The grain of the voice is not indescribable (nothing is indescribable), but I don’t think that it can be defined scientifically, because it implies a certain erotic relationship between the voice and the listener. One can therefore describe the grain of a voice, but only through metaphors…
Hers is a tubular grain, hollow, with a resonance that is just a bit off-pitch (a voice can be in tune while its grain is out of tune); it’s a grain I don’t like.
— Roland Barthes, “The Phantoms of the Opera”
This performance of “Suicidio!” from Ponchielli’s La Gioconda dates from 1952; I urge you to compare it with the one from 1959, of which Callas was especially proud.
Georges Prêtre, who conducted many of Maria Callas’s recordings and operatic performances in the 1960s, turned 87 on 14 August.
Many years ago, I saw and heard him lead Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique” in Florence, and the show he gave on the podium rivalled the mayhem and theatrics of Berlioz’s music!
This clip shows him conducting the overture to Verdi’s La forza del destino at a concert honoring the tenth anniversary of Maria Callas’s death. The performance is unremarkable, I think, but the clip does show some footage of Maria Callas that I have never seen, including the evening of the premiere of Pasolini’s Medea.
The last Callas image shown, inevitably, is the picture of her at a Paris window. As I wrote in an earlier post, the picture does not show Callas at the end of her life, and it does not depict her at her apartment on Avenue Georges-Mandel. Instead, it was taken at the Ritz during the early 1960s, when (forgive me for quoting myself) “Callas was recording, concertizing, still active on the operatic stage, and hardly a victim of futility and despair.” (I think but am not certain that the shot was part of an Elle pictorial.)
I find it amazing just how badly people want to assume that Callas was miserable at the end of her life, to the point of perpetually misreading and misattributing this photo. (What’s more, my “Re-Visioning Callas” essay cites the testimony of friends who saw her as anything but despondent and adrift before she died.)
In the Orthodox Church, 15 August is Κοίμησις της Θεοτόκου, “The Dormition of the God-Bearer.” Maria Callas celebrated her name day on 15 August, so I offer you today music addressed to the Theotokos sung by Callas: “Madre, pietosa Vergine” from Verdi’s La forza del destino, which she recorded under Tullio Serafin in 1954.
“Χρόνια Πολλά” or “Many years” is the traditional name-day greeting in Greek.
From Callas at Juilliard: The Master Classes, ed. John Ardoin:
The aria should be light and always have a sense of motion. Watch carefully the acciaccature. Some are below the principal note and some are above; we must hear the difference… The phrase “m’enivre” up to A should open like a flower… “Comme un trésor” returns again as a scale, and it must be exactly in tempo…
What gossamer lightness Callas brings to this aria despite her vociaccia (“big, ugly voice”), as Renata Scotto put it—and how lumbering and earthbound acclaimed Juliettes of today sound by comparison!
Maria Callas recorded “Je veux vivre” under Georges Prêtre in April 1961.
Maria Callas’s 1958 Los Angeles concert offers much to admire. I posted the Vestale aria last year; today I offer you “L’altra notte in fondo al mare” from Boito’s Mefistofele.
Callas portrayed Margherita on stage three times in Verona in July 1954. She recorded “L’altra notte” under Serafin later that year, sang the aria in concert about a dozen times, and also taught it at Juilliard. At one point she was supposed to record Mefistofele for Cetra, though that never happened.
To me, the Los Angeles concert is especially interesting because it allows us to hear Callas’s voice “with air around it” and to get a sense of its size and bright edge. (Her EMI recordings are infamous for their close miking, which tends to flatten and dry out even the most sumptuous timbres.)
Some Callas admirers prefer this Los Angeles rendition of “L’altra notte” to her recording under Serafin. What do you think? In this case, I do prefer the EMI for its greater detail, though the Los Angeles recording is also wonderful. There’s also a 1959 London performance.
A kind reader contacted me regarding yesterday’s post and asked where I had heard Callas speak of burning dresses and costumes.
While I cannot embed the video, the particular exchange occurs about seven seconds into the second part of a 1964 interview with Bernard Gavoty (links at the end of this post). According to Frank Hamilton, the interview was recorded in June 1964 and broadcast in November of that same year, and most of the audio has been lost.
The interview covers much familiar ground, though Callas draws an odd distinction about the type of woman she is—“sur la scène de la vie, disons, ou sur la scène de théâtre ?”—one that offers much fodder for those of us interested in post-modern theories of identity! (This bit comes at about a minute and six seconds into the second clip.)
After she broke with her husband Giovanni Battista Meneghini, Maria Callas led a peripatetic existence with Aristotle Onassis. Paris, though, quickly became a center of her life. She moved there (first to Avenue Foch and eventually to Avenue Georges-Mandel), and it became her artistic base, too, for both recordings and her few remaining stage performances.
(Incidentally, I just listened to an interview in which Callas claimed to have burned much of her clothing and costumes before leaving Milan, showing just how serious she was about breaking with the past and establishing a new identity at that point of her life.)
Callas also began exploring the French repertoire in the early 1960s. During her “big” career, she had sung relatively infrequently in French: one “Depuis le jour” in 1954 and Ophélie’s mad scene just shy of twenty times in 1958–59. While she had sung music from French-language operas by Verdi, Meyerbeer, and others during that time, she had always opted for Italian translations. Her EMI French recitals and complete set of Carmen from 1961–64, then, represented a new–and, sadly, abortive–direction in her career.
This 1963 recording of “Il était un roi de Thulé” from Gounod’s Faust shows Callas’s eloquent and graceful way with French music and gives hints of what she might have accomplished as Berlioz’s Didon, Massenet’s Charlotte (which she supposedly considered recording and performing in the years before her death), Poulenc’s Elle and Madame Lidione, and similar parts.
This clip includes a portion of Maria Callas’s EMI recording of Beethoven’s “Ah! Perfido,” from 1963 and 1964. Her eloquent way with Beethoven’s music reminds us that she had portrayed Fidelio to great acclaim in Athens in 1944, and that Fidelio’s scene beginning “Abscheulicher!” had been a regular part of her concert and recital repertoire during her Greek years. Callas clearly was fond of this music: one of the very last recordings we have of her, reportedly from 1976, finds her singing “Ah! Perfido” in remarkably secure voice.
In truth, though, I chose this clip because of its visuals, which show us Callas at home in Milan, c. 1956, along with many other tidbits, including her Dallas news conference following her dismissal from the Metropolitan Opera; a bit of her L’invité du dimanche interview; the press conference following the so-called “Rome walkout”; a curtain call and backstage interview from the 1961 La Scala Medea; and the 1959 media scrum as she flies back to Italy to separate from Meneghini.
What strikes me throughout is how unbelievably arch she was off stage (well, does preening for the cameras in your gilded cage of a home count as “off stage”?), and how sweet and vulnerable she was on stage. That last still is astonishing, too, showing the chrysalis from which the butterfly would soon emerge.
Today’s recording is from 1965: “Ah, se una volta… Ah, non credea mirarti” from Bellini’s La sonnambula, with Georges Prêtre leading the Orchestre National de l’ORTF.
Callas taught this music during her Juilliard master classes, but this was apparently the last time that she ever sang it in public. While her tone here is sometimes fragile to the point of being evanescent, the performance is inward and utterly mesmerizing, showing that Callas could give of her best even at the end of her stage career.
That said, at the end of her stage career, when this was recorded, she was not yet 42: Ah, non credea, indeed.
Advertisement, “Jimi Hendrix Advises Maria Callas”
This is a 2006 ad by Ogilvy Frankfurt for the Dresdner Kleinwort investment bank. Other ads in the “unexpected advice” series included Marilyn Monroe advising Albert Einstein, and Mahatma Gandhi advising Muhammad Ali.
Still, Jimi Hendrix giving Maria Callas advice? Sorry, Ogilvy, I think you got it wrong. A child of the sixties, I love Jimi Hendrix as much as anyone does, but Maria Callas could have taught him a thing or two (or more) about rock ’n’ roll.
Re-vision—the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction—is for [women] more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival. —Adrienne Rich