Maria Callas -- topping a 5-foot shelf

April 04, 1999|By Elizabeth Teachout | By Elizabeth Teachout,Special to the Sun

"Maria Callas: Sacred Monster," by Stelios Galatopoulos. Simon & Schuster. 564 pages. $35.

Whether staring out of Apple's "think different" ads, re-created in the Tony Award winning play "Master Class," or blown up to the size of a billboard as backdrop for the opera "Harvey Milk," Maria Callas remains a stronger presence two decades after her death than any opera singer currently gracing the stage of the Met. By demanding that opera be a dramatic experience -- often at the sacrifice of vocal beauty -- she earned the nickname "La Divina" though there were an equal number of opera fans who considered her nothing less than the Antichrist.

Her ugly-duckling story, complete with Aristotle Onassis as love interest, a handful of well-publicized catfights and a mysterious death at the age of 53, is the stuff of biographers' daydreams. No surprise then, that London opera critic Stelios Galatopoulos has given us yet another rehashing of Callas and the myths that surround her since everyone else with an opinion -- including her mother, sister and ex-husband, not to mention the academics and slush-peddlers -- has already sounded off.

The surprise is that in writing "Maria Callas: Sacred Monster," Galatopoulos has produced a stimulating, essential book on his exhausted subject that will serve both the aficionado with a 5-foot shelf of books on the legendary diva as well as the neophyte who has just bought his first "Tosca" recording.

The immediate appeal of "Maria Callas: Sacred Monster" is in its spectacular photographs: more than a hundred pages worth, many previously unpublished. Forty-one of Callas' stage roles are documented, each with an excellent sampling of pictures, a simple synopsis of the opera and critical commentary on what Callas did to make the role her own based on the 123 performances the author attended.

Galatopoulos also offers a thorough discography with an intelligent discussion of the relative merits of each recording along with a listing of all of Callas' performances.

But the great draw of the book is in how he tells the story of Maria Callas. Galatopoulos is an uneven writer, to be sure, lapsing into a dreary "As we shall see, 1957 was to prove a crucial year for Callas" type of delivery when not engaged by the events at hand. But he is an ace eyewitness, and his 20-year friendship with Callas gave him a large club with which to bash less conscientious biographers.

"The Callas fresco needs not merely cleaning but major restoration," he writes in the preface to his book, and accordingly proceeds to debunk legend after legend. By writing about Callas while she was alive, he gained her confidence, and the simple but compelling quotes in the final chapters of the book ("After his death I felt a widow," she said of Onassis) at last give voice to many of the subjects on which she was customarily silent.

"I have written memoirs," Callas told the author in 1977. "They are in the music I interpret -- the only language I really know!" For me this could suffice; the unparalleled gift of Maria Callas is that one performance of "Casta Diva" reveals more about the woman than a hundred pages of analysis. But no one fills in the rest of the picture with the insight of Stelios Galatopoulos.

Elizabeth Teachout is a New York opera coach who is on the faculty of Mannes College. She currently has singers appearing at the Metropolitan Opera and New York City Opera.

Pub Date: 04/04/99

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