Thursday, June 11, 2009

La Divina

To be particularly honest, I never really caught on the idea of Maria Callas as a great soprano – at least in the beginning. Being the high-note whore I was when I was a kid (sure, some traces of it can still be found nowadays – but I’m digressing), I was utterly shocked with my first aural encounter with her. Owing to the fact that this happened at a very tender and impressionable age of ten, and that my idea of a pretty voice so far was that of Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music, what was coming out of the speakers repulsed me, to put it mildly. The voice had none of the purity and limpidness that I expected from a coloratura soprano. Instead, I was deluged with a darkish, veiled, almost bottled-up kind of sound. Sure, fine, she had high notes. That I couldn’t argue about. But it was produced in such an unorthodox kind way that made my skin scrawl. Let’s put it this way, would you rather be A) crushed under a whole ton of hollow blocks masquerading as a high note or B) suffer a hundred decibels of pure siren-wailing trying to pass itself as a high note? Either choice is equally valid, by the way; because that was the how she sounded to me come high note time. Trust me, the listening session didn’t turn out to be a pleasurable experience as I was hoping it to be. It was mind-boggling experience all right, as in the oh-my-god-why-the-heck-is-she-famous-when-she-sounds-SO-ugly? kind of mind-boggling. Deciding that she was just a hack for all I care (oh, such arrogance of youth), I quickly yanked the tape out of the deck after a few arias, and stored it in the box-that-it-never-to-be-opened-at-any-cost, otherwise known as the baul where my lola stored all precious knick-knacks and what-mays.

Fast forward to the age of the laser disc (okay, I realize that sounded really, really dated). Through the intervening years, I slowly got re-acquainted with the voice of Callas through various live and studio recordings of recitals and complete operas. Sure, she was still sometimes painful to listen, especially when she was lunging at the high notes. Definitely, the voice wasn’t anything remotely beautiful. In fact, for a lot of conservative vocal purists, her physical instrument sounded intrinsically fractured. Anyway, back to the laser disc story. My friend just arrived from the States lugging back a LD of Callas’ Covent Garden performance of Puccini’s Tosca. Since it was a lazy Sunday afternoon, and there was nothing good on t.v., I decided to accept his invitation to hang out and watch the video. As the performance unfurled before the t.v. screen, I was mesmerized. So this was what the Callas myth was all about. Her sheer presence and animal magnetism was very much apparent, throbbing with a palpable force I’ve never encountered before. Never mind the wobbly high notes or her distracting yodeling in and out of her chest voice. Every vocal histrionic was well put into the context of the drama. She ceased to be Callas the prima donna, and became every inch of Tosca, the outraged prima donna character she was portraying. A whole gamut of emotions, from jealousy to pain, from elation to desperation, from tenderness to fury leaped out from the video straight to the core of my being. The performance ceased to be an opera. Rather, it became was a searingly white-hot display of naked emotional truth compressed into about two hours of sheer drama. And yes, Virginia, to put it simply, I was riveted.

So what’s the whole point of the essay? It's a fanboy's personal recollection and tribute to a siner who has justifiably revolutionized opera from the mid-50's onwards. Even after 50-odd years, the reforms of Maria Callas in the operatic scene can still be felt, with the audiences expecting singers to have well-fleshed out characterizations as opposed to the stand-and-deliver approach to singing. She has proved to be a shinning beacon for an opera singer like me on how to approach and deal with the music at hand. Her untimely retirement from the operatic scene has left a void that others have tried to fill. Renata Scotto, Elena Souliotis, Sylvia Sass, and their ilk have taken up Callas' cudgels with various degrees of success. But it stops there, because the is only one Callas, bar none. The Queen is dead, and no one can ever replace her. Viva La Divina! Viva La Callas!

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