweled dowager who would rage and thunder when she felt that opera was being ill treated. (She would also, I suspect, loathe much that I admire, including Robert Wilson stagings and come scrittoperformances.) In her last years, we know that she was a warm, supportive colleague to the students in her master classes and to such fellow artists as Sylvia Sass and Montserrat Caballé. And while most biographers cleave to the soap opera formula of a hermit-like Callas waiting for death in her Paris flat, those who knew her paint a different picture. Gastel Chiarelli notes the determination with which Callas fought glaucoma; and Stelios Galatopoulos, author of Maria Callas: Sacred Monster (Simon & Schuster), writes, “I saw more of this so-called recluse in the last two years of her life than I had in the previous ten years.”
For Callas’s eightieth birthday, then, let us set aside the petty, salacious lore churned out by those determined to make of Callas an image of their own sorry selves. And let us remember the artist who measured herself by standards that were less forgiving but vastly more enriching: “Music is so great that the more you learn, the more you realize how little you know. We are interpreters, not geniuses; we serve music.” Buon compleanno, Maria. E grazie infinite, Divina.