There's Something About Maria

Thursday, April 15, 2010 - 01:06 PM

The article in The New York Times about people who don't like cilantro, and/or manage to acquire a taste for it, reminded me, in a strange way, of Maria Callas.

I was a kid the first time I heard her voice--for my birthday, my father brought me home her recording of Carmen, which someone at the (dear, departed) Record Hunter had told him was THE one to get.  My reaction was the same as my reaction to cilantro: "Yuck!"  Not at all the sound I was used to hearing a singer make.  I couldn't understand why anyone would like it.  
But the moment I saw a video recording of Callas, I got it--the total involvement, the complete commitment to the music, the ultimate dramatic package.  You might question the technique, and all the other things that probably shortened her career, but you cannot question the excitement that a Callas performance generates.
What was your reaction to Callas the first time you heard her?  Did it change over the years?  And how do you feel about cilantro?

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Comments [22]

James Nickoloff from Miami Beach

I agree with every word of Paul Brown from NYC. Maria Callas has been my teacher above all, ever since I first heard her second studio recording of "Lucia." I do not consider that her finest recorded performance; that title goes to the 1955 live "Norma" from La Scala (though I love the early performances of "Medea"). But she is the one who taught me that the greatest singers are not those who "become" the characters they portray but rather they become THEMSELVES in the course of singing the operatic character. Callas, like all great artists, finds in her art the best--indeed, the only--way to express herself fully. This is why Callas the singer allows us to know Maria the woman in a most intimate way.

Oct. 17 2013 08:03 PM
Claude Michaud from Montreal Canada

I am sorry i don't like Callas, she was overated - she is well known
because of her scandals, cancellations. lover affair with Onassis,
not so much for singing. Tebaldi was far superior, Tebaldi acted with
her voice, se did not have to make all kind of gestures, her acting
was in her voice. Also Tebaldi had a glorious sound also her voice
was powerful, feminine, her sound was firm and clear. I felt that
Callas had a potato in her mouth when she sang. It was a pleasure
to hear Tebaldi, you could not get enough of her. For me Tebaldi is the
greatest singer.

Feb. 03 2013 09:33 PM
concetta nardone from elmont, ny

My favorite singers when I first learned to love opera were Zinka Milanov and Jussi Bjoerling. They still are, along with Tebaldi and DeLos Angeles. But there truly was something about Maria. La Divina. Opera is theatre and she could act. Her musicianship was awesome. Her life was something like a Greek Tragedy. May she rest in peace. Her final aria in Madama Butterfly still brings me to tears, after all these years.

Apr. 21 2010 10:09 AM
Jan Schwartz from Vacaville, CA

I had heard many rather negative things about Callas' singing while I was growing up. It wasn't until I was a middle-aged adult that I really began LISTENING to her work and judging it for myself.... I don't care if the technique is off, or her voice was pushed or anything.... the quality of her voice was UNIQUE. Her use of it was UNIQUE. There are too few singers today whose voices are instantaneously and justifyably recognizable, and hers is one. I am definitely a fan!
P.S. I don't like clilantro... tastes like soap.

Apr. 20 2010 02:45 PM
Paul Brown from NYC

I was an electronics/stereo buff as a teenager in the 70's. I got a "high tech" Sony reel-to-reel recorder and was dying to hear it's frequency range and signal to noise ratio. The first two tapes I bought were the Maria Callas in Paris albums.

I had no idea who she was but everything that one needs to know about Maria can be heard in her singing alone, and even in those French Mezzo Arias which one could argue were certainly NOT her defining contributions to Opera, Nonetheless, I entered her world on a technical note and she mesmerized me. She has never released me.

Callas taught me, and continues to teach me, everything I now about Opera. She taught me to love it. The excitement and commitment was all there at the Paris juncture, but to later discover her Lucia, or I daresay her Lady Macbeth! (the sleepwalking scene she did as a studio recording for Angel is perhaps my favorite aria ever--She breathes life into the Lady. If the French arias were spellbinding to a teenager hooked on the intensity of Janis Joplin, discovering her truer legacy was a series of Revelations.

Maria Callas isn't just a singing actress, she is first and foremost a musician--beyond talented, she ranks with the great genius composers. I use the present tense because--well, what other singer so far removed from actually walking on stage is still with us as vibrantly and as alive as Maria Callas.

Apr. 19 2010 11:06 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane from Lake Hiawatha, NJ

Callas instinctively, simultaneously, coupled the color of her dramatic musical and textual nuances with the flow of the music as it was bound to the text. Within each syllable and pitch there was the studied spontaneity of the persona she played. She was the true singing actress that composers seek. Many others with bigger and more beautiful voices never elicited the excitement she did because she was totally at one with the heroine she portrayed. Kenneth Bennett Lane, Wagnerian heldentenor and opera composer: "Shakespeare" & "The Political Shakespeare" and director, Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, where actors are trained
for the Shakespeare roles and big-voiced singers are coached in Wagner opera roles. Website:

Apr. 19 2010 01:57 AM
Steve from New York City

One other thought, one I've had for a long time-- someone should write an opera about her. If ever anyone lived an operatic life, it was Callas. Casting the role would be the real challenge.

Apr. 18 2010 10:25 AM
Mistress Didi* from New York City, NY, USA

I loved both Maria Callas and cilantro from the very first moment I enjoyed them!

Apr. 17 2010 06:40 PM

My first hearing of her was her first Recital Album. I kept thinking maybe my vinyl was warped or something. But I grew and living in NY and attending the Met, I began to love her. Tosca, of course, my favorite with Gobbi. Saw him many times also. She and Price are my favorites. Living in Wichita, we have a small opera company, but I so so miss NYC and the audio culture! Callas is part of history, not just music, but Onasis and the recording industry as well.

Apr. 17 2010 05:47 PM
Steve from New York City

An acquired taste? I suppose so, but it's a taste I acquired early on. I never had the opportunity to hear Callas in person, but I was hooked the first time I heard one of her recordings; "Tosca" I think it was. Hers wasn't a classically beautiful voice like Tebaldi's or Caballe's. But, she could convey a world of emotions in a single phrase. She compelled you to listen to her, to feel the music, to peer at the soul of the characters she portrayed. Whether it was Mimi or Turandot or Armida, she held you with the power of her singing and acting. Yes, she was an acquired taste, and those who acquired that taste are the richer for it.

Apr. 16 2010 09:40 PM
Midge Woolsey

I once had the pleasure of working on a project for the PBS Great Performances series with John Ardoin. John wrote several books about Maria Callas and enjoyed a special friendship with her. He told me that when he first met her, she shook his hand and asked him point blank whether or not he liked her singing. He was honest with her and told her that he didn't particularly care for her sound. She looked him in the eye and said, 'I will win you over!' And, she proceeded to do just that!

When I think of singers I wish I could have seen in live performance, the name 'Maria Callas' is at the top of my list!

P.S. re: Cilantro..........I think I've always liked it.

Apr. 16 2010 02:45 PM
Thomas from NW NJ

For me there is only one Carmen, Rise' Stevens. Granted I have a fondness for Mezzos but she brought a sensuality to the role that, in my opinion, has yet to be equaled.

Apr. 16 2010 12:06 PM
John Thompson from NYC

I first heard Callas' recordings in the mid 50s. I didn't like her voice and couldn't understand why all the fuss. The one thing I did note was that Callas sang everything at a time when singers, sopranos especially, were cast in roles according to vocal color. Years later I bought her final studio recording of Lucia and had it on as background music. Something she did in the Mad Scene caught my ear and I was hooked. By the end I had to listen to the whole thing again this time with attention. Some singers give you the tunes but Callas gives you everything.

Apr. 16 2010 11:16 AM
Drew Greis from Bergenfield, NJ

The highest achievement that an artist can reach in music is to develop a style or quality that is unmistakable. After becoming familiar with such an artist, one can always recognize who this artist is after one or two measures of performance. Maria Callas had this quality-mostly in the unusual darkness of her voice. I don't know enough about singing (I'm an oboist) to know if this was learned or just natural, but this "darkness" along with the tremendous artistry of interpretation and expression made her unique in opera. I never heard her live, but I always recognize her when I hear a recording and feel that she was one of the greatest sopranos of all time in opera.

Apr. 16 2010 10:12 AM
richard rosenbluth

When I was a teenager I remember the Callas vs. Tebaldi feud among opera lovers. I was decidedly in the Tebaldi camp. Her voice was pure gold and Callas' had a biting edge to it--not to mention that god-awful wobble.
Yet as I grew older, I noted that Tebaldi always sounded like Tebaldi , no matter what she sang, but Callas "interpreted" her roles. Besides, she sang absolutely everything. Then I saw her last Tosca at the Met (with Gobbi and Tucker), The voice was mostly gone but the performance was shattering--one I will never forget.
Today, she remains for me the consummate vocal artist--a singing actress.

Apr. 16 2010 09:39 AM
Patrick from NYC

I don't consider myself an expert

on opera, by any means. I do not

listen to recordings a lot. But, I

believe after being exposed to

Maria Callas in three 'bread &

butter' roles--Traviata, Norma

& Tosca--everyone subsequently

pales, by comparison. That would

include Mme Caballe whom I saw

& heard twice as Tosca, once as

Norma. All three fine performances.

Apr. 16 2010 02:22 AM
Thea from New Rochelle, NY

I don't quite remember my reaction the first time I heard Maria Callas on a recording, but I do feel she can be an acquired taste. Sometimes her voice sounded as if she was screeching when she hit some of those high notes, but it certainly was distinctive. Unfortunately, I never heard her in person, because I believe much of her appeal was her dramatic presence. All this in no way diminishes my respect for her as a person or an artist. AND she will always be my favorite Tosca. No one has ever interpreted that role the way as she did, including when she recited, "E avanti a lui . . ." over Scarpia's body.

Apr. 15 2010 08:30 PM
Ari from New York

One of my early favorite recordings was "Madam Butterfly": with Campora & Tebaldi (she with those beatiful creamy notes) Sometime later at a friends house I heard EMI's Calas recording and thought UGH. But I couldn't get that voice out of my head. Eventually I bought the EMI recordeing and listened carefully. In Act II when Butterfly says to Suzuki:"Ah! taci, o t' uccido" Calas had me hooked. I now have all her recordings especially the pirated live performances. Last week I listened to WKQR's Opera Quiz where 4 singers sang a snippet of the big Aria in Rossini's "Armida" and you had to guess the singer. At the end one panelist remarked (gee the music sounded different when each sang).It sounded different because only Calas sang all the notes.

Apr. 15 2010 05:06 PM
lb from nyc

But it seems this taste can only be acquired once - imagine if new singers today without vocal defects try to sing exactly the way Callas did. I doubt that many would respond to it warmly even they admire Callas. Not at all a qualitative thing, more like the post-modern idle worshiping. But there have been instances where of a defective voice became a style. I find that in Peking opera, the so called Cheng style. The old master's voice broke constantly when changing registers. Nowadays, when female students sing, they broke their voices just like the old master Cheng - the effect, women trying to sound like a man (with a vocal defect). The female roles in Peking sound funny in general since the female roles were all performed by males. You don't have to listen to it, just imagine women trying to sound men that try to sound like women... Anyway, suppose there's a new operatic style called, the Callas style, and taught in prestigious institutions, and we listen accept that as a vocal style, then it'll be a taste capable of acquisition.

Apr. 15 2010 03:51 PM
Helen Milholland

I saw Maria Callas in 1956 at the Met in Tosca with George London. It has remained all these years as the most powerful and exciting performance I have ever attended. As I write this, I still get goosebumps at the memory. I was a student at the Met ballet school at the time.

Apr. 15 2010 03:26 PM

I saw her last performance at the Met,
she sang Tosca, the voice was was not very good, but it was probably the most
exciting night in the opera that I have ever
had. I still enjoy her early recordings.

Apr. 15 2010 03:11 PM
Paul from Bogota, NJ

I felt the same way. The first recording by Callas I heard was either her "Carmen" or her EMI "La Gioconda" and I thought: "This woman has problems!"
My conversion came as a result of her recording of "Aida", whose title role was, in my youth, was synonymous with Leontyne Price. Callas took one phrase - "Imprechero` la morte a Radames, a lui che ho amato tanto" and opened up the entire character for me. This was not just singing - this was living!

Apr. 15 2010 03:10 PM

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