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The DIVA series
Curated by Executive Director Susan Scott
MC43- Maria Callas sings Puccini: Tosca- “Vissi d’Arte”, Covent Garden 1964
Maria Callas was born in NY to Greek parents always on the verge of breaking up. She felt profoundly unwanted and unloved: “I was “the ugly duckling, fat, clumsy and unpopular. I hated school, I hated everybody.” That started to change when at eight she began music studies and started to win radio amateur contests. “When I sang, I was really loved.”
She was visiting Athens with her sister and mother when World War II broke out and they couldn’t leave. She was 14 and would spend the next four pivotal years at the National Conservatory studying voice and attracting attention. When a leading singer in the National Opera Company became ill, Callas took over the role of Tosca after first bloodying the nose of someone backstage she heard say: “That fat ‘B’ will never carry it off.” She did, of course, with raves from the critics, but it didn’t change her self-image. According to her teacher, “Maria had a real inferiority complex except about her voice.”
Her voice wasn’t the most beautiful, but her technical abilities and the inflections and nuances of her emotional range were phenomenal. “Callas is more exciting than any singer has a right to be.” She left sophisticated opera audiences astounded and delighted.
Returning to NY after the war, The Met offered her the role of Madame Butterfly but she turned it down. She didn’t want to play Cio Cio San weighing over 200 lbs. When no other public engagements presented, a despondent Callas left for Italy and there everything would change. She sailed an awkward young woman and by the mid- ‘50s had become the world’s most sought-after prima donna. She married a millionaire industrialist in a love match that would last several years; lost 60 lbs. and transformed from duckling to svelte, bejeweled swan, filling halls with ecstatic audiences and finding artistic homes at La Scala and London’s Covent Garden.
Callas had a huge reputation by the time she finally debuted in America in 1954 in an event that literally launched the Lyric Opera Company of Chicago! Her Met debut two years later would be marred only by a Time Magazine cover story that praised her extraordinary vocal gifts and called her “the “undisputed queen of the world’s opera” – also – “a diva more widely hated by her colleagues and more wildly acclaimed by her public than any other living singer.”
The next several years would see high’s and lots of low’s in performances, health and love affairs – her firing by The Met, for example, and high-profile affair with Aristotle Onassis. In 1964, she was 40 and hadn’t sung on stage for two years when Franco Zeffirelli asked her to take on Tosca once again. The production became an operatic legend. From the ashes of her career, Maria Callas triumphed in an opening-night performance that won 27 curtain calls and a 40-minute standing ovation.
There aren’t many video recordings of Callas performing live which makes today’s MC selection all the more special: it’s her Tosca from that legendary evening at Covent Garden. Vissi d’arte vissi d’amore. I lived for art; I lived for love.
Maria Callas: “still the definition of the diva as artist.”
Enjoy. Comments invited always.
Clip from the 1982 French film, “Diva,” with American soprano Wilhelmenia Fernandez performing the gorgeous aria from “La Wally” while a young postman makes an illicit recording of it. The result is a suspense thriller (and love story) with the coolest Zen character ever and a jaw-dropping chase scene – plus great music and Paris!! Not dated at all. (on Youtube and probably elsewhere)
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