Monday, December 2, 2013

Callas Pour Toujours: Celebrating the Birthday of a Diva

Maria Callas would have been 90 today, had she lived. Her fame as a foremost vocalist shows no sign of diminishing, and music critics divide the history of operatic singing into BC and AC (before Callas and after Callas).

Music to accompany article: O Mio Babbino Caro (Puccini)

Maria Callas in La Traviata

   I remember when, many years ago, BBC Radio 3 celebrated her anniversary (as they still do today) with a whole week of reminiscences, highlighted with recordings of her music. This was before the age of podcasts, on demand streaming and the like, hence listening to the programmes as they were being broadcast live was the only option. They were transmitted every weekday at noon. As I had a decent radio receiver in my office, I could listen to them on most days except when I had a ward round. However, I then decided that Maria Callas was more important than any ward round and excused myself earlier on account of a very important meeting. So every day that week, I secretly indulged in my ‘time with Callas’, a time full of inspiration and most glorious music. My early fascination with Classical Greece had found its voice.

   Much has been said and written about the Diva, and yet her enigma still eschews close acquaintance. A woman who was born not particularly attractive, at some point became a fashion model and celebrity. By sheer will power, she shed several stone in weight and approximated her idol in that respect – Audrey Hepburn. Callas’ voice, not particularly beautiful (one of the conductors called it a big ugly voice”) came to epitomise the ultimate drama in vocal music. It was the drama, or indeed tragedy as befitted the Greek goddess, that kept the listeners spellbound. She reached, and still reaches, the recesses of the human soul that no other performer has ever done. To paraphrase W. B. Yeats “she was the singer and the song”. And perhaps it was her intense honesty to the emotional content of the arias she sang, coupled with an exquisite musicality, that were – and still are – the secret behind her undying appeal.

   Maria Callas died on 16 September 1977. Like any tragic Greek heroine, she had her own hamartia. And this was her irreconcilable wish to be a great artist and at the same time to be just a woman, loved by a man. Aristotle Onassis, a fellow Greek, capitalised on that dilemma and lured her into feeling that she was that much loved woman. He had a habit of collecting famous women, and sadly Maria was one of them. She never recovered from the deep disappointment and betrayal. Her soul (meaning her voice) died long before her body; when she could no longer sing, she could no longer live. She died, slowly, until she was no more. But her annihilation as an individual was at the same time a glorious rebirth of the archetypal Greek heroine. And archetypal Greek heroes live forever.

   Dimitris, my would have been Greek son-in-law, once gave me a treasured compilation of Callas songs, as well as a book about her, Greek Fire. I dedicate this entry to him.