Callas at La Scala: Revealing the Myth’s Voice

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:

John Ardoin:
“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.

Martina Arroya:
“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.”

Cecilia Bartoli:
“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.”

Leonard Bernstein:
“Callas? She was pure electricity.”

Carlo Berganzi:
“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.”

Leyla Gencer;
“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.”

Franco Zeffirelli:
“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.)

Check In, Check Out: Check, Please!

Twenty years ago or thereabouts, the anti-Christ and I had taken the Metroliner to New York for a weekend of reckless shopping, indulgent dining, and the obligatory theater-going. Our train was late so, upon checking into the Algonquin Hotel (pre-restoration, I might add), we went directly to the Martin Beck Theater to see Tommy Tune’s musical wonderpiece, “Grand Hotel.”

The show was enthralling, with terrific and complex music, dazzling performances, and “over the top” and bold staging. I sat eagerly as David Carroll, Lilliane Montevecchi, Karen Akers, Jane Krakowski, and the under-appreciated Michael Jeter all hoofed, serenaded, and spun glorious magic. The show ended far too quickly. There we were, at 11:00PM, hungry and ready to journey ANYwhere as long as sustenance (at that point both victuals and cocktails) would be imminent.

We settled on Café Des Artistes, in my old neighborhood as it was reliably comfortable and creative, befitting its monicker. The anti-Christ and I not once talked, even to share our impressions of “Grand Hotel.” He was focused already on the eventual bill for the weekend’s escapades. I, however, was replaying Jeter’s show-stealing scene where he toasts friendship and dances a giddy Charleston. And reliving Krakowski’s poignancy, as well as her powerful voice, as an unwed and pregnant German secretary. (This was before her hilarious turn on “Ally McBeal” which ignited her fan base.) And savoring the moments with Miss Montevecchi as the aging ballerina, searching for a “last, stolen chance” to find romance.

Dinner came and went rather quickly. I was barely into my “encore” of Act I, when the check came. My five course “asparagus and mushroom” feast had yet to gain its just attention as I finally put down my fork.

We hailed a cab and, as the anti-Christ reached inside, I realized at once that I was not ready nor was I joining him.

I caught a separate taxi and headed to “Marie’s Crisis”, my old Grove Street haunt in the West Village. Quite the dive and a walk-down, BELOW one of the 729 Ray’s Pizza eateries in NYC! It was a rustic piano bar where usually only natives partook and one could occasionally meet a theateroso.

I met one such luminary that night, well, kinda-sorta. I spied Stephen Sondheim standing next to the piano, boisterously singing with his cronies. Naturally and star-struck, I positioned myself next to him when he, at once, leaned over and politely suggested that my smoking was inappropriate to such a moment. Yes, I was humiliated, horrified, but oddly flattered. Of course I cared, but not about him nor his pretenses.

But that brush-off meant I could focus on my true intent of that stop. I could continue my fantasy to reliving Mr. Tune’s Act II, and then commence my own final reviews of the event and its dazzle. That was such an evening that I needed it to last forever. My night was finally off to a “grand” beginning.

It ended when I finally returned to the hotel, and the anti-Christ with his apocalyptic mumblings.

(Note: I have no clue why the proprietors of Marie’s Crisis claim its status as a cafe as it only serves pretzels and garnishes.)

(Image: “Prissy” by Vicky Knowles, 2012.)

All’s Fair at the Fair (1938): Revisited (1964)


I was barely eight and it was my first “big” adventure, at least that I can recall. My parents had taken me to New York to marvel at the World’s Fair, just as their respective parents had taken them when they too were eight. Alas, my sister Polly had the misfortunate timing of birth and was not quite three. She spent that duration with my grandmother in DC and certainly remembers nothing of that time.

But I was fortunate. I had Hal and Margy all to myself for the long car trip from Chapel Hill, as they quizzed me in spelling and engaged me in story-telling, sing-alongs, and atypical road games. We arrived somewhere in the city late, late at night. Years later, I’d discover that it was closer to 9:00PM and we were, at that point, in Brooklyn.

We spent the next few nights with my Tante Lisl, who was a fabulously eccentric woman of near eighty. Lisl had a huge and elegant apartment overlooking a park … filled with antiques, memorabilia, and the most curious of curios. The room that I slept in housed her magnificent cuckoo collection, with clocks from all over Europe rather artfully positioned on the walls. Those chirping timepieces enthralled me, as my only prior reference had been those seen in cartoons. Never mind that they surely came in direct conflict with my parent’s objective that I sleep soundly in my bed.

Lisl fascinated me. She wore odd clothes, which years later I’d describe as rather Bohemian. She handily dominated a room which, mind you, is no easy feat whenever my father is in proximity. And she colorfully and vividly recounted many tales of her adventures of touring with Isadora Duncan. Lisl, it seems, had been a dancer, much to the dismay of her family. She was considered several notches past avant garde, even approaching scandalous. Both of my father’s parents had been born into families in the Mannheim/Heidelberg region of Southern Germany, families that were driven by both education and teaching. Tante Lisl, my grandfather’s aunt, had somehow found a different road which first took her to Paris and then all over the world, until she retired in the late 1920’s. She had spent the next thirty-some years, refining her eccentricities and enjoying the camaraderie of New York’s artistic community.

Lisl was simply unlike any adult woman-person I had met up that point in my short life. Although, admittedly, I have met very few since. She was capricious, totally engaging, and never restrained by family, as she never married.  In fact, a few days later, when Hal and Margy were readying me for my first day at the World’s Fair, I actually asked if I could stay back with my aunt. Of course, though, I knew at some level that I had no choice.

We toured the many exhibits, marveled at their grandeur and scale, and enjoyed exploring various cultures. But by mid-afternoon each day, my mind turned to Lisl and what the night might hold in store. One evening, she took the three of us to a Greek restaurant where my father became perhaps a little too curious about and observant of a certain belly dancer. On another, she invited several of her eclectic friends for a smörgåsbord of exotic victuals, reminiscences, and (for Hal and Margy) libations.

Later that week, we left New York to pursue the next leg of our pilgrimage: Toronto by way of Niagara Falls. That amazing, over-the-top, and seemingly endless natural wonder, however, still ranked behind my aunt!

By that point, my imagination and comprehension had both been saturated as our vacation settled into a rather typical sixties’ road trip. In fact, these many years later, I remember little else, except that I achingly missed my little sister and my buddies back home.

You see, I was the only child from my group of friends, and probably St Thomas More Elementary, who had ventured to New York — with all the sites, the few memories, and the precious and judiciously doled souvenirs. It took the passing of several summers before I had the epiphany that all children think their holidays are special. Such a truth is protected by several codicils in the Unabridged Parent’s Handbook.

And, more importantly, I was the only one with a Tante Lisl. Unfortunately, I never saw her again; she passed away just a few years later.

For many years, whenever I mentioned her name to my grandmother, she would roll her eyes and offer in familial disdain and in her still strong German accent: “that Lisl!”

(Image: “In Her Course” by Thomas Barbey.)

Longing for the Core

tumblr_lpkzrryfRc1qhttpto1_r1_1280It was the balmy summer of 1965 and my parents had taken me on some jaunt to New York, one that remained neither explained nor justified. After a week of a child’s awed gazes, I was enthralled by the city’s magnificence of scope and the sheer multitude of potential adventures. Faces and images constantly and rapidly interchanged.

Engaging my attention and imagination was effortless. We had strolled through the West village; exuberantly “lived out” a Broadway musical or two; and feasted at the most authentic of ethnic eateries or, perhaps more aptly, “most ethnic of authentic” ones! My fancies were constantly ripe, layered, and thus ready for harvest.

For a boy from Chapel Hill, the world suddenly became huge and marvelous and would never, ever read the same. And then, I overheard Margy and Hal arguing about the stark realities of life in such a city and at once realized we were interviewing for a new life … one beyond “A Wrinkle in Time”. Were we indeed contemplating a move to this yet-so-named “apple”?

It would be many years later that I finally understood my parents’ decision to return to North Carolina that Sunday night, neatly filing away the weekend under experience. My father declined the job and everyday life seemed to resume as I knew it on Ransom Street. I doubt we ever even reminisced about that particular trip to New York, even years later when we inadvertently retraced steps.

But I doubt, in this heart of a city mouse, that I ever really forgave him. For I had at once had found that city wondrous and oh how I longed to be one of its “children of the core!”
the following summer, we did, however, move to Greensboro. To a day-dreaming lad of ten, it offered little consolation.

 (Image: “Fish in the City” by Vladimir Kush.)


Feigning a Blush



I vaguely remember these poke bonnets, or a clever facsimile thereof, being popular on the 10th Street pier in the early eighties. That memory, however, could be blurred from some forgettable happy hour transgression that surely involved a tour of the then raging Christopher Street.  I stray somewhat as my thoughts are now turning to pollination, or at least that’s what the “buzz” is usually about around the salty planks and stained concrete of the wharf.

How inappropriate for a quiet Tuesday evening. Especially one on which the dark skies are at last clear and the intent is not. Beware of ignoble bumper-shoot handles, I always say. The cleverest of maids can maneuver them to their advantage and yet claim a modicum of innocence! At least midnight comes earlier these days, well conceptually perhaps.

And then, on the innocent, though primed side of midnight, all men are equal in the sighs of the Lord, and the size of the Boots & Saddles trough. “Hey, how about those Mets!”

Cocktails with the Anti-Christ


     DO NOT READ THIS if you are squeamish at the mere mention of raw oysters, excessive spending, or bodily functions!

It was the Saturday before what would become a “Lost But Never Found” Weekend ’90 The anti-Christ and I had gone to New York to recreate, catch a few shows, and perhaps enjoy a little shopping.

I should prepare you, Oh Non-Judgmental Reader. The anti-Christ (to whom I refer) was not the one who architects the Apocalypse. No, not at all! I’m reminiscing about the one … the shorter, bald one in N. Arlington, Virginia.

Earlier that day, we pre-arranged to meet at Five Oaks in the village for martinis and to compare the day’s notes. I at least was exhausted from scurrying from SoHo to Columbus Circle … in search of the perfect gifts for my employees. We each had two hefty libations: A.C. had rather twisted Beefeater martinis while I opted for equally twisted J&B RobRoys.

After we had both “eased our pain” and had forgotten the afternoon’s bedlam & frenzy, we hailed a taxi and headed straight to ManRay in Chelsea, which was my favorite local bistro (at that time!)

The maitre d’ navigated us carefully to our rather cozy table which was nested in a sea of VERY closely spaced tables. ManRay was seated at capacity so we resigned ourselves to the spot and took our seat. The folks around us all seem intimately placed. On either side of us were couples having romantic interludes. Behind George (oooops, I finally “slipped”, my friends!) were four women in holiday sweaters, a little too much mascara, and what looked like Long Island hairstyles circa 1987.

I imagined that they were four buddies who had saved their hard-earned money for their one holiday “girls’ night out” in Manhattan, but I could’ve easily been quite mistaken. I had no idea who was behind me except that I heard several voices overlapping in some heated discourse about BIG Bush (my pet name for George H.W. Bush).

We both had another cocktail while we perused the menu, except this time George ordered a triple gin martini UP. We were both excited because ManRay prepared a spectacular pasta, tossed with sauteed escargot and grilled artichoke bottoms in a brie cream sauce. For starters, we chose to share a dozen raw oysters on the half shell, followed by caesar salads, and then the pasta.

While the waiter collected our menus and the wine list, George “chugged” his entire martini and promptly ordered another one while I sat rather stupefied … anticipating some Albee-an drama to soon unfold.

At that point, George looked at me (with a difficulty in focusing) and informed me that perhaps he didn’t feel well, promptly regurgitating onto the floor to his left. I was horrified, as I am now in just recounting the evening! He stood up, against my protest, to scurry to the mens room. But alas, such tipsy feet never “scurry”; at best they falter & shuffle. He turned away, against my even further protest, and the evening thus plummeted into the annals of Tenth Avenue HELL:
George threw up right into the handbag of the one of the supposed Long Islanders! Her bag was unfortunately hanging on the post of her chair at the most inopportune time. Oddly, the quartet was so engaged in merriment that they didn’t notice, nor for that matter did any of the patrons. I sat him down, summoned the waiter, and quickly paid our check. My only thought was to get George out of there AT ANY COST as rapidly as possible. I reached for George’s wallet (of course, THIS dinner was on HIM!), giving the waiter his AMex card and pulling out two $100 bills.

The kind hostess helped me maneuver George back to the nearby hotel. I gave her one of the two bills and asked her to offer the other to the woman with the “tainted” pocket book. Thirty minutes later, I was strolling down Tenth Avenue contemplating the nightmarish events of earlier; George was sound asleep (read: passed out!). The “Stand By Me” near-renactment forced me out of denial as to what I had seen building for many, many moons.

I decided to go back to ManRay to effusively apologize, knowing that would be the last time I would ever be bold enough to enter the front door. The manager greeted me and, trust me, he was well aware of what transpired and the unfortunate chain of events that it prompted. (Yes, the four women were indeed from Long Island and they decided to take the train back home, without further pursuit of cheer.)

He offered me a glass of wine and we chatted rather superficially, when he suggested that I have dinner. After all, it WAS already paid for and they had never even prepared it.

Reluctantly, I agreed, but I was stunned by the man’s hospitality and compassion.

Upon my eventual departure, he welcomed me back anytime. However, he did warn me that it was perhaps best for all parties if George were banned … permanently without discussion “ad infinitem”!

On the brisk ten minute walk to the hotel, I realized my relationship with George had indeed entered into some interactive apocalypse, and thus his nickname of the “anti-Christ” was born.

The next morning, George asked me sheepishly if we had enjoyed dinner. I replied to the anti-Christ that I was certain he had NOT, but that ultimately I HAD.

I often wonder about the handbag woman from Long Island. I suspect she refers to George as the anti-Christ as well.

(Image by Simon Albane.)