THE CALLAS CRAZIES
December the second was the ninety first birthday of poor Maria Callas. It was also the anniversary of Alfred Hitchcock and his bride and life long assistant, Alma. Who, I wonder made the greater contribution to Western Civilization?
Callas was only a singer, in an art form that is badly outmoded and in America at least, in trouble. Judging from my experiences with the guppy generation, Hitchcock's name has been forgotten but his mastery of a form that still matters is remarkable. None the less, the encomiums of Callas hysterics will appear on the opera lists; last year there was even a doodle on Google. Isn't that a thrill?
There's a picture of La Signora Maria Meneghini Callas, as she was then, already losing weight but clearly able to bench press the older man beside her. That is the famous conductor, Tullio Serafin. He conducted Callas' debut in Italy, La gioconda at the Verona Arena in 1947, and promptly forgot her.
The man she lived with and then married, Battista Meneghini, kept after Serafin and anyone else he could find to give Maria another chance to no avail -- until Maestro Serafin needed an Isolde (or Isotta as Wagner's potion poisoned heroine is known in Italian) and couldn't find one. Battista assured him she knew the role cold. She didn't know it at all. But she went to the audition and sight read parts of the score. Serafin was impressed that she read it so well and he hired her. Associated with her in the moron mind because he was hired to conduct many of her records, he declined to list her among the "miracles" he had known among singers. Some of those records he conducted by default.
EMI, run by the Nazi sympathizer Walter Legge, kept trying to interest Herbert Von Karajan who had pulled off the amazing feat of joining the Nazi party twice into conducting her records. Karajan did do a tour of Lucia with her when her voice was starting to fail (their performances from La Scala1954 one of which is a pirate in quite bad sound are remarkable, though she doesn't make pretty sounds, exactly, but the famous Berlin Lucia from a year later finds her struggling. Of course, for anyone with an IQ above poodle the musical point of Lucia is very likely to prove elusive).
The picture, where La Signora Meneghini Callas evidently needs a milkshake, is of her confrontation with a process server in Chicago. Callas was being sued by a manager named Bagarozy with whom she had had a fling though he was married to one of her friends but far more unwisely, she had promised him a share of her eventual earnings (if any) as he paraded her around America in the late forties to no avail.
Although the uniqueness of her sound was part of the problem, and the fact that her timbre was "arresting" rather than beautiful, she was a fat girl from a provincial background with no important patrons.
Bagarozy is the one who hustled La Callas to an audition in New York for the first Verona Festival after the Second World War. Giuseppe Zenatello, of an age but still a famous tenor, was organizing this. He had chosen Faust (already cast, starring Renata Tebaldi) and an opera called La gioconda. La gioconda's primary value is as an intelligence test. To like it is to fail. Sadly, I love it. Poor La Gioconda, who, with her blind mother, wanders about Venice, singing and putting out, has fallen in love with a john named Enzo, a prince in disguise who drops her in favor of a princess, already married but who's counting? The music is to match. So we have established that poor Widder Claggart is an idiot (well look who I married!).
Bagarozy had heard that Zenatello had offered the title part to a singer of no value but who in the fifties would come to be adored by the queens of the Metropolitan Opera, Zinka Milanov, a master of extreme sharpness in tuning with more rump than musical sense. She had made a specialty of faking her way through the role by holding a long high note very softly as she moved across the stage in act one. That's all those queens cared about (look, Ponchielli was no Palestrina but was actually a musician of ability and there is music of a certain appeal and even accomplishment in the opera. But queens never like or know music). Milanov was an established singer, though she had left the Met in anger (temporarily, it turned out), and she wanted a big fee, all expenses, and round trip first class travel. Zenatello didn't have the money, so that was that with Zinka.
Although the exact truth of Zenatello's encounter with Callas is a little hard to discover (the story of his being so excited he got up to join her is a lie you can find in her Wikipedia entry, written by some fool), she sang, he was encouraging but felt he could only offer her the understudy, if she could get there under her own steam. He turned to a Buxom Italian-American, Herva Nelli ("Helluva Nervi" as the campy scamps called her), who later became a cook, but in those days was loved by Arturo Toscanini. Nelli accepted the part. Bagarozy fumed. Then Nelli pulled out. No one knows why. Though she did try to have an Italian career, and the Toscanini faction in Italy was powerful, this once she got cold feet. I've always thought Bagarozy who doesn't seem to have had a savory background threatened to break both her legs if she didn't. But there's no proof. (By the way, Bagarozy's suit was sufficiently legit that Callas had to settle.)
With time galloping on, Zenatello had no choice but to offer the role to Callas. According to legend, not only was her fee pitiable, but she was not offered travel expenses of any sort. She jumped (figuratively) at the chance and took the job, taking ship with Mrs. Bagarozy, and the bass, Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, who was enjoying Miss Callas' sexual favors.
Michael Scott in the only biography of the younger Callas (it ends with her divorce from Meneghini in favor of Aristotle Onassis) that actually uses documentary evidence as opposed to the improbable lies of the Callas fangirls, is skeptical that the deal was so disadvantageous. But those documents have vanished, and he has only the pictures of Callas sporting beautiful clothes for the chic but chubby on board ship to raise his questions.
All great careers involve improbable good luck. In Callas' case, the luck was her meeting another man exactly like Bagarozy: middle aged and a chubby chaser. But this was the better catch. Battista Meneghini laid bricks in between well-upholstered sopranos and ran a prosperous company with innumerable brothers and a domineering mother, who all hated Callas on sight. He hadn't married, perhaps had never been in love. But it was love at first sight with Callas. He insisted she reciprocated. Others have had their doubts and we'll never know. (Meneghini published Callas' tender and romantic love letters to him, then published her tender and romantic love letters to Bagarozy, written earlier. The only difference is the Italian translation.) What is certain is that she was a fat lady with an odd voice and no options. She was broke, she had failed to make an impression in New York (where she was born and lived long enough to develop a sailor's vocabulary), and Greece, where she had studied and matured, was in political turmoil and offered no prospects.
Moreover, in Greece where she had sung professionally as a teenager, probably starting the destruction of her voice by forcing and artificially darkening it (among her roles was Fidelio of all things; apparently she was wonderful -- Michael Scott has the reviews in his book -- but it's a role that leaves few singers unscathed), she had made more enemies than friends.
She was stuck; Meneghini was struck, better, he was rich. Like La Gioconda, she gave herself to him, but this prince was loyal. For ten years he took care of everything, but first, he saw to it that she was well dressed, comfortably housed, legal in Italy, and able to travel anywhere there was an audition. He used what contacts he had to get her auditions. He paid for intense coaching with the esteemed Ferruccio Cusinati who taught her Italian, drilled her in the various styles of Italian opera and helped her refine her roles.
Meneghini (who just liked fat women, not opera) never had a doubt that she was great and the world would agree; she had lots of doubts and needed someone like him; many have testified to her combination of ruthless arrogance and paralyzing insecurity. Eventually, her reputation grew; when Serafin planned the florid I Puritani and the heavy Die Walkuere (La Valkyria) back to back in Verona in 1949, and lost the scheduled coloratura for Puritani with no substitute to be found, he let Callas try them both. That sensation propelled her into national prominence in Italy. La Scala, which had resisted her strongly, gave in. She even eventually ousted the great favorite there, Renata Tebaldi (Tebaldi found adoration at the Met).
Callas' early triumphs extended to Mexico and to Covent Garden; at both places she was adored, and the pirated records show why, along with technical issues that in retrospect are warnings, but didn't seem so at the time.
Decca (known as London Records in America) made a big commitment to Tebaldi, EMI did the same for Callas. Decca's recent Tebaldi collection is halfhearted, though it includes the first commercial release of a spectacular Verdi Requiem conducted by the great Victor de Sabata.
But Warner Records has issued a wonderful sounding, complete collection of Callas' studio records. The only problem is that Decca recorded Tebaldi only in roles she actually sang and was right for. EMI recorded Callas in many roles she never or rarely sang and didn't have much spontaneous feeling for (reading the score scrupulously is something else) such as Mimi, in La Boheme, Manon Lescaut, Carmen, Nedda in Pagliacci.
In the story, Nedda is the victim of the evil clown, Tonio, who incites her homicidal husband Canio into killing her. In the recording, Callas' Nedda sounds like she'd have ripped Tonio apart alive, and gouged Canio's eyes out before running off with her lover (a case of life intruding on fiction!)
EMI re-recorded Callas as Lucia, Norma and Tosca in stereo when her voice was waning badly rather than documenting her in roles where she showed a remarkable sympathy for the emotional impact of the florid writing (not automatically obvious). Despite her vocal trouble in the late fifties she could -- at least in the studio -- have done Rossini's Semiramide, Donizetti's Anna Bolena, Bellini's I Pirata and other operas in that style. One can only tremble at the coarse,, cut besotted conductors they might have stuck her with -- but Giulini was an EMI conductor, maybe they could have brought Von Karajan aboard for one of those, he was also an EMI artist. Leonard Bernstein's imaginative and musicianly treatment of the somewhat dubious La Sonnambula live at La Scala makes one wonder if they couldn't have enticed him (with Columbia's permission -- as Sony was then known -- into doing one of those works). At that time EMI had Gedda and Kraus under contract, Simionato might have been sprung from Decca for the Semiramide (Sutherland had not yet become a sensation and when she got to the opera preferred Marilyn Horne), Cossotto was also an EMI artist. It would certainly have been possible, but EMI gave us Callas' SECOND La gioconda instead!
Anyone with an interest knows the bad luck of the Callas story. She was in obvious trouble by 1956. Joan Sutherland, one of the miracles of the last "golden age" in opera but who began in small parts, sang the servant, Clothilde in Norma, the opera of Callas' debut in London in 1952. She said, later, "if you didn't hear Callas before 1955, you didn't hear Callas."
That poor woman when asked in her last years how things were, would reply, “one day less!” She ended up miserable and alone. She was 54 when she died in 1977; her voice had collapsed ten years earlier and she had sung with reduced volume, range and control for four years before that. She had, a few years before her death, made money touring the world, sort of Sunset Boulevard meets The Marx Brothers with the then broke tenor, her once famous colleague, Giuseppe Di Stefano. One hopes she knew it was a joke but perhaps she didn't.
Some say she needed an infusion of cash, too; that her widely reported affair with Aristotle Onassis gave people the wrong impression of her finances. Onassis’ sudden marriage to The Widow Kennedy hoping for her in- laws’ influence in his American businesses and the ensuing stresses, kept Callas before the public as the cast-off whore of a billionaire. Only Jackie the Greedy won in this strange interlude. But Callas became a tabloid floozy instead of the great artist she had aspired to be. She also didn't need the money, it turned out. She had fourteen million dollars in her American bank accounts alone; in the 1970's that was a huge amount.
Sadly, she had bought into her myth. Privately, she continued to work on her voice; a few late fragments on tape even sound like her. Could she perhaps have mastered part of the huge song repertory as the great Victoria de los Angeles did when her opera career ended early? But as Callas thought of herself as a diva, that was beneath her. She did try two sets of master classes and found the students poorly prepared and not stimulating. Her reward was an internationally successful play by Terrance McNally. A clever writer of soap operas in Boulevard Play form (his work lacks the intelligence of a true Boulevard Playwright such as Somerset Maugham). Many thought it was true to Callas, though the complete tapes of her Julliard master classes, some of which I saw, show a very different person: shy, correct and helpful. The brassy, bitchy, competitive, sex-obsessed fictional character is, of course, the product of a profound hatred of women.
When a woman is magic she is either burned at the stake or, worse, sometimes, set upon an altar where her achievements, in reality, are obscured by sick men, mostly morons. Why one can read one of the opera lists, Opera-L, run by an idiot named Robert Kosovsky to make the world safe for such as the ravings of a dog handler named Patrick Byrne who has ripped Callas off by publishing pirates of her performances (as have any number of the mentally crippled). Byrne, a barely literate goon, scum personified, belongs in one of his kennels muzzled like the rabid mutts he pleasures with his tongue all night to one of his distant swishy pirates of poor Maria. This is a lover of art? This is someone who responds to music? Even in a society where pretty much everything has been defined down, and the notion of il sacro fuoco — the sacred fire — that Callas embraced is now a joke. She deserves better.
How could she have come to that? But what really can be said about her without qualification? You and I have read all the lies: she was a "great actress" but the complete second act of Tosca televised from Covent Garden, staged when she had lost her voice, shows a well past her best opera singer going through the usual business (though well drilled by the opportunist leach Franco Zeffirelli who had apparently managed to stay away from the docks, or maybe he had just juggled his schedule). Callas moves awkwardly, has dandruff and a faint mustache. That's acting? She "rediscovered the great works of the bel canto period." Not really. Norma had always been in the repertory; Puritani and Sonnambula were familiar works. She did do a highly cut, horribly edited version of Rossini's Armida, desecrated by Serafin and she did a handful of performances of Anna Bolena, Poliuto by Donizetti, and I Pirata by Bellini. All of these were heavily cut, re-scored and done in "verismo" style. She did not use her clout to get these operas recorded complete in scholarly versions; she defended the unmusical cuts.
The many idiots who adore her forget that the singers from the early 19th century that she was compared to all sang NEW music. They put their own careers on the line with the creators of operas. Callas we are told was a fantastic musician but she mocked the one chance she had to create a role in a new opera (Vanessa by Samuel Barber) finding that "he did not know women" (he probably didn't but given the orientation of her craziest fans even in her lifetime, one has to wonder at her contempt). Unlike the singers who really were superb musicians (I always mention Jan deGaetani but we can look at the great Eleanor Steber, Arleen Auger or Lucia Popp) in her time, she stayed safe, inserted high notes and held them for dear life, even though that was unstylish and it sounded as though it would kill her. Of course, the crazies will all die off, like Patrick Byrne, throat ripped out by one of his poodles probably. So what will be left of Callas?
Meryl Streep evidently planned to play her in a movie with Mike Nichols directing, but all the fake hair in the world disappeared and he died (she's now reportedly doing a film about the American nut case Florence Foster Jenkens who shrieked and gurgled serious music thinking she was great. It's all the same to Streep. She, of course, has never produced one of her own projects or developed a property as many movie stars have, nor has she juggled stage with screen work. Instead she has made a fortune, and I guess, secured her name, in masterworks like Mamma Mia to the indelible horror of eons of Abba's "music" (I think ISIS must be behind that) and a whitewash of the monster, Margaret Thatcher, recently shown to have been -- in addition to all her ghastly political grotesqueness -- den mother to a ring of child molesters who appear to have killed some of their victims. Well, after McNally, how much worse could a Streep tic-filled exploration of an accent be?
But is it possible for an opera singer to be a "genius"? Normally, we think of genius in the creative sense. But are there a few, a very few, singers who have a density of affect in what they do, who when the stars are fortunately aligned and the opera is the right one, can work a spell, way beyond what enormously talented, deeply serious, hard working performers do? Are there people we can never understand who transform in front of us into a bolt of electricity, one that might singe us if we get too close? And are there mere performers who can take artistically equivocal work and somehow breathe truth into it, provide -- despite the tinsel and contrivances, the conventions and the noisy idiots -- an ecstasy where horror at what we know life is and joy at being alive anyway combine into an unforgettable moment? For the music lover sometimes, hardly often, a microphone can capture that bolt of lightening and let us revisit it. Perhaps this is something that Tallich and Furtwaengler and De Sabata could do, even with music hardly worth the effort of beating time, or that Cortot or Richter could manage even in the simplest and most familiar piece. Who can understand the motives of these people, their personalities, their destinies?
One hesitates to put a mere singer in that category, for one can sing to the great satisfaction of the mental defectives who love opera, by having only high notes, or volume, or flamboyance; the fans are mostly too dumb to notice anything else. But if there has been a singer who had some of that quality, a mysterious, bizarre, unkempt allure, achieved with an ugly/beautiful tone, with odd register shifts, within the sometimes primitive style that prevailed in her time and very often in laughable, inferior music, it was Maria Callas. No, not always or in everything but now and again. Oddly enough, I would choose the despised La gioconda — her second recording, made when her voice was failing, as an amazing, perhaps unique, example of spinning pathos out of dross.
Yes, one can read the score and notice her elastic but marvelous rhythm, her powerfully inflected words, her imaginative phrases, and yes there is the tightrope walk through a role beyond her by then. Above all though, there is the magic of what she does, a heartbreak one might have felt but could never express, wouldn't know how to express, a moment of exultation that stings, of ferocity that trembles in terror at itself. I personally don't think Ponchielli did all that badly, or all that well; and the surrounding performance is routine. But for those with that disease, the opera disease, Callas creates sounds that become part of one's own life. One might choose otherwise, one can't help it. So yes, one can bristle at all the idiocy, and the grotesque fan fools, and the indiscriminate fetishists, and the preposterous fantasies and outright lies and pirate industry. But a few moments of Callas in those rare lightning strikes erases all that. So, yes, perhaps she was, now and then and against the odds -- as much from her own strange nature as from destiny -- a genius. And maybe that's why all of us now and then, just for a little while are Callas crazies.