(The following article was written for the programme of the Grand Opening of the Clapham Opera Festival 2014)
Throughout the History of Music and particularly of Singing, the words “Diva/Divo” have always been associated with individuals whose incredible artistry turned them into an inspiration for an entire generation and whose behind-the-scenes antics often upstaged their electrifying performances.
No other singer personified this definition of “inspirational” and “controversial” the way that Maria Callas did.
Born in New York of greek ascendance, Maria Callas was without a shadow of a doubt, the most important opera singer of the XXth Century. One may argue that others had prettier voices and better technique, but the fact remains that Maria was the one who came down in history as a Legend.
In her prime, her polarising voice (which many deem ugly) was capable of extraordinary things, such was the discipline with which she trained: her big break was in the Bel Canto tour-de-force role of Elvira in Bellini’s “I Puritani” which happened at the same time she was singing Brünnhilde. Her technique has been often questioned, but the fact remains that one wouldn’t be able to switch between two such different roles without an extraordinary technical control over one’s voice.
However, the most significant part of Maria’s legacy was the fact that she was the first singer to fully combine music and drama. Up until that day, opera was essentially a “stand in costume & sing” art form, with the great Divas & Divos of the past paying little to no attention to the words and music, which served only as a vehicle for the demonstration of their virtuoso prowess.
Callas obsessively studied the scores, libretti and real-life figures upon which some of the characters she played were based (her obsession with the french courtesan Marie Du Plessis upon which “La Traviata” is based is well known) in order to find the right colours and, essentially, the true nature of the characters. She famously said in an interview that in order to find out how to move on stage, all one has to do is to look at the score and listen to the music.
This constant search for dramatic truth meant that she often over sung and pushed her instrument to the extremes, which partly explains her early vocal decline. It was the same constant search for truth that prompted her to quickly lose weight in the mid-1950’s which, because it happened too fast for her to readapt her technique to her new body, took a significant toll in her voice. However, it also turned her into a glamour and fashion icon, and Callas suddenly transcended the Opera world and became a cultural icon.
Despite the vocal decline that ensued, her artistry never stopped developing and it’s this artistry, this obsessive attention to detail which made her performances so electrifying and made her such a legend.
Callas was an artist who lived and sacrificed everything for her Art, revolutionising and leaving it immeasurably better than she found it. In a time when Opera is struggling, perhaps the clue to its survival lies in this obsessive search for dramatic truth which made Maria a Legend.