Continued from the previous blog post, “Bucky Saves the Day.”
I had heard the name before, and had a vague notion that she was an opera singer famous for her temperament and a turbulent love affair with the Greek millionaire Aristotle Onassis. I had even registered that her art was always spoken of in the past tense: “She sang at La Scala” rather than “sings,” and that she had suffered a vocal decline that had ended her career. How I had gleaned even that much I can’t remember now, but I’m quite sure I had never heard her voice. Certainly, as I held that stack of my teacher’s records that day, I couldn’t have suspected just how important the voice, the artist on those discs, would become to me.
The recordings Bucky lent me were representative of Callas’ entire career, and included her EMI I Puritani from 1953 and Aida, recorded in ’55, as well as her stereo remakes of Lucia and Tosca. The last complete recording he included was less than ten years old at the time, 1964’s Carmen. I knew nothing of the chronology of these discs, and rather than starting my listening with one of these, I decided to listen through the 3-disc anthology, La Divina, featuring arias and scenes selected from Callas’ EMI catalogue of recitals and complete operas. Recently I found the contents for that album online, confirming my memory that I started, on Side One of that collection, with the Act One scena of the title character of Norma, excerpted from what I now know is the 1960 stereo recording. (The booklet accompanying the records did not include recording dates.) I put the disc on the turntable and Side One started. As with my Turandot experience, I followed the provided libretto closely. In this case, the timbre of the voice and the authority with which it was used seemed to leave no alternative to complete attention. Just as the character of Norma compels the restless Druids to heed her admonitions, so Callas commanded my total concentration.
My absorption in her sound and her text led me to the observation that the words were sung with unusual clarity and meaning. My Italian was quite poor at the time (and isn’t much better today, alas!) but I immediately noticed a huge difference between Callas and any other classical singer I had heard up to that point. For instance, in the Turandot recording, all the estimable principals gave the impression that they were creating a musical line that supported the utterance of text. In a sense, they seemed, to my ear, to create waves of sound on which the text floated, sailed or glided. This gave the voices of Tebaldi, Bjoerling and Nilsson a remarkable consistency of timbre, in each of their cases an individual edifice of sound studded with the words of the text.
With Callas, the impression was utterly different, for in her case the edifice of sound seemed to be made up of the words themselves. Rather than the words “decorating” the line, the words made up the substance of the musical line, and seemed to justify it. In “Nessun dorma” Bjoerling gave me the feeling that Puccini had found a good tune and matched it to some nicely poetic words so that the singer could deliver a primarily musical message. Callas instead seemed to imbue Bellini’s line with a sense of inevitability born out of the words and their meaning. The difference between singing sounds that make up parts of words and singing words that create a musical sound may seem an arcane one, but I could immediately hear it.
Along with this powerful amalgam of musical and verbal communication came a strong sense of being in the presence of an authentic personality, made up of both of the artist and of the character the artist was portraying. The British critic John Steane wrote often about “face,” the audible elements of expression suggestive of a physical analog, that truly great singers reveal within their singing. No one has ever sung with more “face” than Callas, and this presence of a palpable persona was another thing that immediately struck me on hearing her sing the Norma aria. One could imagine the expression and gestures of the character without seeing them, and receiving these impressions through the imagination made them all the stronger.
I had experienced a few singers who “jumped off the record” when you heard them, mostly artists from musical theater or traditional pop. A performer like Frank Sinatra had this quality of physical presence, along with a comfortable familiarity. Someone like Ethel Merman seemed to bring her own stage proscenium into your living room. But to hear this kind of immediacy and force of personality in the presumably staid and proper world of opera came as a shock, even to one who knew as little as I did. Much later I would come to appreciate how much grace and taste it takes to reveal one’s inner self through singing without manipulating and distorting the shape of the music. From the beginning, though, I was simply astonished at how vividly Callas projected the life of the character through the music her voice embodied.
Of course, many people have very different first impressions of Callas, as you may know from reading about her, or from your own perceptions, assuming you know her singing. It’s common to hear that she had an ugly/unattractive/strange voice, that she didn’t really know how to sing, that she was more an actress than a singer. This last observation, though utterly wrong-headed, comes closest to my own initial reactions, because although I didn’t dislike her singing, I did find it categorically distinct from the other opera singers that I had heard. I think most people hear this difference, and often it disturbs them. They’re not expecting the words to be so much in the foreground of the performance; they’re shocked to hear the emotional frankness of every phrase. Combine that with the reaction to a timbre that is less conventionally beautiful than several of her predecessors and contemporaries, (I’m less sure about her successors) and you begin to understand why she was controversial in her time, and remains so for some listeners.
The Act I scena from Norma includes a long and varied dramatic recitative, the signal Bel Canto aria “Casta Diva,” another short scene/recitative with the chorus, and the cabaletta “Ah, bello! a me ritorna.” The vocal line is demanding and becomes continually more so as the aria unfolds. “Casta Diva” requires the voice to command a tessitura that climbs as the aria progresses, culminating twice (there are two verses) in a series of repeated high As leading to a sustained B-flat to crown the most difficult phrase. It’s true (and obvious) that on this recording Callas found the phrases with the high notes difficult. The voice takes on a slightly pressed quality on the As, and the B-flats bring us the dreaded Callas wobble, a wide oscillation of pitch that momentarily replaces the natural warm vibrato of her sound. The wobble is even more pronounced on several high Cs in the enormously challenging cabaletta to the aria. For some listeners, these notes and phrases are “deal breakers” and make for excruciating listening. For me, this was not the case, not even when I first heard the recording. Instead, I noted the passing imperfections and put them in the context of the facts I already knew. Callas no longer sang. Her career had been cut short by vocal difficulties. Surely then, what I was hearing in the strident or unsteady high notes were a part of the decline that ended her career. Was this, I wondered, an example of an extremely late Callas recording? What would the other tracks in the anthology reveal? In short, I found Callas’ technical failings interesting rather than appalling.
I had often heard my father mention singers from the 1940s or 50s and complain that they had “gone downhill.” He viewed the later recordings of Frank Sinatra with a scorn directly proportional to the admiration he felt for the same artist on Songs for Swingin’ Lovers! And by the time I heard Maria Callas I had also listened to enough Billie Holiday and Judy Garland to know what time and career pressures can do to a voice, with or without the addition of substance abuse. In the case of Callas, I decided during the course of that first listening experience that whatever her failings were, they were a small price to pay for the incredible sensation of engagement I felt when listening to her. That was my feeling listening to the Norma scena, and it persisted throughout the 6 LP sides of singing on La Divina.
To be sure, the state of Callas’ voice, on a technical level, varied remarkably from cut to cut. Some recordings, like the “Qui la voce” from I puritani (recorded, I later learned, in 1953) revealed her in marvelous voice, with richness, accuracy and real beauty of tone throughout a scena that rivals the one in Norma for difficulty. On the other hand, a recording such as the 1963 “Convien partir,” from La figlia del reggimento, while containing some lovely phrasing and a superior sense of line, is also often unpleasant in its unsteadiness and strain in the upper register. So it goes throughout the anthology: a recording one is tempted to call definitive in its excellence is followed by a performance with marvelous musical intentions deeply flawed by imperfections of execution. I guessed that the truly painful moments were from the late records, and when I finally learned the dates of Callas’ various recordings, my assumptions were proven correct. The later the performance, the less technically secure and well-knit in timbre the voice sounded. Yet even the late cuts had wonderful moments that made listening a necessary experience, however much it may have called forth ambivalent feelings in the listener.
After La Divina, I listened to the complete opera sets that Bucky had lent me. I enjoyed all of them, but especially favored the earlier recordings where Callas was in freshest voice. I puritani in particular was a real revelation for me, the first Bel Canto opera I had heard from beginning to end. Callas’ performance was a collection of wondrous things: the flawless legato in both fast and slow music, the brilliant accuracy of the coloratura, the rich declamation of the text coupled with enormous empathy for the character of Elvira. It seemed as vivid as any filmed performance could be, and yet it was all done through sound. I was reasonably impressed with Callas’ co-stars, particularly Rolando Panerai as Riccardo and Giuseppe di Stefano as Arturo, but they were more or less just excellent opera singers, portraying their roles with energy and skill; they didn’t seem to be playing the game on the same high level as their soprano.
I listened through Bucky’s Callas recordings in about two or three weeks and then gave them back to him, vowing to myself that I would own copies of at least the best of them soon. It took a few years, but eventually I was able to purchase a number of wonderful performances starring Callas, including the 1956 Un ballo in maschera and the legendary 1953 Tosca, conducted by Victor de Sabata, considered by critics and fans alike one of the very finest opera recordings ever. I did not buy Callas’ records exclusively; I was too much of a musical omnivore to focus on one artist and forsake the rest. Certainly, she became the model of an operatic interpreter to me, and not just among sopranos. No matter how thrilling the voices of Sutherland, Price, Pavarotti, Cossotto, Domingo, Verrett and Ghiaurov were, I still found myself longing for the verbal specificity, the artfully shaped line and the dramatic intensity of Callas, and usually finding these other singers more or less lagging behind her level of accomplishment. She became my touchstone, all the more so when I started to sing myself, and began to compare my sincere but inadequate fledgling efforts to the phrases she had worked so diligently to craft.
One cold winter day on what must have been my second trip to New York City (also engineered by Bucky), I was in a store on Fifth Avenue called the Record Hunter. It would have been 1973, and by that time, my hometown record store, Disc Records, had “gone downhill,” too, stocking very few classical titles. The owners had long since discovered that Springfield, Missouri wasn’t ready for a classical record store, and had replaced most of the classical inventory with rock. The Record Hunter was a large and very packed two-story emporium that stocked all kinds of music, but classical seemed to be king here, and the walls were festooned with the latest releases from the major labels. As a faithful reader of High Fidelity magazine by this time, I already had a list of the forthcoming classical and operatic recordings that I was considering buying. My parents, probably thankful that I was spending money on records rather than dangerous things like motor scooters and recreational drugs, had upped my allowance considerably by now, but I still had to choose carefully. I couldn’t have everything that my greedy ears coveted.
As I perused the covers of the new releases on the Record Hunter’s wall, my eyes were diverted from the mostly colorful cover artwork from the likes of RCA, Columbia, Philips, London, Deutsche Grammophon and Angel to a row of rather plain looking opera boxes with black-and-white covers and minimal lettering. I picked one of these up, recognizing on it a drawing of Maria Callas with another female figure weeping on her shoulder. NORMA it proclaimed in large lettering, with the cast listed below: Callas, Simionato, Del Monaco, Zaccaria, Votto. This wasn’t either of the two EMI official recordings of Callas in that role. I knew the covers to those records and, besides, the cast here differed from those performances completely.
About this time, a young salesman, possibly noticing my looks of confusion, sidled up to me and explained that this was a recording from an independent label, a copy of a broadcast of the opening night of La Scala in December 1955. Eighteen years ago exactly, I thought. What I said was, “Oh, it’s a pirated record!” I had read that pirated live recordings were as common in the opera world as they were in rock.
“We prefer the term ‘private recording’,” said the salesman, looking slightly pained, and he pointed out several more live Callas broadcasts on the wall display before vanishing as surreptitiously as he had appeared.
I arrived home from my New York trip with copies of the aforementioned Norma and a September 1955 recording known to aficionados as “the Berlin Lucia,“ conducted by Herbert von Karajan with the touring forces of La Scala. I’ll review both these performances in detail in a future post, but I’ll close this one by trying to describe how what was already a deep devotion to Callas’ art became a near-obsession after hearing these two live recordings. In both the ’55 Scala Norma and the Berlin Lucia, Callas seems to balance all her best musical and dramatic impulses to a nearly perfect degree. There will be those who argue that even as soon as 1955, her voice was not as full, rounded, or even as it had been at the turn of that decade. Never mind. These are prime documents of a singer who has learned to use her voice, mind, body and soul to bring to life operatic characters in a way that has rarely been equaled and never surpassed. She fulfills the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler’s famous dictum: “In every performance, the work must be newly born again.”
These live broadcasts surpass even her great studio efforts in terms of tiny details as well as broad sweep, and the difference lies in her communication with a live audience. The Milanese audience of the Norma in particular, is audibly caught up in every moment of Callas’ performance, often gasping in delight or surprise or exclaiming in wonder at the magic she creates. One moment near the end of the performance is particularly memorable, when Norma finally admits that she is the guilty priestess who has defiled her vows. “Son io,” she declares, simply, on the interval of a fifth, with a beautiful portamento down to the last syllable. It’s a moving moment in any competent performance of Norma, but here a good portion of the audience erupts in a reaction that can only be called orgasmic. The entire final scene of the ’55 Norma is a deeply moving testament to Callas’ art, and hearing it all those years ago confirmed to my young mind that my “Callas period” would not be ending anytime soon.