Death becomes them

Twenty-five years after their final curtains, Elvis Presley and Maria Callas are still bigger than life.

The Diva

Maria Callas threw herself into her music, and no one could ignore her

Cover Story

August 11, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The first time I heard the voice of Maria Callas, I laughed.

The setting was a college professor's home. He had invited his music history class over one night so that we could all listen to a complete opera together.

His choice was a recording of Rossini's defining comedy The Barber of Seville starring Callas as Rosina. No sooner did she start in on her first aria than I got the giggles.

"It sounds like she has marbles in her mouth," I said, feeling quite the astute little critic.

The teacher just gave me a pity-the-poor-rube smile and let the records play on.

With the 25th anniversary of the soprano's death looming next month, I find it hard to believe I ever disliked, let alone giggled over, her incomparable, indelible singing. Now, I can't conceive of being without access to that astonishing sound.

The late John Ardoin, the most incisive of the singer's biographers, gave away his first Callas recording because he could not stand what he heard. But he nonetheless found himself oddly haunted by it. He later bought another copy, listened again and was hooked forever.

When Ardoin met Callas, he admitted he hadn't liked her voice initially.

"I thought not," she said. "Generally, I upset people the first time they hear me, but I am usually able to convince them of what I am doing."

Usually, but most certainly not always. One reason I love Callas so much is because she invariably divides people, challenges them, makes them think, feel, take a stand. You cannot possibly be neutral about this woman, this force.

One of my favorite Callas moments on record demonstrates that in a big way. It's a live performance at Milan's La Scala, Feb. 16, 1956, of the same opera that introduced her to me -- The Barber of Seville.

The studio recording she made of it in 1957 (the one I heard on that fateful college night) remains widely admired; opinions heard during that live one the year before are decidedly varied -- and noisy.

Early in Act 2, Rosina sings a showy aria as part of her music lesson. Almaviva responds, "Bella voce, bravissima!" ("What a beautiful voice!"), and Dr. Bartolo reaffirms it: "Certo, bella voce" ("Certainly, a beautiful voice").

After Callas finishes Rosina's lesson aria, she gets a nice enough ovation. But when tenor Luigi Alva sings the "Bella voce" line, catcalls and boos erupt from part of the audience, hearty applause from another. The show stops cold as the crowd emotionally debates the question that always dogged Callas -- was her singing really beautiful?

Callas supporters eventually gain the upper hand and things settle down. But no sooner does bass Melchiorre Luise proceed to utter Dr. Bartolo's "Certo, bella voce," than someone yells out, "Ah, no!" The threat of pandemonium hangs in the air for an instant, but Luise repeats his line, with a little more authority, and the performance resumes.

I just love that moment when all hell breaks loose in the house. It gives me chills, makes me feel like I'm there, makes me want to start screaming my two-lira's worth, too.

"It is not enough to have a beautiful voice," Callas once said. "When you interpret a role, you have to have a thousand colors to portray happiness, joy, sorrow, fear. How can you do that with only a beautiful voice?

"Even if you sing harshly sometimes, as I have frequently done, it is a necessity of expression. You have to do it, even if people will not understand."

Callas redefined beauty, just as she redefined what it means to be an opera singer. She expanded the boundaries, while raising the bar.

Today, we get an awful lot of routine opera performances, when all the notes are there (even sung quite beautifully), but unaccompanied by true, piercing moments of music and theater. With Callas, it's hard to come across a recorded performance that doesn't have such moments. Nearly every time she sang, it really was a matter of life and death.

(Much to my regret, my only exposure to the soprano is on disc and the paltry bit of filmed performances available. But Callas can make you see her, just by hearing her sing, which explains why she still attracts fans born too late to experience her in the theater.)

For Callas, music was never just words and melody, but a kind of open-heart surgery where she was both patient and surgeon, exploring, exposing.

"Hers may not have been an easy voice to listen to," Ardoin wrote, "but it was an impossible one to forget. In its dark, hollow recesses, it held the essence of theater.

"Even the flaws in her voice -- that bottled low register, a reedy middle range and a wavering top -- were turned into virtues by her use of them to convey a broad panorama of feelings. She was consistently a giver, never just a taker like so many singers currently before the public. Callas was incapable of indifference and was willing to take enormous risks to conquer onstage."

A colorful life

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