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Maria Callas Was Opera’s Defining Diva. She Still Is.


Her voice is the shadow that remains after shock, after anger: the sound of a woman realizing she has nothing left to live for.

It is the second act of Verdi’s opera “La Traviata.” Violetta and Alfredo, a prostitute and a wealthy young man, have fallen madly in love. But his father confronts her, demanding she drop the disreputable affair to salvage the marriage prospects of Alfredo’s sister.

For Violetta, it is an unbearable sacrifice, but she’ll do it. “Dite alla giovine,” she sings, in a broken murmur: Tell your daughter that I will abandon the one good thing I have, for her sake.

Singing that passage on May 28, 1955, at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, soprano Maria Callas reached the phrase about how “bella e pura” Alfredo’s sister is — how beautiful and pure — and inserted the tiniest breath before “pura.”

It’s a barely noticeable silence, but within it is a black hole of resignation. Callas’ split-second pause achingly suggests Violetta knows that if she, too, were pure, her happiness would not be expendable.

Tiny details like this are how Callas — who would have turned 100 on Dec. 2 — gave opera’s over-the-top melodramas a startling sense of reality, and her characters the psychological depth and nuance of actual people. Tiny details like this, captured on hundreds of recordings, are how this most mythical of singers has stubbornly resisted drifting entirely into myth.

The defining diva of the 20th century, Callas is not so far from us in some ways; a normal life span would have brought her well into the 21st. Those many recordings — endlessly remastered, repackaged and rereleased — have kept her in our ears, the benchmark of what is possible in opera, musically and emotionally. Her dramatic art and dramatic life, often intertwined, have made her an enduring cultural touchstone: a coolly glamorous stare in Apple ads and the inspiration for plays (including a Tony Award winner), performances by Marina Abramovic (bad) and Monica Bellucci (worse), a coming film starring Angelina Jolie (we’ll see), even a hologram tour (sigh).

Yet Callas can also seem like a figure of faraway history. Her lonely death was back in 1977, when she was just 53 — and by then, her days of true performing glory were almost 20 years behind her. The number of people who saw her live, particularly in staged opera, is dwindling, and her short career was just early enough that precious little of it was filmed.

So she has been for decades, for most of us, a creation of still images and audio. We have to use those tools to conjure what her performances were like, to complete them.

But when you hear her, this is surprisingly easy. You listen to that “Dite alla giovine” and immediately see, in her voice, the blankness of her face, the mouth barely moving and the rest a mask of surrender, the shoulders collapsed. At the end of her classic 1953 “Tosca” recording, you can again “see” that indelible face, this time shifting in a couple of seconds from hushed excitement to catastrophic loss. (Listen to the sudden fear in that second cry of “Mario!”) With Callas, the aural always presses toward the visual; the voice, with its specificity and pungency, its weirdly death-haunted vitality, makes you imagine her body, moving in space.

In her performances, there was never a sense of opera as mere entertainment, a night out with pretty music. She took every note seriously, where others fudged and coasted; she was refined where others were vulgar. In her powerfully expressive voice and magnetic presence, opera really, truly mattered.

Watch her perform “Tu che le vanità” from Verdi’s “Don Carlo” in concert in 1962, near the end of her career. You are aware even before she opens her mouth of opera’s founding paradoxes. She is grand, and honest; epic, and intimate.

Opera in the modern era is at its core an exhumation of the past, a literal revival. Callas is the essential singer — she is opera — not because of her instrument or her acting, but because, with a combination of born intuition and carefully acquired skill, she imagined and reconstructed a vanished world.

She took on a whole repertory — the bel canto of the early 19th century, notably operas of Gaetano Donizetti, Vincenzo Bellini and Gioachino Rossini — that had been ignored or distorted for generations. And she approached pieces that had never left the public, like “La Traviata,” Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” and Bellini’s “Norma,” as if they were being done for the first time. The title character of “Lucia,” then widely assumed to be a chirpy cipher, was in Callas’ throat a morbid, ecstatic gothic heroine — more intense, and more believable. In the wake of World War II, she showed that Europe’s patrimony could emerge from the rubble.

Born in New York to Greek immigrants, Callas grew up listening to Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts and, at 13, returned with her mother to Greece. Just a year later, she was singing Carmen’s “Habanera” and Norma’s “Casta diva” as a conservatory student in Athens.

She had no real apprenticeship. There were no supporting parts, no young-artist programs. By her early 20s, she was singing some of the most challenging roles in the repertory; by her early 30s, she was singing them all over the world.

Sixty years after Callas sang “Medea,” the star of a new production at the Met in 2021 said Callas’ legacy hadn’t stopped being the “elephant in the room.” Opera is still asking the question that writer Ethan Mordden recalled being posed by a friend back in 1969: “Is there life after Callas?”

Should there be? She and her flash of a career remain a beacon of artistic integrity and profundity — of the cultivation of tradition and craft, of a desire to bring the past to bear on the present — in a culture that values those qualities less and less.

Costume designer Piero Tosi was there for her great “Traviata” at La Scala in 1955. “She scarcely seemed to be singing,” he said of her “Dite alla giovine.” “Yet everyone heard.”

Impossibly distant, yet immensely present: At her centennial, Callas still occupies a position in opera something like the sun. — NYT / With Photos from AFP

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