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Culture

NY Times Adds its Voice to Callas Centennial Tributes

November 30, 2023

NEW YORK – “Her voice is the shadow that remains after shock, after anger: the sound of a woman realizing she has nothing left to live for.” So begins the New York Times’ Zachary Woolfe in his recent ‘CRITIC’S NOTEBOOK’ column – he is speaking, of course, about Maria Callas’ whose birth will be marked on December 2, a 100th anniversary that has been celebrated around the world all year.

The headline opens the gateway to sincere praise and genuine appreciation: ‘Maria Callas Was Opera’s Defining Diva. She Still Is’.

To briefly illustrate the genius and the power of the Diva, Woolfe described Callas’ performance of Violetta in. Verdi’s ‘La Traviata’ on May 28, 1955, at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, Woolfe writes: “the soprano Maria Callas reached the phrase about how ‘bella e pura’ Alfredo’s sister is – how beautiful and pure – and inserted the tiniest breath before ‘pura’. It’s a barely noticeable silence, but within it is a black hole of resignation. Callas’s split-second pause achingly suggests Violetta knows that if she, too, were pure, her happiness would not be expendable. Tiny details like this are how Callas… gave opera’s over-the-top melodramas a startling sense of reality, and her characters the psychological depth and nuance of actual people. Tiny details like this, captured on hundreds of recordings, are how this most mythical of singers has stubbornly resisted drifting entirely into myth.”

Woolfe’s continues, bringing Callas into the whirl of current not past events, because the remarkable run of anniversary events and torrent of recording sales is today’s news too: “The defining diva of the 20th century, Callas is not so far from us in some ways; a normal life span would have brought her well into the 21st. Those many recordings… have kept her in our ears, the benchmark of what is possible in opera, musically and emotionally. Her dramatic art and dramatic life, often intertwined, have made her an enduring cultural touchstone.”
While the article notes that, “Callas can also seem like a figure of faraway history. Her lonely death was back in 1977, when she was just 53 – and by then, her days of true performing glory were almost 20 years behind her… But when you hear her… You listen to that ‘Dite alla giovine’ and immediately SEE [emphasis added], in her voice, the blankness of her face, the mouth barely moving and the rest a mask of surrender, the shoulders collapsed. At the end of her classic 1953 ‘Tosca’ recording, you can again ‘see’ that indelible face, this time shifting in a couple of seconds from hushed excitement to catastrophic loss. (Listen to the sudden fear in that second cry of ‘Mario!’)

The tribute continues, indeed, it rises to the level of reverence: “In her performances, there was never a sense of opera as mere entertainment, a night out with pretty music. She took every note seriously, where others fudged and coasted; she was refined where others were vulgar. In her powerfully expressive voice and magnetic presence, opera really, truly mattered.”

Woolfe then ascends to awe: “0:010:55Opera in the modern era is at its core an exhumation of the past, a literal revival. Callas is the essential singer – she IS opera – not because of her instrument or her acting, but because, with a combination of born intuition and carefully acquired skill, she imagined and reconstructed a vanished world.”

The article touches on her humble Hellenic origins before describing the launch of her career: “Born in New York to Greek immigrants, Callas grew up listening to Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts and, at 13, returned with her mother to Greece. Just a year later, she was singing Carmen’s ‘Habanera’ and Norma’s ‘Casta diva’ as a conservatory student in Athens. She had no real apprenticeship. There were no supporting parts, no young-artist programs. By her early 20s, she was singing some of the most challenging roles in the repertory; by her early 30s, she was singing them all over the world.”

Music afficionados today gasp when they learn that, “she made her name with outlandish feats like doing Brünnhilde in Wagner’s ‘Die Walküre’ and Elvira in Bellini’s ‘I Puritani’ – which few sopranos paired in the same lifetime – in the same week.”

The article the announces the next, the most glorious, the immortal chapter in Callas’ life, evoking the audio and visual images that drive the continuing interest and devotion: “And once she became an object of worship, scratchy pirated recordings of a passionate ‘Traviata’ from Lisbon were passed around like religious relics; ditto a Mexico City ‘Aida’, in which Callas stretched an old but rare interpolated high E flat to gleaming length at the end of the Triumphal Scene.”

Finally, he addresses the dénoûment whose roots Woolfe, like the rest, cannot resist speculating about: “Her voice, matchlessly articulate and often quite beautiful but also idiosyncratic and fragile, didn’t hold out too long, and her career was brief; there was maybe a decade of prime singing, largely in the 1950s. By the time she was 40, it was essentially over. Brief – and unbelievably dense and tumultuous. Who knows the root of Callas’s restlessness, her insane commitment, her ferocity, her rivalries? There was clearly a deeply ingrained sense of unworthiness that you could trace back to her difficult childhood, with a mother who openly preferred her prettier sister. Self-buttressing, self-hating, self-defeating, Callas needed the stage desperately, and yet she always needed to be pushed onto it.”

Woofe, of course, also spotlights the affair with Aristotle Onassis – with Callas “largely giving up performing in the process” – and its shattering ending.

The article’s close emphasizes her  transcendance, not her tragedy, speaking of the Diva as “impossibly distant, yet immensely present: At her centennial, Callas still occupies a position in opera something like the sun.”

(Material from the NY Times was used in this report)

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