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On the occasion of her 100th birthday: Approaching Maria Callas' Gesamtkunstwerk


Highlights: A tribute to the 100th birthday of Maria Callas. Callas appeared on stage 92 times in the title role of Bellini's "Norma" She has sung 605 performances – only. to this day, the much sought-after crowds of the scene are at 60 to 80 evenings per year. Whether the violent diet promoted her vocal decline has been the subject of heated debate. The art of Callas testifies to a broader concept of beauty. Of a search for artistic truth that operates with other definitions of perfection.

Status: 29.11.2023, 16:00 PM

By: Markus Thiel

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Maria Callas was already a legend during her lifetime – and yet she remained a child of her time. Would she have a chance today? © Dpa

She was the prototype of a diva - and yet intangible. And what remains is the antithesis to today's role-devouring stars who only deliver stereotypical drama. A tribute to the 100th birthday of Maria Callas.

What would your social media account be called? @Maria? @LaDivina? And what would there be to see? Latest robes? Snapshots of rehearsals or with Onassis on a yacht including short videos? At this point, at the latest, not only the fan should wave off. Ultimately, all this is inconceivable, from Callas' point of view also undignified, without style. But the thought experiment is aimed at something else. It's about contrast, about visualizing a career that was like no other and unrepeatable.

Maria Callas, born in New York City on December 2 or 4, 1923 and died in Paris on September 16, 1977, was a child of her time – and at the same time a confidante because she became synonymous with "soprano" or "opera star" – just as the whole world immediately thinks of Karajan when they hear the term "conductor". A confidante who is at the same time admired as a strange, fascinating being. A myth already during his lifetime and lifted from the lowlands of the rest of the music scene. And thus incomprehensible and tangible in several senses.

If you want absolute objectivity, you have to make do with numbers. She has sung 605 performances – only. To this day, the much sought-after crowds of the scene are at 60 to 80 evenings per year. Callas appeared on stage 92 times in the title role of Bellini's "Norma", the druid priestess hopelessly in love with a Roman became a signet role. And two more telling figures: She starved herself down from 92 to 64 kilos during the 1953/54 season in order to fit into the (not only) women's ideal of the time.

Her art moved beyond charm and harmony

Whether the violent diet promoted her vocal decline has been the subject of heated debate ever since. Also about how long their heyday actually lasted. At least voice experts agree on this: not even a decade and a half. No one doubts the singularity, the power of contact of this soprano voice. Callas forces us to listen. And those who listen to it are forced to take a stance. But was the voice beautiful?

The art of Callas testifies to a broader concept of beauty. Of an aesthetic self-image that leaves the realm of loveliness, harmony and polishedness. Of a search for artistic truth that operates with other definitions of perfection. The piecemeal work of bel canto in the operas of Donizetti and Bellini, which is now a truism, was given a new weight of its own by them. No chirping soprano was active here, none who used these works only as fodder for virtuosos. Each piece of a coloratura chain was now given an appropriate meaning. Every tone formation was a means to an end. Compared to Elisabeth Schwarzkopf or Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, nothing was made, manufactured, developed from a distance. Nothing was just sound from a jewelry box, like Montserrat Caballé or Renée Fleming, and therefore of limited dramatic significance. Therefore, Callas' voice could not be a polished gem. Everything was total dramatic-theatrical logic.

She was always concerned with meticulous questioning of the composer's details and motivation. And all this free of superficial effects. The exceptions were notes that she used as a weapon of battle: the famous high Eb that was not in the score, which she fired in Mexico City in 1951 at the end of the "Aida" triumphal act, was an anti-tenor weapon. With this all-consuming tone, she taught a lesson to Kurt Baum, who until then had been googling his way through the Radamès role. Drama, Callas thought, can only be realized together. That, too, is faithfulness to the work.

Vocal problems became apparent early on

Her singing was not exhausted in evenness. But he was also more than a diamond in the rough. Not a volcanic eruption, as is often thought. Callas did not sing like unformed lava, everything testified to a perfect awareness of the dramatic means. Whether it was also a complete mastery is another matter. Breaks, a lack of sound concentration, a vibrato that had gone off the rails, all this became apparent early on. And there is always the question of whether she was overexploiting at the beginning of her career, when she threw herself into dramatic plays such as Kundry, Turandot or Aida. On April 2, 1939, as a 16-year-old, Callas appeared on stage as Santuzza in Mascagni's "Cavalleria rusticana" as part of a student project. A tour de force.

For the blatant changes of her soprano, there is the "Tosca" proof. In the 1953 mono recording under Victor de Sabata, this voice obeys completely and breathtakingly. Then, in 1965, in the second recording under Georges Prêtre, one no longer hears vocal grains, but loss of substance. And yet a religious war is raging, which is the better reception. It is precisely the decline of Callas, it is often argued, that the unprotected, the injured, touches much more. So how much wear and tear is allowed to an idol? What else is tolerable in the service of a vocal portrait – which is ultimately a testimony to a dying voice?

Maria Callas with her husband Giovanni Battista Meneghini. They were married for ten years. © Dpa

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In the end, their ruin could no longer be concealed. She herself spoke again and again of a new beginning, of fresh strength. Whether it was self-suggestion or PR talk, you don't like it and can't decide. The stage art of Callas is a much more comprehensive phenomenon. And she was the opposite of a star who made guest appearances everywhere, who delivered his often tried-and-tested, stereotypical one-size-fits-all drama with minimal preparation – just think of role devourers like Plácido Domingo. There are also plenty of reports of Callas complaining about unprepared colleagues. A "Lohengrin" Elsa like Anna Netrebko once did at the Semperoper in Dresden, who was only able to make her debut with subtitles invisible to the audience – unthinkable for Callas.

The fact that she was fought, that she was accused of exaggeration and caprice, that was also an indicator. The music business was striving more and more for what could be produced quickly and profitably, and in some cases also for ready-made voices. In its heyday, the Callas could be fitted into the "system" and a production could be built around it. Because one understood what was possible with her understanding of art and her singing potential.

The Callas in the Congress Hall of the Deutsches Museum in Munich. © Dpa

Maria Callas also remains singular because there were no successors. Only imitators who tried to get to the bottom of the idol with a necklace handle or artificially darkened voice – take Lucia Aliberti or Angela Gheorghiu. It was only with her vocal decline, her entry into the jet-set life and her relationship with the Greek shipowner Aristotle Onassis, that Callas' art became unbalanced. The failing man now pushed himself in front of the opera characters. Something that was persecuted and promoted by the lustful public. By then, it was too late to reinvent it on its own.

She is still the prototype of the diva. However, not as a synonym for super-celebrity. According to the definition of cultural and social sciences, diva means: idolized, revered, working beyond time. And: a damaged star, hurt in or by fame. Suffering from wounds caused by private or professional crises. Like Romy Schneider, Evita Péron – or Ludwig II. Which shows what distinguishes stars like Helene Fischer or Britney Spears from real divas. They are also in contrast to the fast-paced nature of our culture, to the addiction to new names, meshes and fashions.

Callas remained both. Fictional figure and artist, phenomenon and real earthly being. A world removed from the world and self-creation that could no longer withstand reality, whether vocal or private. A tragedian in two senses. An out-of-time victim who needed her time to act. In this respect, the question of the social media account is superfluous. Callas's Gesamtkunstwerk would probably no longer stand a chance today.

Source: merkur

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