Quite recently I heard Callas singing some Mozart and was shocked – I expected something dreadfully exaggerated but what I got was really lovely and very much ahead of its time – no fireworks, a very plain, modest way of singing, it really showed how thoughtful a singer she was and how much style she had.

Norma is a good example of what she did. She sang it more than she sang any other role. It is often referred to as a killer role; it is simply very hard on the voice. It is difficult to explain properly without you listening to her. Also, if you don’t know the music at all, then hearing her sing Norma you may well feel, well, so what!

With that piece she moved it from being usually done as almost an oratorio, severely classical in feel, to a red in tooth and claw drama. However, in doing this she really used the music rather than damaged it and her phrasing is extremely intelligent and above all musical. She had the skill of making you think it was all coming fresh out of her mouth, rather than learned by rote and coloured here and there.

She inhabited such roles rather than taking them on. Of course there were great singers before her and if you were to hear Claudia Muzio you would be surprised to hear so much of the Callas colouring … but pre-Callas. Her career was short and that was possibly in part because of the risks she took in pushing her voice, but then, if she had played safe, she would be forgotten now.

It has often been stated that Callas’s fame rested on her undoubted stage presence and dramatic gifts, and though this is no doubt partly true, it doesn’t explain her continuing popularity, or why her recordings should sell in such huge numbers. There have been plenty of other great singers/actors, whose recorded legacy is relatively slight. I can think of Teresa Stratas and Josephine Barstow, both of whom are tremendous on stage, but whose voices convey very little of that presence on record. This is where Callas is different. Her presence and personality fairly burst through the speakers. She creates drama for the mind’s theatre, as surely as if she were standing there before us. With Callas, I no longer listen to the singer, but to the story and character she is unfolding. An example of the differences would be to listen to her performance of, say, O patria mia, from Aïda, alongside Montserrat Caballé’s. Now this is an aria which never worked well for Callas. Caballé here is divine, the top C spun out in a pure pianissimo, which is literally breathtaking. I am astonished and captivated, but I am no longer listening to the opera, I am listening to Montserrat Caballé. In the Callas version, the note is somewhat earthbound and effortful to say the least, but it becomes as nothing, so wistfully has she longed for her homeland in the previous music. Indeed I can’t hear the words O cieli azzurri, without hearing Callas’s peculiarly yearning tone. Someone once said of Callas to John Steane, “Of course you had to see her”, to which he replied “Ah, but I can, and I do!”

In a Medea performance that didn’t go too well, there were murmurs and even catcalls. At one crucial plot line, where she is supposed to address Giasone, she turned to the audience and uttered Medea’s desperate plea “Ho datto tutto a te” (I gave you everything I have).

In a performance of Bellini’s Il Pirata, at the time where the Meneghinis were constantly clashing with La Scala’s superintendent Ghiringelli, Callas-Imogene ostentatiously pointed at the superintendent’s theatre box and sang “La! Vedete, il palco funesto” (“There – look: the dreadful scaffold”). In the opera, the word palco refers to the scaffold where her lover will be hanged. But this Italian word can also be used to designate a theatre box. Although Ghiringelli was not in his box that night, the anecdote was widely circulated across Italy. She made news as no other opera star has ever done before or since.

Another such incident that has passed into operatic folk lore now, is Callas’s first performance in Italy after the scandal of her walking out half way through a performance of Norma, before the President of Italy, due to illness. It was at a revival of Anna Bolena at La Scala. Such was the bad feeling that the Italian press had whipped up against her, that La Scala, fearing an incident, had positioned plain clothed police all over the theatre, and riot police surrounded the theatre outside. Visconti re-directed some of the scenes so as to give Callas a certain amount of protection on stage in case of flying missiles from the audience. Throughout the first act the audience had reacted to her with icy coldness, loudly applauding her colleagues. By the finale of the first act, Callas had had just about as much as she could stomach. This is the scene where Henry VIII finds her in compromising circumstances and tells the guards to take her to prison. Anna, utterly outraged, launches the exciting stretta to the finale with the words Giudice! Ad Anna! Giudice! (Judges! for Anna!). At this point, Callas pushed aside the guards, marched down to the footlights, and hurled the words into the audience, as much as to say “how dare you judge me”, singing the rest of the scene with a scorching brilliance, incredible even for her. The audience was completely won over and from then to the end of the opera, she had them in the palm of her hands. Word of her success apparently reached the crowds of people waiting outside the theatre, and when she appeared at the stage door after the performance, the police found themselves having to restrain not an angry mob, but hordes of fans trying to besiege her with floral tributes. Unfortunately when she returned home that night, exhausted from her triumph, it was to find the gates of the Meneghini villa daubed with dog shit and the walls covered in insulting graffiti. And we wonder why her career was so short!

As an adjunct, it should be noted that Callas actually sued the Rome Opera for not having an understudy available on the night of that walk out, and for not fulfilling their subsequent contractual obligations. The case dragged on for years, and eventually was settled totally in her favour. But it was too late. By then she was no longer singing, though the damage done to her personally and her career was immense and irrevocable.

I suppose the reason for the multifarious theories as to why her voice declined so rapidly, is testament to the fact that nobody really knows and nobody ever will. Both Renée Fleming and Deborah Voight (sopranos themselves) touch on similar theories, which is interesting. Personally, I have always felt that it was not the actual weight loss, but the diet that might have been the problem. Singers need an enormous amount of stamina to support their voices throughout an opera, and you only get stamina with proper nutrition, that is eating the right foods to give you energy, without piling on the pounds. In those days less was known about nutrition and it is quite possible that Callas’s diet deprived her of some of the necessary nutrients. That, and the punishing schedule she found herself following. A typical example is the summer of 1957. On 4 July, she embarked on two performances of La Sonnambula, in which she is in admirably secure voice, as can be heard on the recording preserved from the performances, and now available on EMI. Five days later she is in Milan to record Turandot, a role that was no longer in her repertoire and which she really ought not to have been singing. That she acquits herself as well as she does, is cause for surprise, though she does show elements of strain. However three days after the Turandot sessions are over, she is back to record Manon Lescaut, and it is here that the effects of the previous days can be heard. She sounds utterly exhausted. Indeed some of the climactic high notes are as bad as they were to become in the mid-1960s, and this is probably why its release was delayed until 1959.

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