The Callas Conundrum (Introduction)

Maria Callas’s career soared like a meteor over the world of opera throughout the 1950s. Her tempestuous life was marked by drama not just on the stage but equally in her own life.

The breadth of repertoire that Callas sang in her life was unlike anything seen at that point in the 20th century. Roles like Tosca, Amina, Norma, Violetta, Medea, Kundry, and Lucia ran the gamut of vocal and dramatic requirements. Sopranos from the early part of the 20th century also sang diverse repertoire (Lillian Nordica comes to mind), but Callas’s broad repertoire was a novelty of the mid-20th century.

Born to a Greek-America family in New York City, young Maria had an affinity for music at a very young age, singing “La Paloma” and modeling herself after the singers that she saw at the movies.  Her mother saw an opportunity to groom Maria along the lines of young singers like Deanna Durbin. The early childhood exposure to elite, classical singing will be revisited in future parts of this series.

Much has been written on the life of Callas, and the reader can read more about the life of the soprano in other sources.  A book search on Amazon revealed over 1,000 books on the diva.

The focus of THIS article (which will be broken into several parts) will be to talk about her voice, technical observations, and her early decline.

The Callas Conundrum is this: what happened to this great singer? What did others say about her decline? Were there warning signs of this decline in her youth? I’ll attempt to cover a wide base of information with clips and videos discussing her voice and artistry to understand this complex vocal decline.  I will be posting MANY clips of examples of Callas’s singing for pedagogical discussion.

While NO one person can determine the exact cause of Callas’s multifactorial issues, this article will share some ideas based on the sound of the Callas voice as a mechanical instrument. I don’t claim to have the answers AT ALL, but would like to explore some ideas of what conditions and habits could have brought her to an estate of vocal disrepair.

According to several resources, among them the fantastic book The Unknown Callas: The Greek Years by Nicholas Petsalis-Diomidis, we’ll see that the seeds of technical problems were actually apparent in her youth. Her teacher Elvira de Hidalgo tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to cure Callas of some of her technical shortcomings. It’s interesting to note that Elvira de Hidalgo, like Callas, ended her singing career in her early 40s. This is a salient point to consider.

Over the course of these several blog articles, we’ll trace recordings and videos, and finally determine what technical exercises and approach might have helped the great soprano rehabilitate her voice and return to the stage.

I will be using as a foundational document the Petsalis-Diomidis book, interviews, recordings, as well as the essay Could Maria Callas’s Voice Have Been Saved? by Carol Baggott Forte.

Stay tuned for Part 1…to follow soon.



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