Maria Callas

Maria Callas, Opera singer, NYC


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Maria Callas

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Maria Callas (Greek: ?a??a ????a?) (December 2, 1923 - September 16, 1977) was an American born, Greek dramatic coloratura soprano and perhaps the best-known opera singer of the post-World War II period. She combined an impressive bel canto technique with great dramatic gifts. An extremely versatile singer, her repertoire ranged from classical opera seria to the bel canto operas of Donizetti, Bellini, and Rossini, and further, to the works of Verdi and Puccini, and in her early career, the music dramas of Wagner. Her remarkable musical and dramatic talents led to her being hailed La Divina.

Born in New York and raised by an overbearing mother, she received her musical education in Greece and established her career in Italy. Forced to deal with the exigencies of wartime poverty and with myopia that left her nearly blind on stage, she endured struggles and scandal over the course of her career. She turned herself from a heavy woman into a glamorous one after a mid-career weight loss, which might have contributed to her vocal decline and the premature end of her career. The press exulted in publicizing Callas's allegedly temperamental behavior, her supposed rivalry with Renata Tebaldi, and her love affair with Aristotle Onassis. Her dramatic life and personal tragedy have often overshadowed Callas the artist in the popular press. Her artistic achievements, however, were such that Leonard Bernstein called her "The Bible of opera", and her influence so enduring that, in 2006, Opera News wrote of her, "Nearly thirty years after her death, she's still the definition of the diva as artist-and still one of classical music's best-selling vocalists."

Career

After returning to the United States and reuniting with her father in September 1945, Callas made the round of auditions. In December of that year, she auditioned for Edward Johnson the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera and was favorably received: "Exceptional voice-ought to be heard very soon on stage". Callas maintained that the Met offered her Madama Butterfly and Fidelio, to be performed in Philadelphia and sung in English, both of which she declined, feeling she was too fat for Butterfly and did not like the idea of opera in English. Although no written evidence of this offer exists in the Met's records, in a 1958 interview with The New York Post, Johnson corroborated Callas's story: "We offered her a contract, but she didn't like it-because of the contract, not because of the roles. She was right in turning it down-it was frankly a beginner's contract."

When she attended President Kennedy's birthday party at Madison Square Garden in May, 1963, she spoke with Jack Benny. "We've met before, Mr. Benny. Don't you remember?" When Benny couldn't recall, she explained, "I made my first radio appearance as a contestant on a Major Bowes Amateur Hour and you were one of the judges. I came in second because you were the only judge who voted for me."

In 1946, Callas was engaged to re-open the opera house in Chicago as Turandot, but the company folded before opening. Basso Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, who also was to star in this opera, was aware that Tullio Serafin was looking for a dramatic soprano to cast as La Gioconda at the Arena di Verona. He would later recall the young Callas as being "amazing-so strong physically and spiritually; so certain of her future. I knew in a big outdoor theater like Verona's, this girl, with her courage and huge voice, would make a tremendous impact." Subsequently he recommended Callas to retired tenor and impresario Giovanni Zenatello. During her audition, Zenatello became so excited that he jumped up and joined Callas in the Act 4 duet. It was in this role that Callas made her Italian debut.

Upon her arrival in Verona, Callas met Giovanni Battista Meneghini, an older, wealthy industrialist, who began courting her. They married in 1949, and he assumed control of her career until 1959, when the marriage dissolved. It was Meneghini's love and support that gave Callas the time needed to establish herself in Italy, and throughout the prime of her career, she went by the name Maria Meneghini Callas.

After La Gioconda, Callas had no further offers, and when Serafin, looking for someone to sing Tristan und Isolde, called on her, she told him that she already knew the score, even though she had looked at only the first act out of curiosity while at the conservatory. She sight-read the opera's second act for Serafin, who praised her for knowing the role so well, whereupon she admitted to having bluffed and having sight-read the music. Even more impressed, Serafin immediately cast her in the role. Serafin thereafter served as Callas's mentor and supporter.

According to Lord Harewood, "Very few Italian conductors have had a more distinguished career that Tullio Serafin, and perhaps none, apart from Toscanini, more influence". In 1968, Callas would recall that working with Serafin was the "really lucky" opportunity of her career, because "he taught me that there must be an expression; that there must be a justification. He taught me the depth of music, the justification of music. That's where I really really drank all I could from this man".

Callas's voice was and remains controversial; it bothered and disturbed as many as it thrilled and inspired. John Ardoin has argued that, like Maria Malibran and Giuditta Pasta, Callas was a natural mezzo-soprano whose range was extended through training and willpower. In 1957, Callas herself described her early voice this way: "The timbre was dark, almost black-when I think of it, I think of thick molasses", and in 1968 she added, "They say I was not a true soprano, I was rather toward a mezzo". Michael Scott, however, argues that Callas's voice was not a mezzo, but a natural high soprano.

Walter Legge stated that Callas possessed that most essential ingredient for a great singer: an instantly recognizable voice. During "The Callas Debate", Italian critic Rodolfo Celletti stated, "The timbre of Callas's voice, considered purely as sound, was essentially ugly... yet I really believe that part of her appeal was precisely due to this fact. Why? because for all its natural lack of varnish, velvet and richness, this voice could acquire such distinctive colours and timbres as to be unforgettable." In compensation for the lack of classical beauty of sound, Callas was able to change the timbre of the voice and her vocal color and weight at will and according to the role she was singing, essentially giving each character her own individual voice.



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