Maria Callas was one of the greatest, most famous and controversial operatic sopranos of all time. Dominating the scene in the second half of the 20th century, his legend is referenced and often erected in comparison for contemporary singers. Nicknamed “La Divina”, her vocal resilience and musical knowledge set her above many other singers of her time. Despite his fleeting fame, his voice managed to echo through the decades into the 21st century.
At 13, Callas tricked the instructors at the Athens Conservatory into thinking she was 17, the required age for enrollment. Studying with Elvira de Hidalgo, a talented soprano in her own right, Callas underwent intensive bel canto training which continued throughout her career. After her professional debut in 1941 with the Royal Athens Opera, she played her first major role in Puccini’s “Tosca”. In the decade that followed, she met and married her husband, Giovanni Battista Meneghini, built her singing career and made her Italian operatic debut at the Verona Arena and her La Scala debut in 1947 and 1950. respectively.
By the early 1950s, she was a global phenomenon, in part because of her stage presence, dramatic performances, and dedication to musical perfection. His international career spanned from 1947 to 1965, relatively short-lived by operatic standards, and was truncated in part due to vocal decline, sporadic appearances and a troubled personal life. But despite experiencing many setbacks, she remains one of opera’s most recognizable voices, with recordings being remastered every year.
The bel canto of opera
Generally associated with the triumvirate of early 19th century composers – Gioachino Rossini, Gaetano Donizetti and Vincenzo Bellini – bel canto originated in Italy in the late 1500s and developed over the next three centuries. It is based on “exact control of vocal tone intensity”, a distinction between lower and upper tones, and “a requirement for vocal agility and clear articulation of notes and enunciation of words”. Defined by The New York Times as referring “to the first decades of 19th-century Italian opera”, the style is associated with “beautiful melodies, silvery vocals and rapid streams of notes…sometimes only vaguely around the frame of what the composer actually wrote. .” Embellishments, rapid trills and series of octaves characterize the bel canto style, although the melody takes center stage.
Coloratura sopranos specialize in these runs, leaps, and lightness of voice, and Callas specializes in all of these elements. Often his portamento (changing between pitches) and phrasing added a theatrical touch to the arias, making each performance unique and unforgettable. Ultimately, bel canto has to do with long, richly ornamented phrasings that flit from note to note, elegant like Norma Bellini’s “Casta diva” tune, melodic like Verdi’s “La Traviata” and full of trills. like “Una voce poco fa” by Rosina. arias by Rossini, all performed by Callas during his career. She was praised for her technique and vocal ability above all else, although she “always insisted that opera [was] drama” and didn’t have the time for vocal or technical exhibition.
With her expressive voice and undeniable talent, Callas reinvigorated operas that hadn’t seen the light of day in ages. Her 1953 rendition of Luigi Cherubini’s “Medea” (which she learned in a week) was the first time the opera had been performed in Italy in 45 years, and she performed numerous iterations of the role before her death. She brought new consideration and stage time to Bellini’s neglected ‘La Sonnambula’, notably in the 1955 Milanese performance directed by a young Leonard Bernstein which saw Callas playing octave trills at a chilling pace and with surprising precision.
Callas also rescued Bellini’s ‘I Puritani’ from obscurity; At the turn of her career, she replaced Margherita Carosio, who had fallen ill, and she proved herself by interpreting “Brünnhilde” and “I Puritani” by Richard Wagner in the same season. After her “I Puritani”, critics wrote that “Even the most skeptical had to acknowledge the miracle performed by Maria Callas”, citing her “limpid and beautifully poised voice, and her splendid high notes”, as well as “the humanity, the warmth and expressiveness” of her rendition that previous singers lacked. Her ability to sing such a wide range propelled her onto the international stage, where she found adoring masses throughout the span of her singing career.
From singer to actress
Unlike other sopranos of her time, Callas was more of a dramatic actress than a pure singer. While many tended to stand on stage with minimal movement, Callas poured her soul into every performance, transforming into a conflicted priestess, a crazed bride-to-be or a noblewoman with just a wave of her hand and a subtle expression. Not only did she understand the characters she was playing inside and out, but she also studied composers and their music to better interpret what they had in mind when composing in order to elevate it to the above the average performer. “A real sense of heartbreaking intensity” has always accompanied her singing, even after her peak, due to the “sense of audacity” she brought back to opera in challenging her audience.
Although she was idolized by audiences, many critics took offense to the imperfections in her voice. At times she could sound “shrilly, dangerously out of control, even ugly”, with excessive vibrato and a tendency to sing loudly near the top of her register. Yet critics could not deny the ferocity and intensity she brought to many roles, and her ability to find the emotional meaning of a role eclipsed all of her contemporaries. “Her knack for bringing music to life” more than made up for any vocal flaws and set her apart from other performers, and some of her high notes from her early vocal years (most of her best recordings were from the late 1940s in the early 1950s) still remain unmatched.
The fervor and controversy surrounding her legacy and performances aside, Maria Callas remains a staple in any opera lover’s catalog. She is still considered one of the finest coloratura sopranos of the 20th century and arguably of all time (a 2006 poll of opera critics, published in Gramophone magazine, voted her the most influential soprano in the recording era). Its revitalization and emotional renditions of forgotten bel canto operas, as well as its international reputation, catapulted the opera into the headlines of the newspapers and made people queue for days and nights in the hope of hearing it sung. .
Callas had a voice with a unique sound that was “instantly recognizable but difficult to classify as dramatic soprano or coloratura soprano” because she could sing both parts effortlessly. His dedication to the musicality of opera and his ability to take audiences on the emotional journey inspired future generations of opera singers to follow in his footsteps by performing instead of just singing.