The medium at work in opera performance… is the carnal body, the Urmedium of the live speech act.
Anna Bolena, Donizetti’s 1830 masterpiece, is in the news. Maria Callas sang the final scene of Bolena in a Dallas concert in November 1957. The rehearsal was recorded, and it is one of the most compelling documents of her at work that we have. John Ardoin discusses the rehearsal in detail in The Callas Legacy.
Callas’s honor and professionalism as an artist are especially germane to considerations of Bolena:
You see, a musician is a musician. A singer is no different from an instrumentalist except that we have words. You don’t excuse things in a singer you would not dream of excusing in a violinist or pianist. There is no excuse for not having a trill, for not doing the acciaccatura, for not having good scales. Look at your scores! There are technical things written there to be performed, and they must be performed whether you like it or not.
Earlier posts: Maria Callas and Giulietta Simionato in Anna Bolena; Maria Callas in a studio recording of music from Bolena.
I believe that Maria Callas uttered these immortal words during a 1968 interview with John Ardoin, during which she recalled her supposed Rome “walkout” in 1958. (I love that parenthetical “I would not kill them.” Don’t we all have days like that?)
“Nobody can double Callas” is also part of Wayne Koestenbaum’s libretto for Michael Daugherty’s 1997 opera Jackie O. Today’s clip is from a 2008 Bologna production in which Callas is portrayed by the remarkable Nora Sourouzian.
Callas makes a calque on the Italian doppio or “understudy.” In Italian, doppiare also means “to dub,” and I’ve already written about Callas and dubbing.
From two sources (Screen International and the website of De Angelis Group) comes the news that Niki Caro is to direct an English-language biographical film about Maria Callas based on the “novel” by Alfonso Signorini, Troppo fiera, troppo fragile.
Apparently without irony, the De Angelis site identifies Signorini, the editor of the tabloid Chi, as a “profound connoisseur of local and international gossip (or gossips).”
Andrea Zoso of De Angelis states, “the source material provided by Mr. Signorini’s book is the most in-depth to date about the life of the controversial opera star.”
Does Mr. Zoso mean depths of idiocy? depths of shamelessness?
I wrote about the “novel” earlier.
The photo shows Maria Callas at the Milan premiere of Fellini’s La dolce vita in February 1960. According to Nicholas Gage, whose theory of a “secret son” Signorini more or less adopts as his own, Callas was in her seventh month of pregnancy when this photo was taken—at a time when adultery was a crime in Italy.
Maria had a way of even transforming her body for the exigencies of a role, which is a great triumph. In La traviata, everything would slope down; everything indicated sickness, fatigue, softness. Her arms would move as if they had no bones, like the great ballerinas. In Medea, everything was angular. She’d never make a soft gesture; even the walk she used was like a tiger’s walk.
Read more about Callas as Medea.
Regular readers of this blog know that I can be hard on purported Callas tributes. Thanks, though, to my mystic friend Hildegard von Bingen, I recently became aware of a unique and deeply moving musical homage to Maria Callas.
The musician is Armen Ra, a Hollywood-based thereminist who created a cycle of arias and visuals called METAL. The theremin is also known as the “ætherphone,” a term I particularly like because it combines the notion of voice (phone) with that of the æther, a rarefied substance once thought to permeate all space and to be a medium for the transmission of light and other subtle phenomena.
In the case of METAL, Armen Ra’s soulful playing and the ultra-slow-motion video of Maria Callas come to seem a kind of séance, one especially laden with pathos because, of course, Callas herself does not speak or sing to us. Instead, we hear in the theremin a kind of weird, otherworldly echo of her voice. The very mode of playing of the theremin is immaterial, which is especially disconcerting in a piece centered around Callas, whose body was and remains a cause of unease and scandal. And the imagery of Callas is mesmerizing, emphasizing (as Armen himself points out) her immense vulnerability, the kaleidoscopic array of emotions and pain that all of us who watch and listen to Callas can sometimes devour mindlessly, like popcorn in a darkened cinema.
If, as Catherine Clément has suggested, Pasolini and others who did not “force” Callas to sing somehow “set her free from her song,” then Armen Ra’s METAL is also an exquisite act of mercy, a serenade to Callas, who for once need not sing for her supper and our gratification. Instead, thanks to Armen and his playing, Callas basks in the beauty and compassion summoned by Bellini, Puccini, and other masters.
Armen kindly agreed to an e-mail interview for the readers of Re-visioning Callas.
Armen, please tell us a little about your musical background. How did you come to play the theremin?
I was born in Iran into a musical and literary family. My mother was a concert pianist and my aunt a very successful soprano. They were both educated at the Santa Cecilia Conservatory in Rome.
As a child, I was always at the opera with my aunt. Even when I was too young to attend performances, she would take me to rehearsals, and I spent a lot of time in that atmosphere. My father played the sax and listened to jazz and R&B and soul. Besides all that, there was Armenian and Persian music everywhere, so I was engulfed.
I became intrigued by the theremin after seeing footage of Clara Rockmore, who was the first virtuoso of the instrument in the 1930s. The sound of the theremin can be very human and operatic, and since I did not have a voice myself, this was appealing to me—as was the fact that it is played without being touched and deemed to be one of the most difficult instruments in the world. Although I was told that it would be impossible, I progressed quickly, so I decided to devote myself to mastering the instrument.
And Maria Callas? How did you become aware of her and what influence has she had on your own musical career?
My mother and aunt had seen her many times in Italy while they were students, and we had several of her recordings. At around the age of four, I discovered a cassette of her recording of Carmen, and it did not leave my hand or ears… I would listen to it and stare at her picture, captivated. I feel a strong connection to her, and she represents the epitome of fine art to me
Tell us about METAL, your cycle of five arias from Callas’s stage and recording repertoire. How did you get the idea to bring together Maria Callas and the theremin?
The name METAL refers to her strength and resilience and the metallic quality of her voice and electric energy. Callas was not only the voice. Her total dedication to music and character, plus her beauty and body language, make her extraordinary. Watching Callas is much more thrilling than only hearing her. I was always most moved by her expressions and emoting while she was not singing… You can see that she is one with the music and character.
I wanted to show that aspect of her. I was watching her Paris début again, and the many curtain calls. The way she bowed was a performance in itself, and that is how I was inspired to create METAL. I also wanted to show the delicate part of her which is apparent in these moments when she is not singing. In my eyes, she became the roles she played, and the life of Callas is an opera itself.
The theremin can sound like an operatic voice at times, and I play mostly opera and classical material. I jokingly call the theremin my “Callas machine.” That being said, I am not trying to “recreate” her voice or sound like her: that is impossible. I already played some arias that she sang, and I thought I would combine a theremin recital with a tribute to Callas. I chose the arias to loosely illustrate her life…
Which five arias did you choose, and why?
METAL begins with “Casta diva” from Norma, representing the magical inspiration and creation of Callas. Then “Vissi d’arte” from Tosca, stating her devotion to the craft. Then come “Sola, perduta, abbandonata,” from Manon Lescaut, which speaks for itself, and “Ebben, ne andrò lontana” from La Wally, as her farewell (I read that she used to sing that aria on the Christina, Onassis’s yacht). I end with “Un bel dì” from Madama Butterfly as the tragic end filled with false hope and destruction.
Who curated the visuals?
I created the video, using footage of her Paris début that inspired me, and manipulated the contrast and speed. The video also includes the texts of the arias that I am playing. The footage is only of her listening and bowing.
I’ve read about the notion of “sonic drag” in METAL. Can you elaborate on this a bit? (Callas seems to me intimately bound up with many different modes of drag: gender drag, of course, but also the drag that is inherent to opera generally and even class and nationality slipped into as “drag.”)
The term “sonic drag” was written by someone who reviewed the premiere… I suppose it is a modern term for transference… accomplished successfully, that’s how I see it. I’d prefer the term “successful sonic transference,” ha! The fact that I am a male who wears makeup and has done gender drag in the past brings this up. However, I don’t play the theremin in “drag”; my look is androgynous and sharp. For METAL I’m more toned down, because the focal point is the video and music. This is not a drag show.
Do you have plans to tour METAL in the future? Where can readers obtain more information about you and your appearances?
I would love to tour METAL and welcome offers. So far it has been presented at The New Museum in New York and in part at REDCAT at Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.
My first album, Armen Ra Plays the Theremin, includes classical Armenian pieces representing my heritage. The album is available on iTunes and Amazon.com and can be purchased through my website, which is regularly updated.
In September 1957, Maria Callas taped an interview in Milan with a Mr. Rodrini for broadcast in the United States. This clip includes about half of the interview, including her famous “Rivals I have not” pronouncement.
The interview came only days after Callas’s supposed Sonnambula cancellation at the Edinburgh Festival and around the time when she withdrew from half her scheduled performances at the San Francisco Opera; the company then fired her from the remaining dates. (One of the operas she was to have sung was Macbeth, which also figured in her “firing” from the Metropolitan Opera.)
Before Edinburgh, Callas had been diagnosed as suffering from “nervous exhaustion,” and she certainly sounds exhausted here—as well as defensive and massively narcissistic, egocentric, and self-important (like many artists). That said, was she wrong in saying that she had no rivals?
Between Edinburgh and the San Francisco to-do, After this interview was taped (but before the San Francisco to-do, I think), Callas attended a party given by Elsa Maxwell in Venice where she met Aristotle Onassis for the first time.
La Repubblica last week published an article about Biki, the Milanese designer who was associated with Maria Callas from her glory days at La Scala to the end of her life. Identità e memoria: l’eleganza, imprenditorialità is a publication (a book?) about Biki by International Inner Wheel of Milan, an organization linked to Rotary.
The article includes some whopping inaccuracies:
- It states that in 1953, “after only six months, Maria [lost] thirty kilos.” According to Meneghini, though, she lost sixty to seventy pounds over the course of nearly two years—a remarkable weight loss, but at a healthy and prudent rate. (Callas herself stated something similar.)
- One photo caption, showing Callas with Franco Rossellini (who produced the Medea film), suggests that she was “profoundly in love” with “the director [sic] Rossellini.” (The director Rossellini would be Franco’s uncle Roberto, no?) I have never read that she was in love with either Rossellini, have you?
- The article also implies that Visconti was behind Callas’s weight loss. Ma figuriamoci!
As always, I am astonished at the extremely casual relationship with truth of Italian journalism in general, and of writing about Callas in particular.
Well, truth be told, I’m not really that humble. Still, being described as “always gracious and utterly captivating” made me blush.
Let’s listen to a song from Du chant à la une!… by Serge Gainsbourg, my patron saint, just because, d’accord ?
Among Callas pirates, her 1959 television performance under Sir Malcolm Sargent is a relative rarity. For the program “Gala,” she sang “L’altra notte” from Boito’s Mefistofele and “Sì, mi chiamano Mimì” from Puccini’s La bohème.
The program was taped about one month after the news broke of Callas’s separation from her husband, Giovanni Battista Meneghini. During that time she had completed her second recording of Ponchielli’s La Gioconda, given concerts in Bilbão and London, and spent time on the Christina with Aristotle Onassis.
The London Bohème aria found Callas in radiant form. John Ardoin called her interpretation “disarming in its simplicity.” Listen carefully to how she uses musical “niceties”—neatly tapered phrases, portamenti both broad and subtle, accurately rendered rhythms—to create the impression of youth and shyness. (These are anything but niceties, of course, though one listens for them in vain in the performances of some of today’s celebrated Mimìs.)
I would rate this as one of the very finest renditions of this favorite aria. And you?