Essays and Criticism
The Changes Callas Brought to Opera Singing
Playwright McNally is a lifelong fan of Maria Callas. He first heard her when he was a fifteenyear- old high school student in Texas in 1953. The recording was of Callas singing in Donizetti’s opera Lucia di Lammermoor, and McNally felt that she was singing just for him. He later wrote, ‘‘Listening to Callas is not a passive experience. It is a conversation with her and finally, ourselves. . . . She tells us her secrets—her pains, her joys—and we tell her ours right back’’ (quoted by John Ardoin, author of ‘‘Callas and the Juilliard Master Classes,’’ in Terrence McNally: A Casebook).
McNally was fortunate enough to have heard Callas sing live twenty-five to thirty times, something that few other people in the United States can match. Callas’s career was short, and not many people younger than fifty are likely to have heard her live on the operatic stage, since her last performance, as Tosca at London’s Covent Garden, was in July 1965. (Many determined operagoers waited in line for five nights to get tickets.) Her last performance in the United States was at New York’s Metropolitan Opera a few months earlier. At the Met, the audience gave Callas a tumultuous reception, and the long bouts of applause at her entrance and during the acts extended the performance an hour longer than scheduled. ‘‘The stage presence shown by Callas in her performance would have raised the hackles on a deaf man’’ was only one among the torrent of accolades that the critics bestowed on her in the morning newspapers the following day (quoted by Arianna Stassinopoulos in her Maria Callas: The Woman Behind the Legend).
However, despite the legendary status Callas attained in her lifetime, for today’s reader or playgoer who has little knowledge of opera, the name Maria Callas may be scarcely more than a name from the distant past. Perhaps for the non-opera fan, the most vivid moments that capture what Callas meant and still means to many people occur in the 1993 film Philadelphia, for which Tom Hanks won an Oscar. Hanks plays Andrew Beckett, a gay lawyer who has AIDS and who is illegally fired from his job because of it. He fights back against the law firm as he also battles the deadly disease. In a key scene Andy listens at home, with his lawyer Joe Miller (Denzel Washington), to a 1954 recording of Callas singing Maddalena’s aria, ‘‘La Mamma Morta,’’ from Umberto Giordano’s opera Andrea Chenier. Andy, whose favorite aria this is, is transported in ecstasy and pain as Callas sings the story of Maddalena’s tragic life. Translating the words over her voice as he listens, he asks Joe, ‘‘Can you hear the heartache in her voice? Can you feel it, Joe?’’ Joe, who knows nothing of opera and is stunned by what is going on, nods his head earnestly. The aria reaches its climax when Maddalena tells how Love came to her and urged her, in spite of her despair, to live: ‘‘Sorridi espera! lo son l’amore! . . . lo son divino’’ (‘‘Smile and hope! I am Love! . . . I am divine’’). As Callas’s top notes ring out in affirmation and triumph—an ecstasy emerging from bitterest pain—Andy feels the same inspiration, ready heroically to affirm life even as he faces a cruel death. It is Callas’s disembodied voice that creates the intense drama of this scene, which is so pivotal to the movie. It perfectly illustrates McNally’s comment quoted above, to which he added an imaginary snatch of dialogue between diva and devotee: ‘‘‘I have felt such despair and happiness,’ Callas confesses. ‘So have I, so have I,’ we answer.’’ McNally suggests that what we see and hear in the characters that Callas brings to such vivid life is a reflection of ourselves, of our own hopes and disappointments, sorrows and joys, just as the aria from Andrea Chenier mirrors the deepest emotions of Andy in Philadelphia.
It is fortunate that all the great roles Callas sung have been preserved on audio recordings so that present and future generations will be able to enjoy and learn from her. However, many people who heard her sing in person say that audio recordings do not convey everything that Callas brought to the roles. In addition to her expressive voice, with its distinctive dark timbre, she was also a dramatic actress of astonishing gifts. She had an electrifying stage presence, as this comment by London critic Bernard Levin (quoted in Nigel Douglas’s book, More Legendary Voices) makes clear: ‘‘We all tingled when she entered as though we had touched a live wire.’’
Although Callas’s career ended before the age of video had fully arrived, several of her performances...
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