From the countless quotation opportunities that Maria Callas (1923-1977) enjoyed, her hunger for an honest and provocative interpretation is quite evident if not “stuck” in some wallow of overly analytical and emotional deconstruction. It would seem, often, that Callas both invited and defied any exploration of either her style or intent. Her colleagues quickly agree:
“I don’t think she always understood what she did or why she did it. She usually had a tremendous affect on audiences and on people. But it was not something she could always live with gracefully or happily.
I once said to her “It must be a very enviable thing to be Maria Callas.” And she said, “No, it’s a very terrible thing to be Maria Callas, because it’s a question of trying to understand something you can never really understand.” She couldn’t really explain what she did. It was all done by instinct. It was something embedded deep within her.
“I adored this lady, and I respected her work ethic. She always wanted to improve her understanding of a piece. ‘Casta Diva’, for instance, what interested me most was how she gave both the runs and the cadenzas words.”
“Maria Callas remains an icon with an instantly recognizable voice. But she was also the first opera singer to be equipped with the ingredients of international celebrity: charisma, glamour, wealth, she had it all, together with the touches of scandal and tragedy that made her story so compelling. Since her time, every female opera singer has been measured against this powerful role model.
“Callas modernized our metier. Her life was a tireless creative search. She was one of the first to recognize the importance of being an actress as well as a singer, and was uncompromising in her belief that, in order to achieve a complete dramatic performance, all aspects of the operatic genre require equal attention. She was a pioneer in restoring forgotten repertoire and in exploring new ways of musical interpretation. To this day, I find that many of her exemplary recordings are astounding.”
“Callas? She was pure electricity.”
“Callas studied the text, the meaning of the words, and as a result, she became a diva. She became the Great Callas. Because she studied the character, she entered the mind of the character, and she brought the character to life onstage.”
“Maria had in her blood, in her veins, in her subconscious all the tradition of the Greek Tragedy. She was born that way. In fact, she had her best time during 10 years. That was very short. But the “Myth of La Callas” will continue for ever, because she did so much! She was a magnetic force on stage, the others didn’t exist anymore. It’s a gift of Nature, a gift of God. It’s a talent, a great talent.”
“The magic of a Callas is a quality few artists have, something special, something different. There are many very good artists, but very few who have that sixth sense, the additional, the plus quality. It is something which lifts them from the ground: they become like semi-gods. She had it. Nureyev has it, [Laurence] Olivier.”
Naturally, Henry and I could volley and banter impressions of her style, intensity, and the academic follow-through of each role. But that would diminish her legacy a bit. As with a fine Montrachet, any attempt at appreciation need be a full grasp of the naturals well as the core of the music’s essence.
Henry’s words unfurl at the most thoughtful of paces. On the other hand, I tend to release any clutched response with hesitation and the steadiest of discern. And of course, I shall sit back, absorb, and then marvel at both Callas’ ease and strength. And at both her natural and effortless complexity.
Viva la Diva. Viva la Diva. It is indeed story time.
(Images: Renderings from Ms Callas’ rare and historic appearances in the mid-70’s: lavish costumes, for example.)