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Thread: I feel bad because I don't love Callas more

  1. #46
    Senior Member Seattleoperafan's Avatar
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    You know, I think if you were there, absorbing the godlike diva stage presence, that even at the end of her career, her artistry would trump the vocal decline , but we have a paucity of video record. My complaint is that even at her vocal peak, I am not always in the mood to enjoy her unique sound. The top was massive and thrilling, but never overly beautiful, although it might have sounded different in a house. But of course, all of this is subjective.

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  3. #47
    Senior Member vivalagentenuova's Avatar
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    Some of the comments in this thread are pretty silly. Ironically, those who are talking about depth over flash are relying on a pretty superficial view of the matter:

    I prefer emotions to mere sounds, so I’m not where you are and hope I never get there
    Beauty over meaning. Gloss over substance. There is, of course, a certain irony about that in regards to Callas.
    These are simplistic dichotomies, because beauty and meaning are not independent things operating in isolation. A beautiful, pure pianissimo has a totally different effect than an ugly, shrill one. The "mere" sounds that singers make are what allow them to portray meanings. Expression comes through sounds. I'm not denying that ugly sounds are an important part of the repertoire of sounds for an opera singer. The problem with Callas is that her repertoire of sounds is deficient. She is frequently incapable of producing a high note without a serious wobble, which reduces the expressive range available to her. The excitement of a high note often comes from a quickening of the vibrato on that note. That effect, and many others, she cannot achieve. Now, I'm told that she makes up for these very fundamental and obvious flaws with great, almost mystical in some accounts, expression. Except, first, as I was just saying, I find her range of expression limited by her vocal flaws. But second, I just don't hear what is so unique in her interpretations. I don't hear musicality far in excess of any other singer, as I've often read claimed. I'm not saying she's unmusical. I'm just saying that I don't find her to be especially noteworthy in that regard. (If someone wishes to correct me, a thorough analysis of a specific part of a specific aria might help, but from experience I can say that throwing whole arias or operas at me and asking me to revel won't work.)

    Additionally, voices, like all instruments, have natural expressive qualities. Flutes are purer than oboes, and oboes could never match their brilliance in this area, but the tart sound of an oboe likewise is an effect the flute can't achieve. The same is true of voices. The operatic voice has a particular range of expressive qualities, which do vary from singer to singer within limits, just as different violins of similar quality might have differences in timbre etc., that are unique, and to me, the most outstanding of any instrument. Just hearing a well produced operatic voice is a beautiful and emotionally powerful experience. There's nothing shallow or petty about it.

    Some examples. Let's take the aria "Tu che le vanita." Callas did a famous version of this. The trick of this aria is in shifting moods of the text. The text opens with a declaration of the vanity of the world, and about escape from it in the grave. The words "mondo" and "profondo" are quite low, and clearly intended to be sung in chest voice (now I'm getting flashbacks to our discussion of Yannis Nezet-Seguin, but anyway.) But the thought turns to those who have holy pity in heaven, and to the lord himself. This part goes into the upper register, the sweet sound of which contrasts the bitter anger at the vanity of this world with the beauty and goodness of the next. The change in thought, providing characterization, is in the music itself. Now, so far this is all Verdi's genius. What the singer has to do to be properly expressive in this moment is have a strong, dark chest voice, and pure, beautiful top notes that can make this contrast. Let's listen to Callas and another singer.

    Callas has the strong, dark chest register. Whatever my complaints about Callas, she usually had a good and thrilling lower register. But the top notes? The sound she makes on the word "cielo" at 3:10 is ironically infernal. It doesn't improve from there. It's shrill, and the forte top notes have bad vibrato. It isn't the pain of the character coming through, it's just painful. It's bad singing, full stop.


    Selma Kurz, coloratura soprano, has both the strong, dark chest register and the pure, beautiful top notes to create the contrast necessary to sing this aria expressively. The tone on the word "cielo" is positively gorgeous, a heavenly sound if there ever were one. It's not about me being some beauty junkie who just wants to bliss out and pretend there are no ugly sounds. Ugly sounds can be part a singer's expressive vocabulary. The problem is that for Callas they are not optional in far too many cases.

    Let's take perhaps Callas' most famous role, Norma. This is a very famous live performance from La Scala under Serafin in 1955. It's often lauded as her best performance. Now, let's take the central aria for the character of Norma, Casta diva. This aria is again, through Bellini's genius, masterful setting of a text. Norma is praying for peace, but with the hidden motive of her love for Pollione, the Roman soldier who might be killed in a war between the Druids and the Romans. Now, this text lies mostly in the middle and upper middle, and is made up of extremely long, beautiful lines. Callas does well with these lines, but whenever she reaches the upper middle, the wobble sets in (for example, on the word "inargenti"). Apart from being ugly, this makes her sound out of control of the sound, which makes me hear the singer, Callas, and not the character, Norma. This breaks me out of my disbelief, and makes it hard for me to get involved in the dramatic moment.

    Now we come to the climax of the aria. Norma asks the moon to turn her beautiful face to us, "unclouded and unveiled". The music reaches its height on "sembiante" or "face". This is the face of the god Norma as priestess is there to adore and supplicate. This should be a moment of ecstasy. Her high note on 2:49 is awful. Wobbly and shrill. This spoils the moment entirely and adds nothing in recompense.


    Now let's listen to Rosa Ponselle. First off, Ponselle never ever has the slightest hint of wobble. Second, I hear much about Callas's unique gifts in phrasing, yet as a purely musical matter, I much prefer the way Ponselle delivers Bellini's melody. Third, listen to the key phrase, "il bel sembiante." Whereas Callas gives us four equal notes at roughly the same volume, then goes for the shrill, wobbly top note, Ponselle varies the length and quality, at first shortening them, but making each successive note longer and more intense, until she suddenly attacks the last note softly, and the crescendos again, using that intensity to peak on a beautiful, perfectly controlled high note. Not only is it more interesting and individual as a musical interpretation, but the dramatic effect is sublime. It is as though she is imploring the moon, and suddenly sees what she is after. The ethereal beauty of her tone here is essential to the characterization: it is a reflection of what happens in her soul as she reaches this climax (pun intended - this is after all, a moment of both religious and sensual ecstasy). It is a beautiful and moment full of character and drama. I would take Ponselle over Callas every day of the week and twice on Sunday.


    Now, I've been rather harsh for polemical purposes. I think Callas did a lot of good work, and early recordings are better than later ones. Certainly many great singers have flaws and have made unintentionally ugly sounds or let their instrument get away from them. Absolutely true. Even in those early Callas recordings, though, I often do not care for her middle and upper middle. That's too much bad voice for great singing. Ironically, my favorite recording of Callas is with her as Kundry in Parsifal in 1949. But for me, her status as a mythical, unique genius who brought musicality and characterization unheard of previously in opera is ludicrous hyperbole. The idea that vocal beauty is a shallow add on to real depth is also a strange and rather perverse notion.
    Last edited by vivalagentenuova; Apr-05-2020 at 00:26.

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  5. #48
    Senior Member Woodduck's Avatar
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    ^^^ How much you, I, or anyone else can respond to Callas's musical judgment and dramatic creativity will certainly depend partly on our reactions to how she realizes those things vocally. I agree with you that vocal deficiencies do work against her intentions in many cases, but not everyone will agree on how much an interpretation is ruined by a sour or wobbly high note. I do find Callas to be a precise musician with an extraordinary sense of how to pace and shape a musical line, and she's often uniquely insightful in finding specific ways to inflect words and phrases, bringing her roles to imaginative life as few other singers do. Her Medea, Violetta, Lucia, Norma, Lady Macbeth, Tosca, Butterfly, Santuzza, Gioconda and Carmen, at least, say more to me than anyone else's. That doesn't mean that other singers never handled any arias better than she did, especially during her years of vocal decline when the voice wouldn't do what she clearly wanted it to. I agree that there are technical problems in the "Tu che le vanita" and a few very bad notes. On the other hand, after 4:18 it has great musical and dramatic specificity that summons up the character of Elisabetta and the dark mood of the story in a way that I've not often heard even in singers with more perfect techniques.

    Not enough can be demonstrated about Callas's uniqueness through a process of cherry-picking arias and individual notes, which I fear is what you've offered us here. Compare one of her great roles, phrase by phrase, with someone else's interpretation of it. Then we can have a conversation. (Callas, by the way, would have agreed that Ponselle was incomparable, but I find Callas's phrasing of "Casta Diva," at least in some of her performances - there are quite a few - more detailed and expressive than Ponselle's in the above studio recording: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B-9IvuEkreI)

  6. #49
    Senior Member vivalagentenuova's Avatar
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    True. I offered the above as representative examples of my experience of Callas's work compared with what I take to be representative of examples of the other singers, not as conclusive proof by themselves. I own quite a few Callas recordings and have listened to quite a bit of her work. I do find it difficult to listen to complete roles even when I try, however, as the voice is just too often veering into bad places. I was also trying to show with a representative example - apart from any claims about Callas - that beauty of sound is inextricably linked to characterization, interpretation, and drama, contra the earlier comments by a few other members.

    It's not so much the occasional flubbed high note. If she had a bad day (or even just a bad tail end of career) that would be one thing. It's that consistently, from early recordings to later recordings, the upper middle and high register is shrill and wobbly. That's a large part of the soprano's range that I have to ignore, especially in the high flying bel canto roles that she is most famous for.

    As for that studio Casta Diva, it is better than the one I used above - a bit fresher overall - but the fundamentals are the same. A nice opening with some good long phrases, but the climactic phrase "il sembiante" is actually rather bland and four square and the vibrato and tone problems are still there. I still much prefer Ponselle vocally and musically.
    Last edited by vivalagentenuova; Apr-05-2020 at 01:08.

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    Senior Member vivalagentenuova's Avatar
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    When I get the chance, I will do an extensive comparison of her full Tosca with other singers using the famous de Sabata recording. I might also do Madama Butterfly. I choose Puccini just because I know the Puccini discography (not to mention the operas themselves) better than most things she sang.
    Last edited by vivalagentenuova; Apr-05-2020 at 01:22.

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  10. #51
    Senior Member Allegro Con Brio's Avatar
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    The very first opera I ever heard was the Callas/De Sabata Tosca. It pierced me to the very core. I just love the vulnerability of the voice - rough, unpolished...but so full of passion and personality. It's like she transmutes herself into the role, and the character and the singer merge into one. I would urge anyone who hasn't heard or been able to understand her to listen to the aria Casta diva from her recording of Norma. It's a miracle.

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  12. #52
    Senior Member vivalagentenuova's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Allegro Con Brio View Post
    The very first opera I ever heard was the Callas/De Sabata Tosca. It pierced me to the very core. I just love the vulnerability of the voice - rough, unpolished...but so full of passion and personality. It's like she transmutes herself into the role, and the character and the singer merge into one. I would urge anyone who hasn't heard or been able to understand her to listen to the aria Casta diva from her recording of Norma. It's a miracle.
    That's so interesting because I have what is perhaps the opposite experience or a different reaction to the same experience, I can't tell. When I hear Callas, all I ever hear is Callas. I never hear a character. I only hear Callas doing her thing.

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    Senior Member Allegro Con Brio's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by vivalagentenuova View Post
    That's so interesting because I have what is perhaps the opposite experience or a different reaction to the same experience, I can't tell. When I hear Callas, all I ever hear is Callas. I never hear a character. I only hear Callas doing her thing.
    Very interesting! I don't have very much experience with opera, and even less so with comparing recordings; so I would take your opinion to be closer to the truth (I feel a bit out of place on the opera forum because I'm such a newbie, but I try to learn as much as I can). I think at the very least her voice was capable of conveying a staggering variety of emotions requisite to the character she was supposed to be portraying. If you don't mind, what are some examples of singers who are most effective at character portrayal?In opera, is having a strong, individual personality or being a convincing actor more important?

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  15. #54
    Senior Member Woodduck's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by vivalagentenuova View Post
    That's so interesting because I have what is perhaps the opposite experience or a different reaction to the same experience, I can't tell. When I hear Callas, all I ever hear is Callas. I never hear a character. I only hear Callas doing her thing.
    I think your difficulty with her voice is standing in the way of appreciating her art. If you've read enough of my posts here, you'll know that I understand and appreciate vocal technique pretty thoroughly. But even when I can't enjoy some of the sounds Callas makes, I perceive a great power of characterization. She has such a distinctive timbre (which inspires everything from love to hate) that I can see where someone might have trouble listening through it. But do hear her Butterfly; she brings to it a voice that might be thought quite unsuitable to the little geisha, and through a wealth of inflections and shifts of vocal color she turns Cio Cio San into a figure of almost unbearable tragedy. After that, listen to her Medea (I recommend the live Dallas performance) or Carmen to experience her interpretive range. I'm not a great fan of either of those operas, but Callas transforms them for me and makes other singers seem generic or bland.

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    Senior Member vivalagentenuova's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Woodduck View Post
    I think your difficulty with her voice is standing in the way of appreciating her art. If you've read enough of my posts here, you'll know that I understand and appreciate vocal technique pretty thoroughly. But even when I can't enjoy some of the sounds Callas makes, I perceive a great power of characterization. She has such a distinctive timbre (which inspires everything from love to hate) that I can see where someone might have trouble listening through it. But do hear her Butterfly; she brings to it a voice that might be thought quite unsuitable to the little geisha, and through a wealth of inflections and shifts of vocal color she turns Cio Cio San into a figure of almost unbearable tragedy. After that, listen to her Medea (I recommend the live Dallas performance) or Carmen to experience her interpretive range. I'm not a great fan of either of those operas, but Callas transforms them for me and makes other singers seem generic or bland.
    I think that's probably true, although again, part of the reason is that to me voice and art are inseparable. The listening through is exactly what bothers me: shouldn't I be listening to? Shouldn't the voice be the medium of expression and not a barrier to it? But I will do a full listen of her Butterfly, an opera whose score and libretto I know very well and which I have taken some time to analyze in the past. I hope it changes my mind. I would rather have a new singer to listen to than not.

    And I always have the highest respect for your comments on vocalism.
    Last edited by vivalagentenuova; Apr-05-2020 at 02:06.

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  18. #56
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    Quote Originally Posted by vivalagentenuova View Post
    That's so interesting because I have what is perhaps the opposite experience or a different reaction to the same experience, I can't tell. When I hear Callas, all I ever hear is Callas. I never hear a character. I only hear Callas doing her thing.
    I find your post profoundly interesting because, like the majority of Callas naysayers, you didn't criticize the sound of her voice or her wobbles in high notes, but rather you honed in on her lack of character presentation -- the very thing that, to me, makes her stand out above all the rest (except for Magda Olivero).
    So now I must ask you, please tell me what soprano you DO believe can grasp characters in roles, and what roles?

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    Senior Member pianozach's Avatar
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    Yeah, a silly thread.

    Callas had her haters and fanboys even when she was still singing.

    I think her style and technique were WAY over the top, and I don't like hearing her recordings all that often, BUT I DO appreciate her artistry and influence.

    The play MASTER CLASS by Terrence McNally is about her teaching an imaginary Master Class late in her life. It's just her and the accompanist, and then at various times three voice students. I've played the part of the accompanist in two different productions (he also has some dialogue). In between students (and sometimes while a student is onstage) she'll reminisce or rant. The students get to sing a various bits of their song (Verdi, Puccini & Bellini).

    It culminates in a monologue about sacrifice taken in the name of art.

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    Senior Member Woodduck's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by pianozach View Post
    Yeah, a silly thread.

    Callas had her haters and fanboys even when she was still singing.

    I think her style and technique were WAY over the top, and I don't like hearing her recordings all that often, BUT I DO appreciate her artistry and influence.

    The play MASTER CLASS by Terrence McNally is about her teaching an imaginary Master Class late in her life. It's just her and the accompanist, and then at various times three voice students. I've played the part of the accompanist in two different productions (he also has some dialogue). In between students (and sometimes while a student is onstage) she'll reminisce or rant. The students get to sing a various bits of their song (Verdi, Puccini & Bellini).

    It culminates in a monologue about sacrifice taken in the name of art.
    Have you listened to tapes of her actual master classes? There's nothing theatrical about them, but it's interesting to hear her talking to young singers and occasionally demonstrating for them.

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  22. #59
    Senior Member vivalagentenuova's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by nina foresti View Post
    I find your post profoundly interesting because, like the majority of Callas naysayers, you didn't criticize the sound of her voice or her wobbles in high notes, but rather you honed in on her lack of character presentation -- the very thing that, to me, makes her stand out above all the rest (except for Magda Olivero).
    So now I must ask you, please tell me what soprano you DO believe can grasp characters in roles, and what roles?
    Well, I don't like her wobbles either, and to me the two issues go hand in hand:a wobble isn't an effective characterizing tool, except for old ladies or something. But yes, I do have a strange sense of getting Callas and not the character.

    Singers I think characterize well. I think it follows from what I've said that the greater the singer is vocally, the greater their capacity for characterization. So any great singer would likely do at least a good job. Still, there are a few I especially enjoy (in no special order):
    1. Clara Petrella especially as Giorgetta in Il tabarro, though she's great all around
    2. Beniamino Gigli in many diverse roles
    3. Lina Bruna Rasa as Santuzza and Maddelena
    4. Gino Bechi as Gerard, Alfio, Tonio, and Germont
    5. Tito Gobbi as Michele and Gianni Schicchi
    6. Eleanor Steber as Minnie
    7. Mario Del Monaco as Dick Johnson in Fanciulla. And Andrea Chenier. And Otello.
    8. Anna Moffo, especially as Violetta, but also Magda
    9. Renato Capecchi as Iago and Gianni Schicchi
    10. Mirella Freni as Butterfly and Mimi, even though she never sang it live
    11. Oralia Dominguez as Amneris
    12. Georges Thill as Werther
    13. Obviously Rosa Ponselle in pretty much anything
    14. Claudia Muzio in anything
    15. Lauritz Melchior as Siegmund
    16. Kirsten Flagstad as Isolde, Brunnhilde, and Dido
    17. Apollo Granforte as Scarpia and de Luna
    18. Ivan Kozlovsky as the Fool in Boris Godunov
    19. Pirogov and Reizen as Boris
    20. Helge Rosvaenge as Tamino and Otello
    21. Hans Reinmar as Iago and Wotan
    Last edited by vivalagentenuova; Apr-05-2020 at 07:02.

  23. #60
    Senior Member DavidA's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by vivalagentenuova View Post
    Well, I don't like her wobbles either, and to me the two issues go hand in hand:a wobble isn't an effective characterizing tool, except for old ladies or something. But yes, I do have a strange sense of getting Callas and not the character.

    Singers I think characterize well. I think it follows from what I've said that the greater the singer is vocally, the greater their capacity for characterization. So any great singer would likely do at least a good job. Still, there are a few I especially enjoy (in no special order):
    1. Clara Petrella especially as Giorgetta in Il tabarro, though she's great all around
    2. Beniamino Gigli in many diverse roles
    3. Lina Bruna Rasa as Santuzza and Maddelena
    4. Gino Bechi as Gerard, Alfio, Tonio, and Germont
    5. Tito Gobbi as Michele and Gianni Schicchi
    6. Eleanor Steber as Minnie
    7. Mario Del Monaco as Dick Johnson in Fanciulla. And Andrea Chenier. And Otello.
    8. Anna Moffo, especially as Violetta, but also Magda
    9. Renato Capecchi as Iago and Gianni Schicchi
    10. Mirella Freni as Butterfly and Mimi, even though she never sang it live
    11. Oralia Dominguez as Amneris
    12. Georges Thill as Werther
    13. Obviously Rosa Ponselle in pretty much anything
    14. Claudia Muzio in anything
    15. Lauritz Melchior as Siegmund
    16. Kirsten Flagstad as Isolde, Brunnhilde, and Dido
    17. Apollo Granforte as Scarpia and de Luna
    18. Ivan Kozlovsky as the Fool in Boris Godunov
    19. Pirogov and Reizen as Boris
    20. Helge Rosvaenge as Tamino and Otello
    21. Hans Reinmar as Iago and Wotan
    I think it’s interesting that Nina has asked you for a list of Sopranos who characterise well and you give a list which includes baritones and tenors as well. Frankly del Monaco for all the glories of his voice would not be the one who I would reckon to characterise pretty well any more than John Wayne ever played more than one character in the movies. It is okay giving one character but a truly great singing actor will be able to give many characters and that is what Callas did whether you like her voice or not. In that she can be compared to an actor like Olivier. Can I ask you in your criticism of Callas and other singers, what is your own experience in singing and opera?

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