‘Maria by Callas’ Charts the Downward Spiral of One of Opera’s Greatest Divas
By James Jorden • 10/02/18 12:29pm
As a general rule, geniuses are misunderstood, even vilified. This phenomenon was certainly true of soprano Maria Callas, whose supernova of a career—barely a decade on the international level—is now revered as a symbol of the most splendid possibilities inherent in the art of opera.
Back during her heyday, though, in the 1950s and early 1960s, Callas achieved household name status not so much as an artist but as a caricature, first as a monster diva who capriciously canceled performances, physically attacked impresarios and, in a pinch, attempted to poison a rival performer. (To be sure, mezzo Giulietta Simionato always swore that Maria could not possibly have known the Coca-Cola bottle contained insecticide.) Later Callas’ name splashed across tabloids as the temptress who was breaking up Jacqueline Onassis’s marriage.
Since Callas’ death in 1977, the pendulum has swung the other way, positing Callas as more sinned against than sinning, and it it upon this now-familiar theme that director Tom Volf has based his documentary Maria by Callas, which had its New York premiere at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s New Film Festival on Sunday, September 30. What emerges from this handsome but sentimental film is a portrait of the artist in decline, cocooning herself in defensive victimhood.
Ironically for a film about a Greek tragedienne, the qualities that make this film so irresistible also doom it. Volf has shaped his picture around rare newsreel, kinescope footage and home movies of the diva. These materials mostly date from around 1958 or so—the zenith of the singer’s fame but toward the end of her best years as a performer. So the narrative arc focuses on Callas’ fall without much sense of what her rise was all about.
There are exceptions: silent snippets of the opera Norma (generally acknowledged as Callas’ greatest role) from 1953 and 1964 offer glimpses of her fabled intensity in rage and despair. Familiar clips of concert performances are presented in beautifully restored video and especially audio: a “Casta diva” from Paris in 1958 had the film audience in Alice Tully Hall rapt and virtually breathless.
But of the scant video material available, a lot consists of “Film at 11” stuff: Callas emerges from a plane in Paris, in London, in New York; Callas attempts to be civil with aggressive reporters; Callas takes her poodle out for a walk.
Volf also has access to a number of Callas’ letters to her friends and colleagues, but even here the bias is toward the maudlin. At the peak of her career, the star was too busy to keep up with her correspondence, but, later, as she phased out her singing and attempted to negotiate her on-and-off affair with Aristotle Onassis, she was left with a lot of time on her hands. Her insecurity about the future, poor physical health and apparent depression led to her believe she was being persecuted, singled out for unfair treatment. And so she poured out her discontent on writing paper.
In the picture, these letters are read by mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, whose performance, achingly heartfelt and fluent, I think distorts the story slightly. Yes, Maria’s pain was in large part real, but in all her communications, written or verbal, there was always a hint of the histrionic. She presented herself as a downtrodden waif despite enormous privilege: fame, wealth, beauty and more than sufficient talent to excel in any number of artistic ventures. True, by this point she couldn’t sing Norma; but then, who can?
So where Maria by Callas gets rather soggy is in attempting to present the final decade of Callas’ life, falling into the trap of imposing a tragic narrative on what was, as so much of live is, a random series of fairly mundane events. Even if the diva herself tried to make her life into an opera, that’s not really an excuse for Volf to follow her lead.
One home movie, though, rescues the last reel from bathos. We see Callas, a guest in Palm Beach in 1976, alone, reclining beside a swimming pool. She’s barefoot, without makeup, wrapped in a muumuu. Her thick wavy hair is falling loose around her shoulders, and there’s a lot of gray amid the auburn.
As in so many other clips in Maria by Callas, she turns and notices the camera, but this time she doesn’t strike a pose. She doesn’t even take off her glasses. (She was famously vain about that.) For the first time (and the only time I have seen documented) Callas looks like an older woman, a sort of earth mother.
She’s neither happy nor sad, but it’s the only time in the film that she does seem to be at rest. Or is she just tired? This ambiguous image, it seems to me, is the ideal finale for the film: we mortals should never know everything about our goddess.
Maria Callas, 53, is Dead of Heart Attack in Paris
By RAYMOND ERICSONSEPT. 17, 1977
September 17, 1977,
Maria Callas, the soprano whose in tensely dramatic portrayals made her the most exciting opera singer of her time, died of a heart attack yesterday at her home in Paris. She was 53 years old.
Miss Callas had told some friends this summer that she was concerned about her health, but other associates reported that she had been in perfect health and was preparing to write her autobiography for a New York publisher.
She once said, “Wherever I am, it is hectic.” This may even have been an understatement. Controversy, legend and myth surrounded the soprano throughout the major part of her career. Those who admired her felt that she was one of the greatest opera singers of all time, while others believed that her vocal inadequacies precluded any such claim.
Disputes and legal action seemed to arise wherever she sang. Her private life was seldom out of the limelight. Yet thr:re was no denying that it was the magic of her personality that made every move of hers newsworthy.
‘Awesome Stage Projection’
A balanced reactron to Miss Callas's artistry was expressed by Harold C. Schonberg, the music critic of The New York Times, after her return to the Metropolitan Opera in 1965 in the title role of Puccini's “Tosca.”
“If you want brains, an awesome stage projection, intensity and musicianship, Miss Callas can supply those commodities more than any soprano around,” Mr. Schonberg wrote. “But if you look for voice and vocal splendor in your Tosca, Miss Callas is not the one to make you happy.”
Earlier hi the review he had written that “her conception of the role was electrical. Everything at her command waf, pia into striking use. She was a woman in love, a tiger cat, a woman possessed by jealousy.... This was supreme acting, unforgettable acting.”
There is no question that Miss Callas sparked new interest in the largely forgotten bel canto operas of the 19th century. These were the works of Bellini, Donizetti and Rossini, most of which had not keen heard since the era when they were written. They were considered too difficult and too uninteresting musically to be worth reviving. Miss Callas showed that they could be sung, that the melodies and all the embellishments that were thought to be for virtuoso display could be .turned to genuine dramatic use. It opened up a whole new repertory for singers such as Joan Sutherland and Beverly Sills to follow the path set by Miss Callas.
When the soprano was told that she was considered temperamental, her answer was, “I will always be as difficult as‐necessary to achieve the best.” Everyone who worked with her agreed that she.‐was a hard worker, willing to rehearse more than expected, even when a role or a production was not new. Early in her career she sang as many as 16 roles in one season, and she was a quick study. Her own interest in bel canto grew in 1948 in Venice, when she learned the difficult part .of Elvira in Bellini's “I Puritani” in five days in order to substitute for an ailing singer.
Unhappy Manhattan Childhood
Maria Anna Sofia Cecilia Kalogeropoulos was born Dec. 3, 1923 in Manhattan's Flower and Fifth Avenue Hospitals; her Greek parents had arrived in the ‘nited States a few months earlier. Her father was a pharmacist. Years later, in discounting the rumor that she had been born in Brooklyn, Miss Callas said that she remembered living in Upper Manhattan‐ over a drugstore owned by her father. She attended Public School 164 at Wadsworth Avenue and 164th Street in Washington Heights, and by the age of 9 was singing for her schoolmates.
The soprano spoke often of her unhappy childhood, which was marred by the squabbles between her parents and her jealousy of her older sister—Maria was squat, while her sister was attractive and favored by the parents. The family returned to Athens when Maria was 13. She won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music, where one of her teachers was Elvira de Hidalgo, a famous Spanish soprano in her day. She remembered Maria as being “square and fat, but she put such force, such sentiment, such wonderful interpretation into all she sang. She would want to sing the most difficult coloraturas, scales and trills. Even as a child her willpower was terrific.”
Before she was 15, the student was singing the dramatic role of Santuzza in Mascagni's “Cavalleria Rusticana.” Four years later she made her official debut with, the Athens Opera.
At the end of World War II, she went back to New York on her own. She auditioned for the Metropolitan Opera, at the time that Edward Johnson was the general manager. She was offered the title roles in Puccini's “Madame Butterfly” an r: Beethoven's “Fidelio.” “Fidelio” was was to have been sung in English. Miss Callas recalled the impossibility of singing Butterfly: “I was then too fat‐210 pounds.” As for “Fidelio”: “Opera in English is so silly. Nobody takes it seriously.” She turned down the offers.
She came close to making her American debut in Chicago with a group of Italian singers, but that fell through for financial reasons. In 1947, she was given a contract to appear in Verona, and she sailed for Italy. She made her debut in the famous Arena in the title role of Ponchielli's “La Gioconda.” Also making his debut in the opera was the late American tenor, Rchard Tucker.
Met Conductor in Verona
In Verona, Miss Callas met one of her most important mentors, the Italian conductor Tullio Serafin. He took her to Venice, where she sang roles that required a dramatic voice, Isolde in the Wagner opera, Turandot in the Puccini opera, even Briinnhilde in Wagner's “Die Walkiire.” In other cities she sang the name parts in Verdi's “Aida” and Bellini's “Norma.”
The natural goal of every opera singer in Italy then, as now, was La Scala in Milan. MiSs Callas sang an Aida there in 1949, but it was not in the regular season. She would not join the company officially until 1951, because already independent minded, she would sing only leading roles in major operas and would not share a percentage of her salary with a powerful artist agency in Milan.
In;ihe early 50's, Miss. Callas sang in a number of rarely heard operas in Italian houses. These included Haydn's “Orfeo ed Euridice,” Gluck's “Alceste” and Cherubini's.“Medea.” She had a notable triumph in the last work, which was staged by Luchino Visconti and conducted by Leonard Bernstein.
She was offered a contract at the Met in 1952 by the general manager, Rudolf Bing,‐but this did not work out because she would not come to New York without her husband, Giovanni Battista Meneghini; who was unable to get a visa.
In this period, she had gained experience ‘land a large measure of success not only in Italy, but also in South America, Mexico and Covent Garden in London. She took off /0 pounds, which left her at a slim 135 pounds. At 5 feet 8 inches tall and with a face made striking by her bload cheekbones, uptilted eyes and large nose, she became one of the handsomest women of the operatic stage.
She finally made her United States debut in 1954, with the Chicago Lyric Opera, in the role of Norma. Two years later, on Oct. 29, she sang the same part for her debut at the Metropolitan Opera. By this time her reputation was such that announcements of her appearances generated long lines outside the box office of the houses where she was to sing. Although critical reactionwas usually mixed because of the individual timbre of Miss Callas's voice and the flaws in her technique, she was ecstatically received for her musicianship, her personal appeal and the originality of her characterizations.
Miss Callas's voice, whicn some critics maintained was man‐made rather than natural, had three sections. At the top it was inclined to be steely, even shrill, and the highest notes were often little more than shrieks. The middle voice could have a covered sound or could be velvety; used at a soft level, it was beautiful. But in the lowest register itt could be edgy again.
Technically, the soprano often did thrilling things with the tonal coloration and with the fioriture, and she could sing a descending chromatic scale dazzlingly But sometimes, too, the voice would not respond smoothly to the demands she made on it.
Having conquered many of the great opera companies of the world, the soprano began to have trouble with them. In Chicago she was served with a lawsuit backstage during a performance, and she said she would never sing there again. She was accused of breaking a contract with the Vienna State Opera over a question of fees. She canceled an engagement with the San Francisco Opera just before the season opened, pleading illness, and the company preferred charges against her with the American Guild of Musical Artists, the singers’ union.
At the gala opening of one season in Rome, she sang the opening act of “Norma” and then refused to go on after that, because of laryngitis. At the Met, she quarreled with Mi. Bing over a matter of dates and repertory, and he canceled their contract. She did not show up for scheduled performances at the Edinburgh Festival and at Athens.
All these actions made headlines, and Miss Callas earned a reputation for temperamental behavior. She had an answer to these charges, in most cases explaining that she would not sing unless she or performing conditions were at their best, and this was the reason for her walking out on performances or contracts. “To me, the art of music is magnificent, and I cannot bear to see it treated in a shabby way,” she said in a Life magazine interview in 1959. “When it is respected and when the artists who serve it are respected, I will work hard and always give my best . . . I do not want to be associated with inferior staging, taste, conducting or singing.”
Valuable Artist and Attraction
In fact, most of the feuds were patched up, and Miss Callas returned to sing with the various companies again. She was considered too valuable an artist and too great a box‐office attraction to ignore.
As Mr. Bing said of Miss Callas yesterday after he heard of her death: “I was privileged to bring her to the Met and I am proud of that. She was a difficult artist, as many are, but she was one of the greatest artists of her time. We will not see her like again.”
In fact, Miss Callas, was re‐engaged by the Met in 1965 to sing Tosca, and these became her last public opera performances.
In subsequent years, the soprano would make announcements from time to time that she was considering singing somewhere, causing a flurry of excitement in the music world. But no performances materialized. In 1971. she went to the Juilliard School to give a series of 12 master classes. These were iammed with auditors, many of them coming from out of New York City, and Miss Callas was credited with exceptional success in her teaching.
Went on Worldwide Tour in ‘73
In 1973, she and her close friend, the tenor Giuseppe di Stefano, tried their hand at staging opera. They directed a production of Verdi's “I Vespri Siciliani” in Turin, but in’ the view of the critics, the results were disastrous.
That same year, they decided to make a worldwide concert tour. It began in Hamburg, West Germany, in October, and the singers appeared at Carnegie Hall in two programs in February 1974. The audience was almost hysterical in its adulation, but the critics lamented that there was not much left of Miss Callas's voice, even if her interpretations remained unexcelled. When the tour ended, it represented the soprano's last singing in public. She did, however, continue to add to her extensive list of recordings.
When she married Mr. Meneghini, 20 years her senior, in 1949, the Italian building‐materials tycoon rave her security and, it was said at first, affection. She called herself professionally Maria Meneghini Callas, and he became her manager and agent. They were separated in 1959 after she had become romantically involved with Aristotle Onassis, the Greek shipping magnate. The marriage with Mr. Meneghini, was annulled six years later.
The public eagerly followed the relationship between the singer and the entrepreneur, particularly after it was learned that Mr. Onassis had given her controlling stock in a $3 million freighter.
They had apartments near each other in Paris. When Mr. Onassis married Jacqueline Kennedy, attempts were made to have Miss Callas comment on a supposed rebuff. The singer said little about it except that she and Mr. Onassis were still good friends.
The singer was also known for the bitterness with which she spoke of her family. “There is no communication between my family and me,” she said in 1971. “I know my mother wrote a book about me, but I never read it.”
She also broke with her musical mentor, Mr. Serafin, ostensibly because the conductor chose another soprano for a recording that she had expected to make with him.
A celebrated feud between Miss Callas and Renata Tebaldi, who was her contemporary, was kept alive in the press and by the fans of the respective soparsons. They were rival singers at La Scala at one time, and it was reported that they avoided each other backstage. Miss Tebaldi refused to attend Miss Callas's performances, while Miss Callas went, with some ostentation, to those of the other soprano. Gossip writers hinted that she did so in order to make Miss Tebaldi nervous.
In 1968, Miss Callas attended the Met's opening performance, in which Miss Tebaldi was singing the title role of Cilea's “Adriana Lecouvreur.” Afterward, the two singers met backstage and this time embraced each other.
In recent years, Miss Callas's name had been steadily linked with that of Mr. di Stefano. They had frequently sung on stage and in recordings together in the earlier stages of their careers.
Miss Callas made a film based on Euripides's “Medea,” which was released here in 1971. it was written and'directed by the late Pier Paolo Pasolini.
Leonard Bernstein, the conductor, on being informed of Miss Callas's death, said yesterday, “Besides being a cherished friend, she was for me the uniquely great singer of bel canto in the mid‐20th century and has for some years been irreplaceable.”
Dario Soria, former head of Angel Rec ords, the label on which Miss Callas's recordings have been issued in this country, and now director of the Metropolitan Opera Guild, had remained a steadfast friend. He said yesterday that he had talked by phone to the singer last summer, and that she sounded remote in spirit. In response to a query as to what she was doing, she told him in a flat voice, “Nothing.” “Without being able to perform,” Mr. Soria said, “she apparently had nothing left to live for.”
Mr. Soria also summed up Miss Callas's career succinctly: “As a singer, she was responsible for the revival of bel canto. As an actress, she made the stage exciting theater. As a personality, she had the kind of magic that makes news. I think she'll be remembered as one of the greatest opera singers of all times.”
The New York Times/Larry Morris