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Dissection of La Divina: The 20th Century Assoluta

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On December 2nd 1923, when an unwanted third child was born to immigrant Greek couple Goerge and Litsa Kalogeropoulos at Flower hospital, Manhattan, neither could have imagined that this soon-to-be chubby and awkward little girl would one day become the quintessential epitome of Opera.


Maria Callas was, and still is, a legendary household name among Opera connoisseurs and neophytes alike, as well as outsiders of the genre who stumble upon her haunting recordings in one way or another. Living up to the sobriquet "La Divina", most of those who fell for her mystical vocal appeal don't really grasp what makes her singing so uniquely and gut-wrenchingly divine. Yet to the nerds and devotees, she has been the subject of scrupulous and comprehensive scrutiny. Possessing tremendous technical prowess, a wild imagination and rare vocal and dramatic gifts, Maria, at worst, gave the stars of her time a run for their money, and at best, obliterated competition into oblivion. I was fourteen when Maria changed my life forever. I am now twenty-four, and as a junior Callas aficionada, I dedicate this essay to her divinity on her 41st death anniversary, in which I will try to explain what made Maria, as far as I'm concerned, the greatest singer in recorded history, and why her artistry, singing and persona are still revered beyond belief to this day.

I. The Voice
1.The Fach
Maria was born with the rarest and most sought-after fach, namely Dramatic Coloratura. Some even argue that the term "drammatico d'agilità" was coined for her.
It is still discussed to this day whether Maria Callas was actually a "sizable Coloratura with dramatic capabilities" as Rosa Ponselle put it, or the other way around i.e. a Dramatic Soprano with great agility and range. Either way, Maria proved in a fateful 1949 week that she, considered a Dramatic Soprano at the time singing Wagner, could learn and sing a Coloratura Bel Canto role within a very short time. When Margherita Carosia fell ill and Maestro Serafin couldn't find a replacement for I Puritani, he cast Maria who was doing Brünnhilde at La Fenice for the role of Elvira, much to some critics' prejudiced amusement. The miracle happened: A voice that was heavy and strong enough for Wagner and Verdi but also limber and flexible enough to alternate it with Bellini and Donizetti overnight (or in the same night as is the case of a 1952 Turin recital) This unique combination made her instrument ideal for the Assoluta roles that up to that point almost no one had done total justice. These were the role that were instantly and forever owned by Callas as soon as she touched them. Roles in which you needed to display superhuman agility yet still had to bring the house down. By 1957, Callas had already sung the whole gamut ranging from I Puritani, La Sonnambula, Lucia di Lammermoor and Norma, to Aida, Macbeth, Nabucco, Anna Bolena and Medea. If fact, she didn't just tuck these extremely demanding roles under her belt. She mastered, redefined and (in the case of Medea) even revived them.

2. The Vocal Weight
The Callas sound was said to be huge. It left dame Joan Sutherland in shock when she heard her in Norma in Covent Garden 1952 (Joan was singing Clotilde). It was undeniably a very powerful voice, at least before she lost weight.This was not entirely due to the largeness of the voice per se but more to that edge, that squillo that could effortlessly slice through the brassiest and loudest orchestras like a laser beam, a quality in which I think she was rivaled only by the human trumpet Birgit Nilsson. Admittedly, the voice did lose some of its power later on and rather quickly just after the drastic weight loss which I can only attribute to a weakened support rather than a literal loss of "fatness" as Dame Sutherland put it. Still, until the very end, Callas was nothing short of a proper Gioconda.

3. The range
Not only did Maria's voice span an almost 3-octave range, from F#3 to E6, but she also carried all the power and weight throughout the entire range, giving that bone-chilling "heroic Coloratura" effect. Her chest notes gave the best mezzos and contraltos a run for their money. Her interpolated high E in the Mexico Aida is the stuff of legend and is considered the best acuto ever recorded.

4. the Timbre
I'll pass on the cliché that Callas' voice was "essentially ugly". To me, the sound was dark and cavernous, yet squillante and gleaming- albeit bordering on the shrill. Most of the time, it was almost-completely devoid of the voluptuous and sumptuous qualities that her prime rival Renata Tebaldi and other pretty Sopranos boasted, hence the above-mentioned cliché. Yet at its prime, the voice was a perfect balance of chiaroscuro that revealed a real appoggio technique. Listening to her in particular roles, one finds a peculiar sweetness and morbidezza that stem from the delicacy and refinement of her apporach to these characters that she portrayed. Maria's "harsh" timbre served greatly to produce the finest Lady Macbeth on record. Yet I hear no harshness, no ugliness in her Violettas or Aminas.

II. The Singer
1. Sense of Style

If I had to describe Maria's singing in two words I'd say meticulous and refined. The undisputed fact is that the voice, especially pre-1953, was a freak of nature. But it was wielded incredibly well by a very intelligent musician and artist. Whatever flaws you heard in her natural instrument, Maria more than made up for with her mastery and finesse to the point where they served her art and career magically. Sitting, score in hand, through a complete recording of a given Opera by Callas, one can expect nothing short of a perfect embodiment of the composer's original intentions, yet not devoid of creative genius and tasteful decisions. No trill or acciaccatura went ignored as is the case with most singers. Whether it was Verdi, Verismo or Bel Canto, Maria gave meanings to the words without resorting to vocal histrionics. She colored every note with great taste and attention. And above all, she rendered obsolete the mindless and exhibitionist canary-bird singing of the old days whose only purpose was to play up a singer's capabilities. Words and notes now found an unprecedented affinity, and phrases were shaped like never before. Maria liked to think of herself (and the Soprano in general) as the main instrument of the orchestra, and she sang like it. A great sense of musicality coupled with a vast technical knowledge and experience manifested themselves in very nuanced interpretations of the different composers she served.

2. Extraordinary feats
Maria showcased (especially early on in her career) some superhuman vocal feats, or fireworks as she called them, some of which in my opinion were rivaled only by Joan Sutherland. "There is hardly a bar in the whole range of nineteenth-century music for high soprano that seriously tested her powers." Said Walter Legge about Divina's insane technical prowess. Acuti were unleashed with dazzling power and held forever. Complexe Rossinian and Bellinian lines were executed with unmatched accuracy and, on many occasions, on a single breath. Flawless trills in pianissimo floated on very high notes, stratospheric diminuendi on Eb6, fortissimi that could pin you to your seat and split your ear drums, incredible upward and downward chromatic scales, crystal-clear staccati...you name it. Typically, if a singer could display one or two of these feats they went straight up there with the greats, but to young, fat Callas, all of these were child's play.

3. The diction
Maria's Italian and French diction put native speakers to shame. While other great singers, namely Caballé and Sutherland, sacrificed diction for beauty of the tone, Callas never compromised. Vowels were clear and well-shaped, never mushed. Words were imbued with meaning and emotion. Flawless enunciation, firm declamation and nothing short of crisp and clean. This was one of those little things that made Callas untouchable to this day.


Like any other legend of course, all these musical and artistic merits were only a part of what made Callas the greatest Opera star to this day. Behind all this was the lonely woman, Onassis' lover and the glamorous 20th century icon that inspired worship and controversy with her idiosyncratic persona.
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Updated Sep-16-2018 at 18:30 by Tuoksu

Categories
Classical Music , Talkclassical , Opera , Singers

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