Remembering Callas by Paul Padillo

Remembering Callas
a Guest Blog by Paul Padillo

Maria Callas 42 Videos
Maria Callas lived only to the age of 53. Today marks the one hundredth anniversary of her birth. Mind blown. While I’ve written so much about Maria Callas since . . . let’s see, add the 6, carry the 3 and . . . well, a lot of years, it seems there are always new and exciting things (to me at least) to learn about this artist so revered and admired and hated and . . . . No singer’s voice or career has ever fascinated me quite the way Maria’s does. Some of what I write here I’ve shared before (most recently several months ago on the anniversary of her death), but, as I’ve already stated, there are new things to discover and so, here we are. Again.
As a child I was forever wondering what grown-ups meant whenever they spoke of “fleeting time.” and now, I think I understand. When Maria Callas I was a 17 music student – a pianist who liked to sing. I look back on that time and see what a pivotal, transitional year that was. Although I left home at 13 for boarding school there I’d spent each summer at home, but at 17 knew I was leaving for good. I’d soon leave to study music over 600 miles away. It was probably the most transformative year I’ve ever experienced. At 64 I can look back and say that comfortably. Fleeting time. Yes.
Throughout the ensuing years I became one of those kooks who collected pretty much Callas’ entire recorded legacy – studio and live – and barely a day has gone by where I’ve not spent listened to, and spent time at least a few minutes thinking about the lady. This was someone whose impact on my life was enormous in many ways, and almost all of it arising from her music making. Note: I’ve done and do the same with J.S. Bach. Now, there’s an odd pair of obsessions.
I’ve always been aware of her flaws, but none deterred me from believing that Maria Callas was the consummate singer. What she was able to do, the characters she could create from the page of the score, bring them all so brilliantly, so vividly to life, despite those flaws . . . or even perhaps because of them, made these characters so real, so utterly, remarkably human. Her ability, craft, sorcery . . . call it what you will, only deepened, and made even greater, my appreciation for her truly sui generis artistry.
Throughout my pursuit of learning everything I could, almost none fascinated me as much as discovering the published programs from her Athens Conservatory days, recitals and concerts from the earliest part of her professional career. I ate it all up, spending days upon days digging through all of the archival material . . . any I could lay my hands and eyes on. It was dizzying, endlessly fascinating, teasing a smile onto my face, imagining her as Suor Angelica, or singing a wild, dizzying array of arias, songs and scenes none of us – certainly not me – ever associated with Callas. Rameau, Vaughan Williams (“On Wenlock Edge” with string quartet!), Mozart, Rossini, Brahms, Handel. I tried to imagine what that young voice may have sounded like in Thaïs’ “Dis-moi que je suis belle,” or how she closed a concert belting out Landon Ronald’s classic, “Love, I have won you!” I’d always read she was a fine pianist, but became more impressed when I saw the programs of her playing Bach and Beethoven – and was praised for her playing of them. Interestingly, she did not enjoy playing Mozart and it showed. Having played plenty (those 19 Sonatas, oy!) I related.
Another discovery. Until quite recently I’d been completely unaware Callas had performed in “Die Fledermaus” with the National Lyric Company in Athens. The Company’s production was a huge success and ran for a wild 89 performances, with multiple cast changes. While Callas” (and a number of other singers) names do not appear in the cast list. there was at least one review of her performances (and we don’t know if she sang Adele or Rosalinda). It was not good, citing her performance as “poor” and “amateurish.” Not to make excuses, but during this run Callas was also in student recitals, studying for finals, and rehearsing Suor Angelica. Oh, yeah, and she was 16 years old.
Callas sang so many more roles and music than is generally known and there is documentation of radio broadcasts now lost of things that I’d love to have heard. of those that have been lost: a 1943 Pergolesi’s “Stabat Mater”; Salome in Stradella’s “San Giovanni Battista” her Isolde and Brünnhilde. While they appear to be forever lost, I still naively hope some of these to turn up. That’s another thing obsession does.
With the Greek National Opera in 1943 and 44, she sang a number of roles that year, and several concerts with the orchestra including a fundraiser for Tuberculosis where she performed : “Abscheulicher! … Komm, Hoffnung,” “Bel raggio lusinghier… Dolce pensiero,” “Casta Diva” and other arias. Having already starred as Tosca (at age 18!) she went on to appear as Santuzza, in the modern opera, “O Protomástoras (by Kalomiris), Leonore in Beethoven’s “Fidelio,” Marta in d’Alblert’s “Tiefland,” Also in 1944 Greek National Opera announced their first ever Wagner production: “Der fliegende Holländer,” with 21 year old Callas as Senta. This would would be followed by her role debut of “Fedora.” Callas learned both roles when, owing to the Athens Civil Disturbance, the Company was forced to cancel the those performances. When they re-opened it was with the revival of “Tiefland,” with Callas reprising her earlier success as Marta.
Before long there came the Walküre Brünnhilde, Isolde, Kundry, Gioconda, Turandot, Aida all segueing towards the bel canto and Verdi (and Toscas) that would define most of her career. All of this shot into her role as one of the greatest, most talked about, and absolutely controversial stars in the operatic firmament. That controversy “great or not” is still part of what she is remembered for. It seems fitting.
After the best years of her career were over, and years of semi-retirement there came projects turned down, offers, and rumors of offers for even more interesting choices no one would would have ever associated Callas with: a”Salome” with von Karajan; another role debut as “Melisande” for the Paris Opera; Charlotte in “Werther”; Ottavia in “Poppea”; Valentine in “Les Huguenots”. Then, there was Sir Rudolf’s “peace offering”: a return to the Met in a double bill starring as Elle in Poulenc’s “La Voix Humaine,” followed by the mime role as the great seductress Potiphar’s Wife with Rudolf Nureyev as Joseph in Strauss’ “Josephslegende.” Of course, not one of these would come to fruition, most seeming downright improbable and at best, unlikely, yet still that does not diminish one iota the fascinating possibilities in considering what one, or all of these, might have been like had they happened.
While I’m intrigued with the idea of Maria as Strauss’ Salome (and Elektra even more) she mentioned how she loved the role (I believe, knew it, if I recall) and had been asked to sing it. She was uncomfortable with the idea of actually performing it for non-musical reasons. She was not comfortable being onstage with little to wear and brought up her skimpy costume as Kundry and that was that.
Throughout the years since her passing, I’ve grown up, and while I’ve come to love and appreciate countless other singers, this simple truth remains: not one has meant as much to me, has moved me more deeply, or quite broken my heart as often as has La Divina. Her artistry has been a part of my life from almost the very beginning and, along with a few other major influences like Bernstein, or Bach, has shaped the very way I listen to and approach music, how I think about it, and the powerful role it has played every single day of my life. For her part in all of this, I can only say, grazie, Maria. Grazie. It may be your birthday, but it’s we who’ve received the gift.
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