'Philadelphia' has sparked new interest in Maria Callas' performances

February 06, 1994|By Dallas Morning News

Midway through Jonathan Demme's film "Philadelphia," there is a supercharged scene in which Andrew Beckett (played by actor Tom Hanks) attempts to explain to his lawyer, Joe Miller (Denzel Washington), what opera means to him.

As Maria Callas' recording of "La mamma morta" from Giordano's "Andrea Chenier" begins softly in the background and then swells to fill the theater, Andrew translates the words and conveys the passions and emotional meanings behind this operatic excerpt.

It is the most vividly remembered moment after the drama has been played out and the film has ended; so much so that record stores nationally have had a recent run on Callas' recordings.

The impact of her voice is no surprise. Opera is, after all, intense feelings magnified by music, and no other singer in recent times has so embodied the essence of opera.

Callas' career was synonymous with controversy and conflict. She was criticized as capricious and willful. Her sound disturbed as many as it exalted, and she ended her professional career with a broken voice that no longer obeyed her exceptional musical instincts.

But underneath the smoke screen of contradiction that surrounded Callas was the fire of genius. Since her death in 1977, efforts have been made to explore and understand the mesmerizing hold she had on the opera-going public for more than 20 years, and which has intensified rather than abated since her death.

As odd as it may seem, the most apt comparison for Callas is Elvis Presley. Each rose to fame in the 1950s; each changed the way we perceived music; each had individual styles and sounds that had not been heard before; each led unsettled and lonely lives. They died exactly a month apart, much too young and burned out by fame. Even in death they share a bond, for both continue to cast long shadows over their realms -- Callas, the queen of opera, and Elvis, the king of rock.

Maria Callas, born in New York in December 1923, lived long enough to find herself a venerated symbol of all that was dedicated and shining in the art of singing. Estimates of her voice, however, continue to vary widely and wildly.

There is no denying that she demanded more from her huge, dark sound than it could comfortably deliver. But in her prime, and through a staggering exercise of will, she transformed her unruly voice and her physique into things of beauty.

Her repertory, like her ambition, was huge. It ranged from the heroines of Donizetti and Bellini to those of Verdi and Wagner. With Callas, however, it became a question of not what she sang, but how she sang it. She returned a penetrating dramatic depth to works that had long been dismissed as empty vehicles. So interlocked were tone, intent and music that an amazing fusion was formed that rendered other singers inadequate. Callas could hold her public rapt with a simple scale because each note of it contained an implied drama all its own.

Her rightful domain was the opera of the bel canto period, those romantic, early 19th-century embroideries by Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini. They were works to which she brought a new stature by presenting them as drama and with a musical justness and intensity that made it impossible to imagine them performed any other way.

Her greatest years were the mid-1950s, when she reigned as the undisputed monarch of Italy's foremost opera house, La Scala, in Milan. This new golden age of opera had Callas as its chief gem, set off by designers like Lila da Nobili, stage directors such as Luchino Visconti (who came to opera because there was a Callas to direct) and conductors Leonard Bernstein and Carlo Maria Giulini.

By 1960, the woman began to dominate the artist as Callas attempted to fulfill her life equally as a human being through a liaison with Aristotle Onassis. The super machine she had devised to achieve all manner of extraordinary vocal feats began to slow and then break down. The old brilliance and audacity fell prey to self-doubt.

There was a disastrous attempt to return to the stage after an eight-year absence. With any other singer, it would have been merely sad; with Callas, it was tragic. Hers was a life and career bought at an enormous price. But the fall of Callas was as much a part of her mystique as her rise. To those who were swept up in her art, she was opera.

Surely that was one of the reasons behind her "appearance" (for a Callas recording has an unmistakable face to it) in "Philadelphia." As Callas' voice reaches out into the dark to grab our attention during the "Chenier" aria, it tells us through the words of the piece something Andrew Beckett, who is dying of AIDS, knows deeply and desperately wants us to realize:

"It was in the midst of all this suffering that love came to me -- a voice full of harmony, and said, 'Live still! I am life! You are not alone! Your tears I will dry! I will stand by you on your way and will support you! Smile and hope! I am love!' "

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