Magazine article The Spectator

Callas: Fact and Fiction

Magazine article The Spectator

Callas: Fact and Fiction

Article excerpt

As time passes and the farther we get from the days of Callas the more her legend seems to grow; yet, alas, the more inaccurate and often trite does the story of her life so easily become, as a recent BBC 2 documentary (13 July) suggested.

This one did not even bother to get correct the date of her birth - she was born on 2 December 1923, not the 3rd. It needed no deep research to check it. I was the first to quote it accurately in my 1991 biography Maria Meneghini Callas (Simon & Schuster) - see page 4. A New York friend looked up her birth certificate. Nowadays a computer could have found it as easily.

A recording of `Un bel di' from Madama Butterfly was played, claiming it was Callas, but it was a soprano named Nina Foresti, and originally broadcast on the Major Bowes Amateur Hour on 7 April 1935. It was first passed off as Callas by a record pirate in 1966, but nobody with any knowledge of voices ever seriously believed it I certainly didn't (see MMC, page 281) she would have been only 11 at the time. It took her sister to deny it before John Ardoin (he was on the documentary), in the latest edition of his study of her recordings, The Callas Legacy, ceased bothering with it.

It was claimed that Callas's greatness was immediately recognised the first time she sang in Italy, at the Verona arena in Gioconda in 1947, but that is not so. As her husband Meneghini tells in his Maria Callas mia moglie: `It was not a triumph. She had a nice success but that was all. No one proclaimed it a miracle. If they had then offers for engagements would have come immediately, as it was she did not receive a single offer.' It took another four months before she sang again. Even in 1953, when she appeared as Aida in Covent Garden, the gallery was empty enough to play bowls in. In 1958 when she sang Violetta in Traviata I went to the box-office on the morning booking opened and bought seats -- there was no all-night queue. It is worth remembering that the art of the greatest singers, like Caruso, Chaliapin and Callas, has no precedent. It is not the consummation of a tradition, rather it represents something new and different that suddenly appears, breaking all the rules.

The claim made that there are more records of Callas available now than there were even in her lifetime may be true; but today we live in the age of the media, so there are too of many other much older famous singers, like Battistini, Caruso, Melba, Tetrazzini, Galli-Curci, Muzio etc. A lack of any historical knowledge accounted for many inaccuracies the programme was guilty of perpetrating. Had anyone bothered to get the photographs of Callas in the right order then it would have been obvious that she did not become fat, as was claimed, in New York before she came to Italy. Her weight only went up noticeably after 1951 and the great years of her La Scala career had begun.

It was claimed that Tosca was always one of her great roles, but that too is not so. Though she sang it often at the beginning of her career in Greece, after her La Scala years had begun, notwithstanding a famous recording she made there under de Sabata, she undertook it only in Mexico City, Genoa and at the Metropolitan, New York; and there simply because Bing, the general manager, would not mount anything else for her. In her great years she claimed that Tosca was `her least favourite role'. …

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