December 03, 2005

For Maria Callas, Now and Always: All Things Are Connected

Had she lived, Maria Callas would have celebrated her 82nd birthday today. It is only fitting that, in a life filled with controversy, the first dispute should concern this usually simple fact: Callas herself insisted she was born on December 2; other records indicate the fourth to be the correct date. She left us in 1977, when she was only 53 years old. She once remarked: "First I lost my voice, then I lost my figure and then I lost Onassis." She lost the ability to make her artistic vision real, which was her soul's reason for being, then she lost what she believed to be her physical allure -- an attractiveness she achieved at great personal cost, in service to her art in the first instance -- and then she lost perhaps the only man to make her feel truly feminine, and genuinely like a woman. When it was all gone, Callas felt there was no reason to go on -- so she died. Some of her friends still believe her death was largely self-willed. (Here is a site with a wealth of information about her.)

Callas was indisputably a supremely great artist, one of the very highest and most demanding rank -- an artist who comes along only a very few times in a generation, if we are extraordinarily lucky. This obviously does not mean that a listener has to love Callas's voice, in terms of its basic quality alone, above all others. With regard to lushness, richness, timbre or what is often referred to simply as beauty (a term which is unhelpfully most often left very vague in terms of a more specific meaning), one may prefer Renata Tebaldi, for example. In certain moods, I prefer to listen to Tebaldi myself, if what I want to hear above all else is a sound of almost inhuman, ineffable purity. Very early Tebaldi, up to the late 1950s, is what you want for such occasions. Callas's severest critics will sometimes gleefully point out her many technical failings, especially in the later stages of her very brief career.

But at her peak, Callas was a supreme technician; listen to the live Lucia di Lammermoor from Berlin, with Karajan conducting, to see what I mean. In what may be the single best book about opera, its history, its interpreters, and its special power that I have yet read, A Song of Love and Death, Peter Conrad wonderfully evokes Callas's unique gifts, and he writes about that Lucia performance:
Callas is admired for her willingness to let vocal beauty suffer in the interest of verbal meaning. But she was more than a great actress with an unreliable voice. She herself insisted on the authority of bel canto [which literally means "beautiful singing," and which refers to a particular Italian tradition of singing made world-famous in the nineteenth century], and remembering her early performances as Kundry in Parsifal said, 'I hated the screams--but I suppose I did them well'; she was capable of creating a dramatic character, psychologically true and detailed, using strictly musical resources and never marring an absolute beauty of tone.

Perhaps the finest case is her Lucia in Karajan's production for La Scala, which visited (and was taped in) Berlin during 1955. She discovers a musical language for Lucia's distraction. ...

The character's disorientation is revealed by her musical habits. She cowers behind diminuendi for instance, like that on 'quella fonte!' in her first scene. The reduction of volume swallows up and introverts the word and the idea....Her mad scene is an episode of recondite sonic research, dramatically appalling because so musically imperturbable. Singing of a 'dolce suono' ["sweet sound"] in a voice which is girlishly pure, Callas lyrically retreats to a mad second childhood. When a high note on the word for altar oscillates out of control, it does so because it has taken off from the rational human register and is echoing through the vast vacancy within Lucia's mind. Lucia chases echoes until, in the glassy, unphysical sound Callas makes during her concert with the flute, she herself becomes one: an acoustic specter; Orpheus insane but in tune.

This was the musical Callas, the notes her reverie. In other roles she was less serenely melodic, more intent on scavenging drama from the words. As Cherubini's Medea, she virtually tormented the text into meaning. She bit on words, she chewed them, she spat them. Uttered by her, they had power to kill.
Callas unquestionably had grave and obvious technical problems, once the impossible demands she made of her instrument began to take their toll -- demands that she miraculously met for a time. When that time had passed, the superlative artist remained. As Callas herself observed, "You are born an artist or you are not. And you stay an artist, dear, even if your voice is less of a fireworks. The artist is always there." And so it was, always there.

And those who hold Tebaldi (or others) up as a reproach to Callas should remember that Tebaldi herself had a severe vocal crisis in the early 1960s, after which she retooled her voice almost completely. She went on to some considerable triumphs, and I enjoyed a number of those later performances a great deal. But the sheen and bloom were gone, replaced by a steely quality, particularly when Tebaldi strove for volume in the middle and upper reaches of her voice. That steel could have its own attractions, but it sometimes turned very ugly. If Tebaldi remains a personal preference for many people, neither I nor anyone else should try to dissuade them; besides, as I've learned from considerable experience, it's hopeless in any case. But such preferences in themselves need not signify greater matters, if that is all they are.

Callas's achievements were unequalled by any other opera singer of her time, and very few singers before that era or afterward have had the kind of impact she did. This is true not only with regard to the transcendent performances she gave at her best, as great as they were. She restored an entire branch and many works to the operatic repertoire that had been set aside for decades, lacking an interpreter of her special gifts to make those operas come alive again for contemporary audiences. It was Callas who opened the door, through which Sutherland, Caballe, Sills and many others followed. Callas's achievement is made even more remarkable by the brevity of the most significant part of her career: it lasted less than a decade, from the early to late 1950s. Those were the years that saw one stunning realization after another: the Visconti Traviata, the revival of Anna Bolena, a series of magnificent Normas, Lucia of course, to say nothing of Medea.

Many of the criticisms of Callas can strike one as odd in a way, as if they convey a biting, very personal edge: it is as if the critic is offended deep in his soul, for a reason he thinks you already know, but which he would prefer not to identify. In fact, it's not so mysterious: many people will acknowledge Callas's greatness. But they cannot forgive Callas for one reason above all others: Callas was great, and she knew it. In a culture drowning in mediocrity, one which idolizes the mundane, the commonplace, and often even the repellent, and turns people we would not care to know in our own lives into instant celebrities who are forgotten the next week, true greatness makes us profoundly uncomfortable. We don't know how to relate to it, and we think it reflects badly on us. Callas herself was wonderfully clear about the standards she would prefer to be employed: "I am not an angel and do not pretend to be. That is not one of my roles. But I am not the devil either. I am a woman and a serious artist, and I would like so to be judged."

Many of us will permit Callas her greatness, provided she is humble about it. Genuine greatness cannot be humble in this way, simply to make mediocrity comfortable: to do so makes the achievement impossible. The extraordinary would become ordinary once more. Callas would have none of that; she sought to transcend the standards others had unthinkingly accepted, standards low enough that others could be assured of meeting them. She insisted on the absolute best from herself; when she could not meet her own standards, her failure tormented her. And she insisted on the best from her listeners; when we failed, as many of us did, we blamed her for making us aware of our own limitations.

Conrad writes very powerfully about the nature of the demands Callas placed on herself:
Callas saw her art as servitude. She was an aggressor toward her audiences, assuming that her voice would be disliked when first heard and schoolmarmishly remarking 'the public has to be taught'; she was even more brutally unsparing toward herself. During the 1967-68 broadcast season at the Met, she gave a radio interview in which she recurs to the idea of punishing the voice into obedience. 'You must serve music,' she says or 'the first person we serve must be the composer'; then she reiterates 'we are just servants of art.' She acknowledges that the voice will be recalcitrant, maybe incapable: it must acquire the virtuosity of an instrument, she says, 'whether we like it or not--or whether we can.' With disciplinary sadism, she castigates a voice which is self-indulgent, interested only in being beautiful. The image she uses is revealingly destructive: 'it isn't enough that you have a beautiful voice; you must take this voice and break it up into a thousand pieces, so she will serve you.'...Speaking of the demands she made of herself, she says, 'You set yourself a standard which is always a whip. You're whipping yourself always, like a soldier.' Hence her inability to forgive herself when the voice failed her, and her contempt for the easy way out. She couldn't skim through the music, slurring over difficulties; for her there had to be the self-inflicted punishment of an outright disaster--a last, voiceless Norma in Paris in 1965.

Callas bestowed her own unsparing integrity on the characters she played: they were versions of herself, sacrificial victims or (failing that) aspostates.
This kind of "unsparing integrity" exacts a terrible toll. Yet when such demands are met, and Callas met them so often that the feat can only stagger us in its magnitude, the result is greatness of a kind we encounter only on very rare occasions in our lives -- and then, only if fortune favors us.

Callas was fully aware she was attempting a totality of musicianship, expressivity, acting and communication that can only be achieved at great cost. She transformed her body, precisely so that the physical embodiment would not betray the ideal. How could she portray a courtesan dying of consumption (in Traviata) or a fragile, virginal young girl (in La Sonnambula) if she were obese? She couldn't, so the weight was banished by an act of willpower. She had different rules for the purposes that engaged her, rules that were not ours: "Don't talk to me about rules, dear. Wherever I stay I make the goddamn rules." As Conrad explains above, those rules were applied most unforgivingly to herself.

Callas's art, and the manner in which the artistic demands she made of herself affected her life, often put me in mind of part of Victor Hugo's credo. Hugo, a magnificent writer whose work is sorely neglected today, wrote the following in 1827, in the preface to his play, Cromwell. That preface became the rallying cry of the Romantic movement in literature. But what Hugo said encompassed much more than literary matters -- it represented an entire perspective on human life and achievement, and a way of viewing the world and man's place in it:
[T]he modern muse will see things in a higher and broader light. It will realize that everything in creation is not humanly beautiful, that the ugly exists beside the beautiful, the unshapely beside the graceful, the grotesque on the reverse of the sublime, evil with good, darkness with light. It will ask itself if the narrow and relative sense of the artist should prevail over the infinite, absolute sense of the Creator; if it is for man to correct God; if a mutilated nature will be the more beautiful for the mutilation; if art has the right to duplicate, so to speak, man, life, creation; if things will progress better when their muscles and their vigour have been taken from them; if, in short, to be incomplete is the best way to be harmonious. Then it is that, with its eyes fixed upon events that are both laughable and redoubtable, and under the influence of that spirit of Christian melancholy and philosophical criticism which we described a moment ago, poetry will take a great step, a decisive step, a step which, like the upheaval of an earthquake, will change the whole face of the intellectual world. It will set about doing as nature does, mingling in its creations—but without confounding them—darkness and light, the grotesque and the sublime; in other words, the body and the soul, the beast and the intellect; for the starting-point of religion is always the starting-point of poetry. All things are connected.
For Callas, art at its peak had to express both darkness and light, the grotesque and the sublime: for her, too, "all things are connected."

In the very last paragraph of A Song of Love and Death, Peter Conrad captures the unique power of opera as well as any description I have ever read:
Opera is a sport, a display of physical and technical prowess. At the same time it is a form of almost religious aspiration, reaching for the sky from which music first poured down like Apollo's sunlight. Dancers leap into that lost altitude; singers send out their top notes on exploratory forays, and use their scales as Jacob's ladders. One word defines its visceral effect and its lofty ambition, and that is the first word uttered by Verdi's Otello as he whirls out of the storm. Opera's business is exultation.
Callas's art was the purest embodiment of that aspiration, and she provided that kind of exultation: she made the human divine. She remained fully and tragically human, but infused with the goddess. She demanded that we raise ourselves up, to meet her on that exalted plane. If we couldn't or wouldn't, we laid the blame at her feet, rather than confront our own failings.

Many of us recoil at the sight of genuine greatness: we seek to minimize it, find fault with it, or diminish it. If actual faults present themselves, we seize on them with an eagerness that is both revealing and deplorable. If those faults are not enough, we invent others. If through one of those infrequent miracles that grace our existence, another Callas were to come upon the scene today, I very much doubt she would survive for long -- and if she did, I hate to think what the cost would be.

But greatness of this kind cannot be denied in the end. Decades from now, and even in hundreds of years, Callas's art will be remembered by those who search history for the greatest of achievements, and who treasure and guard them as the most precious of rare gems. She will live, when we have been long forgotten. At the opening of his valuable book, The Callas Legacy, John Ardoin, an unusually perceptive commentator, offers the lines from Edna St. Vincent Millay that many think of in connection with Callas's life:
My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But, ah, my foes, and oh, my friends --
It gives a lovely light.
More and more, I am led to the conclusion that the brightest and fiercest flames last the shortest time, in every field of human endeavor. Perhaps the failing is ours -- in the comfort we seek from the mediocre and that which does not require us to raise ourselves up, and in our resistance to those achievements that transcend the boundaries of what we view as even possible. Or perhaps the brevity is inherent in the achievement itself: when we break the bounds of what most humans are capable of doing, the person who does so cannot tolerate the impossible strain for very long. Yet they cannot strive for less: that, too, would destroy them.

Whatever the explanation may be, such greatness is eternal. It will last as long as mankind does, and as long as we remember what is possible when we strive for perfection, and approach as near to it as we can. Perhaps, finally, that makes the terrible costs that Callas endured worth it in the end: that she will live forever.

For you, truly and incomparably La Divina: now and always.