The appearance of Maria Callas in the world of opera was more than a phenomenon. It was the emergence of a new operatic culture. It was the birth of a new language that transcended the notes of opera scores and the words of libretti to create its own code of communication between artist and public. A code that needed no special key to be deciphered but rather contained infinite keys within its own makeup as it embraced listeners in torrents of emotion. Maria Callas infused the art of opera with theater—the theater of humanity at its rawest and most glorious—and her iconic legacy lives on.
Born on December 2nd, 1923, Maria Callas is commemorated all over the world throughout this entire year. In honor of her centennial anniversary, tributes are resounding everywhere, through performances dedicated to her as well as award ceremonies and written homages. I first discovered Maria Callas when I was a child in my native Bucharest, Romania and I often recall my experience of getting to know the artistry of “La Divina.” In tribute to her, I thought of revisiting some ideas about her genius that were born in the first paper I wrote during my Ph.D. program in Comparative Literature at The Graduate Center, an essay that has brought me immense joy as a writer and former singer.
Maria Callas in 1958 (Public Domain)
I had often encountered the word “sublime” in association with the artistry of Maria Callas and I instantly took to that word, in its adjective form. Until I learned, in that first class of my Ph.D. program, that “sublime” is much more than an adjective. It is “The Sublime,” not just a noun, but a philosophical concept that has fascinated writers and philosophers since the beginning of the A.D. era, from what we know has remained in writing. Still, attempts at understanding the Sublime probably date at least as far back as the origins of divine worship and art. The mental and emotional states described in the first known text on the Sublime could have been experienced ever since human beings have had the capacity to feel the emotions of transcendence and of being swept away. Yet, the first written work to examine a philosophical understanding of the Sublime dates from the first century A.D. and its’ author is Longinus. As I read Longinus’s revelatory treatise, my thoughts went to Maria Callas. I wondered if I could take the philosopher’s description of the concept and apply it to her artistry to illuminate in some form how she achieved the Sublime.
In December 1952, La Scala opened its season with a performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth starring Maria Callas as Lady Macbeth. The live recording of that performance captures Callas at twenty-nine years of age, basking in her vocal and artistic powers, as well as the tumult of an audience brought to the edge of frenzy. Callas’s interpretation of the role subjugates the listener from start to finish through her ability to penetrate, unsettle, and unleash emotions in a delivery often divorced from conventional notions of operatic vocal beauty. The phrase that begins Lady Macbeth’s aria in the sleepwalking scene—as the tormented, somnambulic queen attempts to remove the blood stains she still sees on her hands—is “Una macchia è qui tuttora! Via, ti dico, o maledetta!” (“A stain is still here! Away, I tell you, oh damned [spot]!”)
Callas delivers the first half of the phrase in a guttural, lamenting sound. Only when she arrives at “Via, ti dico” does she sound conventionally operatic as though paying a brief respect to the art form before crossing its boundaries again in her utterance of “maledetta.” On that word, particularly in the enunciation of the syllable “de,” her voice slides into a blend of mild grunting, hoarseness, and moaning which, from a vocal technique perspective, sounds like an unhealthy glottal slip that would cause voice teachers to cringe. The entire phrase, culminating in the rawness of the “maledetta” utterance, wrenches emotion away from any mental grip in the attempt to judge the technical form of the sounds by established standards. The delivery of that phrase defies traditional operatic aesthetics.
Her sound violates rules, dispossesses the listener of critical judgment, and dislodges from the mind all notions of the operatic “beautiful” embodied, for instance, by the crystal-voiced singer—and Callas rival—of the time, Renata Tebaldi. The Callas rendition of the “una macchia” phrase is not beautiful. It is beyond beautiful—or, rather, “beautiful” becomes a reductive, almost absurd adjective in this case. The effect of the Callas voice surpasses the beautiful to dwell in that realm that has incited analysis and redefinition through time, ever since its introduction to the Western world by Longinus: The Sublime.
Longinus was the first writer and critic, albeit of a mysterious identity, to broach the subject in his 1st century A.D. treatise On the Sublime (Perì Hýpsous) written in epistolary form and dedicated to the Roman public figure Posthumius Terentianus. The treatise is a work of literary criticism that quotes, analyzes, and mentions numerous authors. At a first reading, varied definitions of the Sublime emerge, such as loftiness and excellence of language, greatness of soul, imperious and irresistible force, and spontaneous illumination of an entire subject.
Maria Callas as Giulia in Spontini’s La Vestale, 1954 (Wikimedia Commons)
The most compelling message of the work is Longinus’s perspective on the reciprocal relationship between instruction and genius in an artist’s achievement of the Sublime. Mastery of a craft derives not only from teachers’ instructions but also, or especially, from the genius of the artist. This is how craft and genius are reciprocal: it is not only genius that is shaped by instruction in the craft, but craft itself is guided by genius. One can easily transfer this concept to the artistry of Callas who learned her art form through meticulous study as through innate abandonment to her genius in interpretation.
She was known to respect every accent and every dynamic in the musical score, yet when she performed, the audience lost awareness of her precision. Her genius disguised the technical elements of her art, offering audiences what Longinus claimed as the recipes for the Sublime: art without artifice, nature disguising artifice or, what he called, the “brave disorder of genius.” The artists who achieve the Sublime are no longer strictly enclosed within the form of their art; they expand the confines of that form.
How does Longinus attempt to capture the transcendent aspect of the Sublime and suggest ways to achieve it? He encourages risk taking and the breaking of conventions—but only when the impulse to do so comes from an artist’s instinctual sense of an aesthetic conception, not from a superficial, commercially motivated drive to appear original at any cost. Ultimately, his ideas suggest that the Sublime involves two-way relationships between instruction and genius, method and “divine madness” (inspiration), form and content.
In these relationships, the first elements—instruction, method, and form—work to control the second. But in the achievement of the Sublime, the second elements—genius, inspiration, and content—act to disguise and transcend the first. In other words, when we experience the art of an inspired, genius artist, we can get swept away and forget that their work is the result of prolonged and rigorous attention to study, technique, and style.
During her adolescent years, Callas studied the principles of vocal production and styles, learning roles with legendary rapidity. As her genius emerged, however, she created a unique musical emotional language that did not respect convention, and she was often accused of technical flaws. Even though she performed within the realm of her art form, her singing was not a subject of that realm. On the contrary, it was the art form that became subjected to her voice to the point that the dramatic impact of her interpretation exceeded both music and text.
Take, for instance, the phrases from Verdi’s Aida: “Ritorna vincitor! E dal mio labbro uscì l’empia parola!” When Callas sings them, they no longer mean simply “Return victorious! And from my lips came out the vile words!” If vileness had a fundamental emotional sound, this utterance in the Callas voice would be it. She sweeps through text and music, accessing the listener at a visceral level.
Maria Callas in concert – Amsterdam, 1959 (Photo: by Joop van Bilsen / Anefo at Creative Commons)
Or to return to the Lady Macbeth sleepwalking scene, the phrase “Via, ti dico, o maledetta” becomes the vocal essence of resigned despair, pulverizing the borders of words, multiplying its impact over the threshold of meaning that the phrase provides. Text in opera supports the plot as a subordinate partner to the music. When the soprano sings, “Via, ti dico, o maledetta,” the text, a translation of Shakespeare, frames the action of Lady Macbeth rubbing her hands. But when Callas utters it, the text explodes its literal function, and words flow into that unique language that conveys their content with immediacy and force.
The magic of an artist like Callas is as ungraspable as is Longinus’s Sublime. What Callas does is to steal meaning away from operatic literalness and translate it into this new artistic language, disguising the mechanics of the translation by the sheer power of its effects. What Callas does is to claim the right to tragedy—not as a contract of cathartic exchange between artist and public, but as a fundamental strand in humanity’s emotional makeup. For Callas, the expressive ability to awaken reciprocal emotional responses in the audience was instinctive.
It was one of the keys to her genius. Respect for the musical score and vocal discipline were other keys. She knew that she needed to master the first—technical—elements in order to disguise and transcend them. To paraphrase an old adage, those who first learn to serve become masters. Serving the totality of the operatic art crowned Callas’s mastery over the elements of the Longinus Sublime.
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