So Very Callas

A PIERCING YOWL rends the air (and ear). My cat reflexively flinches from the sound. Halloween ghosts? No, but Maria Callas is back from the grave, her artistic output exhumed once more by EMI Classics to mark the 20th anniversary of her death. The series of sleek, black slipcases will roll off the assembly line well into 1998, until every scrap of tape from EMI's cutting room floor has been remastered, recoupled, and repackaged for the zillionth time.

Why? Money, my dear. Callas is worth a cool million every year to EMI, which is fortunate to have near-exclusive rights to the oeuvre of one of the most ill-trained and howlingly overpraised singers of the 20th century--an unguided missile who tore through a random swath of repertory, shot a promising voice to smithereens, and was effectively finished at age 42, following a prime that didn't even run a decade.

Not that Callas stopped there. La Divina would periodically emerge, from the life of Parisian luxury to which she was otherwise doomed, to croak out LP sides that would have embarrassed Florence Foster Jenkins. What's more, a so-awful-you'd-never-believe-it recital tour in 1974 produced audience reactions and panegyrics of praise worthy of a Judy Garland fan club on speed.

At least Garland's frailties were poignant--the remnants of a once-great instrument. Callas could sound old and sclerotic as early as age 31. And her lack of real (i.e., reliable) technique or a career game plan meant that a run of good performances and recordings--as in 1957--could be prefaced and followed by some of the most horrid squawkings heard on tape: a failing exacerbated by those acolytes and exploiters who have published any number of items that Callas herself knew belonged in the trim-bin. Just wait until digital prodigies make it possible to scramble and encode Callas's vocal "bytes" into every role she never thought to sing. Imagine it: "Callas Is Evita!"

The lady was scarcely incapable of interpretive brilliance or stylistic insight, but her Look-at-the-menu-and-say-"Yes" career pattern has become the faulty chart guiding many a younger singer into vocal shipwreck. Why? Because when you see Callas adulated on a scale that would make the Virgin Mary blush, you figure, There must be something there. After all, we're talking about a singer whose every last burp, it seems, has been published on CD, whose worst outtake or most embarrassing off night is scrutinized for brilliances that are not so much recondite as imaginary.

La Divina's deficiencies mean that the praise must be jacked up to ever-increasing levels of self-delusion. Take (please!) Michael Tanner: self-appointed, ubiquitous, and factually challenged Callas expert. In a sidebar to a Guardian essay (infelicitously titled "Drama Queen"), Tanner pontificates that "[i]f the gramophone had only recorded her, it would have been justification enough," adding that her recorded colleagues--a Who's Who of '50s opera, most of whom (not insignificantly) enjoyed much longer careers--are " one else is on her level."

Yeah, and despite all the DNA at the murder scene, the Juice is as innocent as a newborn babe. Dare to insist that Callas and tenor Giuseppe di Stefano's collective high C in Verdi's A Masked Ball is woefully flat on Callas's part and you'll have your ears pinned back and that passage tape-looped into your brain until you cave to the notion that it is the most perfect, revelatory note ever to spring from the human throat! Callas cannot be one fine singer among many great ones: No, she is the Alpha and Omega.

Franco Zeffirelli once defined opera as Before Callas (B.C.) and After Callas (A.C.). But film and stage director Luchino Visconti foresaw all this. Callas was, he said, "a sickness." Indeed. And now the spin doctors at EMI Classics have hooked her up to life support and stuck us with the bill.

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