Photo by Ken Veeder, courtesy of Warner.
Franco Zeffirelli’s new production of Puccini’s Tosca at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in January 1964 was the most hotly anticipated event in the calendar. Not only did the lavish production cost an eye-watering £32,000 but it also marked the return to the stage of the celebrated soprano and diva extraordinaire Maria Callas. After a glittering career in the 1950s when she had divided the critics and the public alike with her remarkable singing voice and mesmerising stage presence, there had been whisperings of her fading powers especially after she had taken up with the wealthy shipping magnate, Aristotle Onassis and all but disappeared from the stage. But Callas was coaxed out of her two year absence by the prospect of singing again in a new production with the renowned baritone Tito Gobbi for “mio caro public di London” in the role that for many defined her – Tosca.
Unsurprisingly, the six performances were hopelessly over-subscribed with 120,000 people clamouring for 12,000 seats and ticket touts reported a brisk trade. But she did not disappoint. True to form, Callas confounded her critics on the first night, receiving 27 curtain calls and a standing ovation lasting 40 minutes for a performance still described in hushed tones as one of most memorable ever seen. She returned the following year in July to reprise her role in a Royal Gala performance at Covent Garden for what would be her final operatic appearance.
Maria Callas was easily the finest dramatic soprano of her generation and one of the most recognisable and glamorous figures from an era when celebrities usually had talents. With her remarkable and distinctive singing voice, she breathed new life into bel canto opera and brought a fearsome dramatic intensity to the roles she played on stage. Seldom out of the limelight in her lifetime for her singing or her colourful behaviour, she left behind a remarkable legacy of recordings which have never been out of the catalogue.
Maria Callas was born on 2 December 1923 in New York to immigrant Greek parents. In 1937 she moved to Greece where she studied at the National Conservatory in Athens with the noted coloratura soprano Elvira de Hidalgo. Although she made her professional debut in a leading role playing Tosca in Athens in 1942, her career began in earnest in 1947 when she sang the title role in Ponchielli’s La Giaconda in Verona. There she met her future husband and manager, the Veronese businessman Giovanni Battista Meneghini, and her musical mentor, the great conductor Tullio Serafin. Her international breakthrough came in 1949 in Venice when Serafin shrewdly cast her at short notice as Elvira in Bellini’s I Puritani, a bel canto role which Callas triumphantly brought to life. She went on to score considerable success in the 1950s in Italian opera with many signature roles in Anna Bolena, Lucia di Lammermoor (Donizetti), La Traviata, Macbeth (Verdi), Norma (Bellini) and of course, Tosca.
As one of the most glamorous and photographed women of her day, stories of her temperamental behaviour were lapped up and inflated by the press. Soon the strains of her punishing schedule inevitably took their toll and when she sensationally left her husband for Onassis in 1959, she also drastically cut back on her appearances. When she separated from Onassis in 1968, she essentially retired from the concert platform and, apart from a concert tour in Europe, North America and Japan, a master class series at the New York Julliard School and a brief foray into acting in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film Medea, she lived quietly in her elegant apartment in Paris until her premature death in 1977.
Maria Callas had a remarkable voice unlike any other, not conventionally beautiful or infallible but powerful, intense and thrillingly dexterous. Love it or hate it (and it was not uncommon for vegetables to be thrown with floral tributes at her performances), her voice is unmistakeable and impossible to ignore.
It has been remarked that she had three voices which she glided between with deft artistry. A high coloratura voice: nimble, agile and precise, it could dispatch the most difficult passages of fioriture with consummate ease; a richly expressive middle voice which was capable of effortlessly sustained legato passages; and a chest voice, often startling in its intensity. While she may have reigned supreme in the bel canto repertoire, she was not preoccupied with producing a beautiful, sweet sound per se but more with communicating the drama and meaning of the text, admitting that “to convey the dramatic effect … I must produce sounds which are not beautiful. I don’t mind if they are ugly so long as they are true”.
It was her instinctive musical ability to build and sustain an atmosphere through her vocal technique and commanding stage presence which makes her performances so compelling. With Callas, the blood-curdling taunt “Muori!” that Tosca cries as she stabs the villainous Scarpia is genuinely unsettling, and on one occasion Callas nearly drew blood from Tito Gobbi when stage knife failed to retract.
Maria Callas was a workaholic who took herself and her work very seriously and, like so many great musicians, it was only through the dint of hard work combined with a perfectionist streak that she managed to achieve so much. She was not averse to spending hours in the recording studio to perfect a particular passage, nor did she baulk at the challenges of a difficult repertoire or the reproaches of an indifferent audience: they were all opportunities for her to prove herself and, above all, to shine.
The same perfectionism extended to her meticulously cultivated appearance. The director Luchino Visconti once told Callas that if she lost some weight, she would make “a truer Traviata, who is after all dying of consumption”. Nine months later in 1953 and 30 kg lighter, she had transformed herself from a chubby, overweight soprano to an alluring svelte beauty. Dressed to kill with and with an impeccable fashion sense, La Divina as Callas became known to her fans had arrived. (Her contemporary Joan Sutherland was dubbed La Stupenda on account of her voice and not, as some wags have suggested, for her girth).
The public became enamoured with the Maria Callas phenomenon and newspapers were packed with glossy photographs and gossipy stories of her temperamental behaviour. In one of her rare interviews for American television, there is a delicious moment when the British conductor Sir Thomas Beecham mischievously asks whether there was any truth in the rumour that she had struck an opera director over the head with a bottle of brandy. “I never threw anything at anybody unfortunately” she replied, beaming “I wish I did.”
Callas’s meteoric rise to fame coincided with the introduction of long-playing records and a rush by record companies to expand their catalogues. Fortunately for the listening public, she had a long and fruitful working relationship from 1952 to 1964 with the legendary Walter Legge, the husband to Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and a music producer, and as strong-willed and perfectionist as Callas herself. This resulted in an astonishing series of both live and studio performances, many of which are considered benchmark recordings that remain unsurpassed, even after half a century.
A true measure of the affection in which Callas is still held by the public can be seen in Venice. Thanks to a public campaign which gathered over 100,000 signatures, the bridge Ponte della Fenice was renamed Ponte Maria Callas in 2005. It’s just down from the Teatro La Fenice, the opera house where she made her breakthrough in 1949 performing Bellini’s I Puritani, winning the accolade prima donna assoluta, a position she still maintains for a new generation of opera lovers.