Maria Callas: The Callas Conversations

By Berg, Gregory | Journal of Singing, March/April 2009 | Go to article overview

Maria Callas: The Callas Conversations


Berg, Gregory, Journal of Singing


Maria Callas: The Callas Conversations. (EMI Classics DVB 4907649; 119:03) [BBC Interview with Lord Harewood, April 1968; ORTF Interview with Bernard Gavoty, May 1965]

Jules Massenet: "Adieu, notre petite table" (Manon). Vincenzo Bellini: "Ah, non creda mirarti" (La sonnambula). Giacomo Puccini: "O mio babbino caro" (Gianni Schicchi).

In the pantheon of great singers of the last one hundred years, there is not a more formidable figure than Maria Callas. No other singer ever sparked so much discussion or controversy, nor exerted so much influence on his or her own generation and those that followed. One cannot begin to calculate how many people had their notions of operatic greatness radically reshaped by this unique singing actress, who wielded her striking yet flawed instrument with mesmerizing and uncompromising artistry. Think of the bountifully gifted sopranos who were her contemporaries: Renata Tebaldi, Victoria de los Angeles, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Eleanor Steber, Zinka Milanov, Dorothy Kirsten, Lisa Della Casa, Licia Albanese, Astrid Varnay, Leonie Rysanek, Eileen Farrell, to name only a few. For all the greatness that they achieved on the world's stages, none of them left as deep or enduring an impression on opera as did Callas. What is truly astonishing is to consider how powerfully Callas made her presence known in the course of a frustratingly brief career. If we chart her years of transcendence from her La Scala debut in 1951, we see an artist in steep decline within ten years, and all but silenced within a decade and a half. But in those few years of greatness, she reminded the world that opera was meant to be more than the pretty twittering of canaries. Thanks to her dynamic gifts for combining impressive vocalism with powerful communication, the art form was immeasurably enriched.

Callas left behind a plethora of superlative audio recordings which preserve at least much of her artistry for all time. There also is a handful of video recordings for which we should be grateful, even as we lament all that could have been visually preserved but was not. It is also regrettable that Callas did not leave behind any sort of written legacy about her life, her career, and her art. (Had she taken the time to write an autobiography, one can only imagine how it would have flown off bookstore shelves around the world.) At least there were many occasions when Callas was interviewed, and many of those are preserved. Unfortunately, she was subjected to far too many questions that were ultimately irrelevant to her craft. If only it were possible to exchange every question about her reputed rivalry with Tebaldi or her romance with Aristotle Onassis with more serious queries about what was most valuable to her as artist and singer.

This DVD presents two of the lengthiest and most illuminating interviews that Callas ever did on camera. Snippets of both conversations have appeared in various documentaries over the years, but this is the first time that we can view them in their entirety-or at least view all that has been preserved of them. The earlier of the two is the more interesting, even though the interview is conducted in French by Bernard Gavoty for his beloved television program Les Grands Interprètes. It occurred in May of 1965, when Callas was about to return to the Paris Opera for performances in Bellini's Norma, in a Franco Zeffirelli production which was mounted for her the previous year. She is utterly charming in this interview as well as disarmingly honest and insightful about her career as an opera singer-a career which, for all intents and purposes, would end less than three months after this conversation took place. There was no way for television viewers at that time to realize that the soprano's touching remarks about her fears and vulnerabilities as a singer were a hint that those fears were soon to overtake her altogether and drive her from the opera stage for good.

The three arias that she performed that same night in the studio (without a live audience present) also suggest the soprano's precarious vocal state at the time. …

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