My first encounter with the art of Maria Callas happened when I was six years old. As I grew up in communist Romania, watching television was, in itself, an art, the art of navigating, without succumbing, a propaganda-packed programming: from dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s speeches and travels to films made in Romania and fellow Eastern Bloc countries extolling the virtues of socialism and communism. There were few moments of respite from indoctrination, and they consisted, especially for us kids, of cartoons—this is how I became a fan of Fred Flintstone and Tom & Jerry—scheduled only for half an hour on Saturday afternoons so we would not get too addicted to such a “decadent” form of entertainment. Poems and hymns to the party and to the “supreme leader,” exemplary tales of Soviet children living a communist life and even denouncing their parents if they strayed from the ideology—this is what was meant to engage us in our leisure time. But, in its generosity, and perhaps to demonstrate some open-mindedness to the West, the powers that be allowed us those precious 30 minutes of cartoons. They also permitted cultural programming outside of the usual propaganda shows, shows during which even our greatest national opera stars had to sing praises to Ceausescu, his wife, and the party.
It was during such a rare “foreign” program that I first saw Maria Callas. She was singing an excerpt from her debut concert in Paris: Rosina’s aria “Una voce poco fa” from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, a black-and-white video—well, everything on Romanian TV was black-and-white then. I remember staring at her huge eyes, elegant hands, big earrings, and enormous smile as she seemed to play with sounds. Although she was a slender woman at the time, everything about her presence appeared big, larger than life, comical even. I didn’t respond to the voice or to the music. What drew me in was the oddity of it all: here was this human being that seemed alien, at once mesmerizing and scary, creating sounds I’d never heard before and didn’t know what to do with, except mimic them and amuse myself. After a couple of minutes of accompanying Callas with squealing sounds, and fluttering my hands around like her, I was kicked out of the living room and told to go outside and play with the cat. So, I tried my Callas imitation on the poor animal who, after bearing with the avalanche of sounds for a while, began hissing at me.
That is how I “met” Maria Callas. It would be another four years before I would fall, totally and unconditionally, in love with opera, sitting still and seriously minded in the Bucharest Opera house, a far cry from that mocking six-year-old. Soon after I arrived in the United States, I re-encountered Callas, at first through two LPs that my mother bought, entitled “Callas by Request” and “Maria Callas the Legend,” both offering previously unreleased recordings of arias from operatic favorites like Verdi’s Il trovatore, Aida, and A Masked Ball, and Bellini’s La sonnambula to lesser-performed operas like Verdi’s Il corsaro, Attila, and I Lombardi. A teenager now, studying piano and music theory at a local music school, with three years of attending opera performances in Bucharest behind me, my second encounter with Callas became a different story. A story of awe, fascination, and love that, I knew then as I know now, will last for my entire life.
The first sounds I heard from her then were Amina’s bel canto phrases singing “Compagne, teneri amici” (Companions, loving friends) in La sonnambula on the “Maria Callas the Legend” LP. Those sounds had a tenderness and luminosity I had not experienced before, a sweetness tinged with the subtlest melancholy that made you forget everything, even breathing. It wasn’t angelic sweetness; the purity in her sound seemed both out of this world and very human, hinting at veiled depths of emotion and restrained power, then surprising you out of that magnificent hypnosis with precise and nimble agility. And as I listened to other arias on those LPs, like “Ritorna vincitor” from Aida, she simply rocked my entire world with the sheer power and raw drama of her sound.
This second encounter was it. I wanted more. Gradually, I bought more LPs and tapes that turned into CDs and then exploded into countless free online offerings, audio and video—all you need to do is search for “Maria Callas” on YouTube and an entire Callas-ian universe opens up beckoning you to enter and explore the unique artistry of this enthralling woman. There was indeed the woman behind the artist, a woman in love, the ugly duckling who had transformed herself into a swan of glamour and ascended to the top of the international fame elite, living a highly publicized love story with her compatriot, Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis. But as heroes of Greek tragedies inevitably fall once they touch the stratosphere of the jealous gods, she too fell from the Olympian heights of her art as the end of her love affair, when Onassis left her for Jacqueline Kennedy, destroyed her heart and her voice. The story of the artist and the tale of the woman are one in the legend that is Maria Callas. It has been said that her singing conveys such sorrow because she lived it.
Today, I listen to Maria Callas often. She offers me the most complete and fulfilling immersion in the operatic art and fuels a never-ending fascination with the unique chameleonic colors and human feelings with which she infuses each sound, as though she were not singing but speaking a language of emotions directly to the heart. Her singing is one of my personal roller coasters through the sublime and the beautiful, through the divine and the human.
Which is why I highly recommend the new documentary that recently aired on PBS, The Magic of Callas. It details her return to the stage in 1964 as the eponymous heroine in Puccini’s Tosca at London’s Covent Garden. This is a rare chance to see Callas onstage, “in action.” Footage from Act II is interspersed with comments by current opera celebrities as well as photos and offstage clips.
As an additional recommendation among other documentaries about Callas, an especially terrific one is Tony Palmer’s award-winning Callas. The more recent Maria by Callas is an ideal complement to Palmer’s film as it tells the story of Callas’s life in her own words and features never-before-seen footage. The list of her recorded material, legit and pirate, is huge. A 2014 complete collection of her remastered studio recordings, featuring 70 CDs and interesting biographical materials, is available on Amazon. The number of books written about Callas is equally impressive, two of my favorites are Nicholas Gage’s Greek Fire: The Story of Maria Callas and Aristotle Onassis and Arianna Huffington’s Maria Callas: The Woman Behind the Legend. And then, of course, there is always YouTube.
When you enter the artistic universe of Maria Callas, let her own words reveal to you her commitment of a life devoted to art: “An opera begins long before the curtain goes up and ends long after it has come down. It starts in my imagination, it becomes my life, and it stays part of my life long after I’ve left the opera house.” At the same time, let us not forget that she was a woman who loved and lost, an artist perpetually torn between the desire to live a life for love and a life of sacrifice for artistic integrity: “I would like to be Maria, but there is La Callas who demands that I carry myself with her dignity.” Her singing expresses both woman and artist in a perfect fusion of art and humanity. We, as fortunate recipients of that expression, can’t help loving her for being La Callas, and love her all over again for being Maria.
The Magic of Callas documentary is available to stream until February 12 on PBS.
Photos courtesy of PBS
Top: Maria Callas in Tosca, 1964