Looking for Maria Callas in Paris

Tuesday, December 03, 2013 - 10:00 AM

PARIS—This article is being written on December 2, 2013, the 90th anniversary of the birth of Maria Callas. This fact is widely reported on Facebook, where opera lovers are posting favorite video and audio clips of the soprano. Some opera-loving decision-maker at Google commemorated the day with an illustration of the singer on its home page.

I have been thinking, here in Paris, that this is the city where Callas lived her last years and died on Sept. 16, 1977 at the age of 53. It was not an age young enough that she would be paired with figures such as James Dean (24), Heath Ledger (28), Marilyn Monroe (36) or Elvis Presley (42), about whom it was wondered what they might have still accomplished.

The body of Callas's work had been created well before her death. Her last opera performances were in the 1960s, including her final execution of the iconic aria, "Casta Diva," from Bellini's Norma, which she gave in Paris on May 29, 1965. She did some concerts with Giuseppe DiStefano in the early 1970s and that was it.. And yet, 53 can seem very young. Her voice and image were very much alive in the memory of millions of people who saw her live or owned her recordings. I note with sadness that my colleague, Marion Lignana Rosenberg died suddenly last week at the age of 51. She was a Callas specialist and the prematureness of Marion’s passing had great resonance for me today.

I recalled that there is a Place Maria Callas in Paris and decided to take myself there today to see if anything was happening. The French are very good at the commemoration of artists and thinkers, especially those who had a connection with France. In 1999, for example, I attended a recreation of Chopin’s entire funeral at the Church of the Madeleine. The same music was played at his actual funeral in this place exactly 150 years earlier.

Before embarking on this search, I did some research online. In the Wikipedia article (and I should note that Wikipedia is not a source I consider reliable enough to cite on any topic), there is a traditional blue and green Paris street sign as an illustration, which led me to think that there would would be such a sign at the Place Maria Callas.

I knew from my maps and walking in this area through the years where the Place Maria Callas would be. It is just down the street from the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, where I often attend performances. It is at the Alma-Marceau metro station, a very chic place where the Avenue Montaigne, Avenue Georges V, Avenue de President Wilson and Avenue de New York all converge. It is right on the Seine and the Eiffel Tower looms large just across the river.

It was here that Callas lived out her last, lonely years and I imagined the faithful might have gathered here just as they had in cyberspace. To my dismay, there seemed to be a total lack of awareness that one of the greatest divas in opera history was strongly associated with this spot.

There are four newsagents in close proximity to where I thought the place would be. The first three I asked had never heard of it. The fourth one, who wound up being only steps away from the site, told me, “I think it is just over there, but it is not marked in any way.” I walked around and around in the spot where the map indicated, crossed the street, looked at nearby corners, and there was no marker or plaque.

Wikipedia reported that this piece of land, just where the Avenue de New York converges with the Pont de L’Alma, was dedicated to Callas on July 24, 1997, almost 20 years after her death. I quickly figured out why Callas has been forgotten here: In the tunnel immediately beneath the supposed location of the place, Diana, Princess of Wales, was in the accident that would claim her life on August 31, 1997. A mere five weeks after this place was dedicated to Callas, the area under became the focus of worldwide attention for another reason.

Today, the square (really small patch of land between three trafficky streets), has a small wall on one side that is scrawled with Princess Diana graffiti and memorabilia. There is no marker whatsoever that I could locate for Callas. Quel dommage! Paris seems to remember Callas in other ways. There were two articles today in Le Point one about her impact as an artist, the other about her sad final years.

When I think of Callas in Paris, it is of Callas Forever by Franco Zeffirelli, a film fantasy about a career comeback when she had no voice left. Her somewhat slimy manager, played by Jeremy Irons, decides that because she had recorded Carmen but never performed the role on the stage, a sort of “virtual” performance in which she might move about and mouth the words could be created. Or, perhaps, a Carmen movie with Callas acting while being dubbed with her own voice. Fanny Ardant was wonderful as Callas. She was, to my taste, the best of all the Marias in Terrence McNally’s play Master Class, which she acted in French.

Because there are now very few people around who heard Callas live, she is fading from memory as a performer and is now being built up as a myth and an icon for people who are attracted by her temperament at a time when most artists of all types seem so detached. Who could, for those who wonder at what Callas meant, be the parallel example for young audiences today? No one really, certainly not among opera singers. But as someone who set a style and tone that reflected her times, perhaps Amy Winehouse. Tony Bennett, a man I admire whose artistry I respect, observed that Winehouse was one of the very greatest singers he ever worked with. And she had a look, to be sure, and an hypnotic hold on her  fans. Whom would you choose?

Readers, Weigh In: Given Maria Callas’s vivid life story, which great opera composer would you select to write the music for an opera based on her life, and why? My pick would be Hector Berlioz, who would get the sweep and the passion, in addition to the whole sense of Callas’s Greek heritage.


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Comments [22]

Karl H. van Zoggel from Nuenen, The Netherlands

Dear Mr. Plotkin,
from a member of our Club I received recently your article in 'Operavore' "Looking for Maria Callas in Paris" dated 2/3 December 2013. It is very nice that you wrote about her and were looking for a name shield of Maria Callas near Place de l'Alma. Somewhere you must have overlooked it, but there is a shield. Unfortunately, the official ceremony at the time, in which members of our Club were involved, didn't go through because of the tragic accident with Princess Diana. I can tell you everything about it.
It is indeed very sad that Marion Lignana Rosenberg had died. She was for some time a member of our Club and I corresponded with her about some Callas' matters.
It is a pity that you had to take your Callas information from an obscure site as Wikipedia. Our Club, founded in 1990, has until now published 71 Maria Callas Magazines, full of important and correct information about Maria Callas. If you want I'm pleased to send you a copy of the Magazine. If you want to write more about Maria Callas don't hesitate to contact me for more information.
All best wishes,

Karl H. van Zoggel
Founder of 'The Maria Callas International Club'
Editor of 'Maria Callas Magazine'

The Netherlands

May. 03 2014 05:13 AM
Mary Williams

Correction: In re my post of 1/28/14, the musical director of The Dallas Civic Opera's production of Lucia di Lammermoor in 1959 was Nicolo Rescigno, not Franco Zeferelli. Zeferelli was the Stage Manager! Apologies to Maria Callas afficionados and fans the world over. Mary Williams

Mar. 05 2014 10:25 PM
Mary Williams from Santa Monica, California

To Fred Plotkin:

In 1959 I sang in the chorus with Maria Callas in the Dallas Civic Opera productions of Lucia di Lammermoor and Medea by Cherubini. The Lucia was imported from Covent Garden and included many of the same gorgeous costumes. The baritone was Ettore Bastiannini and the Director was a young upstart by the name of Franco Zeferelli. Between acts during a rehearsal I prevailed upon Maria to sign my playbill; I don't know how I did it. She would sign nothing in those days.

The Medea was the brain child of the great Greek dramatist Alexis Menottis. The role of Jason was sung by Jonathan Vickers. I can't remember who else was in the cast. Maria was terrifying in the role of the scorned wife.

In 1959 I was 22 years old, fresh out of college where I had been minored in voice. It was my first year of teaching. I don't know if any of us are left from those productions but singing on the same stage with Maria Callas was one of the most thrilling experiences of my life. Mary Williams

Jan. 28 2014 09:46 PM
Andrew Clarke from Milwaukee

“Very few people around who heard Callas live”!

Yes, our fortunate circle would be dwindling. It was almost fifty years ago, 1964, when I saw Maria Callas in Norma, in Paris. I humbly refer readers to “The Night We Saw Callas” and a companion piece, “Paris 1964,” via my website: www.AndrewClarkeStories.com. Maria was the star, but there was a sidelight or two worthy of the phantom of the opera, de Maupassant, or the hunchback of Notre Dame.

And thank you, Mr. Plotkin. The story of your Parisian pilgrimage marks the spot. It is poignant in several ways, evoking three dynamic women departed early, and intriguing for the triple stellar alignment.

Dec. 11 2013 04:29 PM
Kitsos Louis from Heraklion, Crete

By the way, Google Earth has no Place Maria Callas in its db, instead a Rue Maria Callas in Bobigny!

Dec. 06 2013 02:30 AM
Fred Plotkin

To Les from Miami, Always nice to read your learned comments. I can tell from them that you are a serious and discerning music lover. There have been traditions, both in vocal recitals and instrumental ones, of performers having a "play list" from which they choose based on how they feel once they are on the stage. Montserrat Caballé did that a lot. If she was comfortable and enjoying herself, she would sing practically everything on her list. I had that experience once with her at Carnegie Hall. She sang for hours, walking off the stage between each selection and then coming out, smiling, as if she had decided to give us more. I think in the case of Callas/DiStefano in 1974, it was more about what she felt comfortable doing. She knew her voice and its limitations, certainly at that point, and was careful to sing what she felt would work.

Dec. 05 2013 12:59 PM
Les from Miami, Florida

I was one of those who saw Callas and di Stefano when they appeared in Miami Beach on 21 March 1974 with Robert Sutherland, pianist, while on their world tour. The program states "The artists will sing arias, songs and duets selected from the following repertoire:" --- a stipulation I've never before heard of or ever encountered.
MARIA CALLAS: Le Cid: Pleurez, pleurez mes yeux; Carmen: Haban~era; La Gioconda: Suicidio; Mefistofele: L'altra notte in fondo al mare; Don Carlo: Non pianger, mia compagna Tu che le vanita: I Vespri Siciliani: Bolero; Gianni Schicchi: O mio babbino caro; La Bohe'me: Quando m'en vo'soletta; Manon Lescaut: In quelle trine morbide; Bola, perduta, abbandonata
GIUSEPPE DI STEFANO: Carmen: La fleur tu m'aveia jetee; Le Roi D'ys: Vainement ma bien aime; Le Cid: O Souverain! O Juge!; Werther: Pourquois me reveiller; L'Arlesiana: Lamento di Federico; L'Elisir d'Amore: Una furtiva lagrima; Fedora: Amor di vieta; Marta: M'appari; Non t'amo piu; Partir; Marechiare: Catari
DUETS: Faust: Love Duet from the Garden Scene; Carmen: Final Scene; L'Elisir d'Amore: Adina and Nemorino duet Act I.; La Forza del Destino: Leonora and Don Alvaro Act I; Don Carlos Elisabeth de Valois and Don Carlos Act II; I Vespri Siciliani: Duchesse Helene and Arrigo; Cavalleria rusticana: Santuzza and Turiddu duet

Dec. 05 2013 09:42 AM
Charles Fischbein from Front Royal, Va.

Thank you Fred, you put this into perspective. I was thinking last night after writing to you about things I can recall from my early days when I was nine or ten. I can recall a few events with my grade school teachers, and of my father who played violin during summer breaks from the New York City Schools in the catskill borscht belt orchestras, I guess I can imagine an event witnessed with a close family member impressing a very young person.
I have read stories of highly skilled musicians who began their career studies at a very young age, some under ten years old after listening to or attending a concert.
I was just skeptical that a 9 year old could properly critique an Opera performance above the glitz and glitter of a Zepherelli type scene, filled with animals and a childrens chorus.
Sometimes I feel it is best to leave Hollywood out of a persons memory. I doubt that anyone, even Verdi in his prime could do justice to the life of highs and lows of someone like Maria Callas, although he could come close. And then he would need a librettist much like Giacosa. Puccini i think could have done one best as he and Giacosa were genius at portraying a tragic woman falling from grace, Cho Cho San in Butterfly, and Mimi in Boheme. If one wants to imagine such an opera being staged it would most likely be much like Tosca, so why bother and take a chance of cheapening her life, one can just watch the Met Performance of Tosca and move the location from Vegas to a Greek Isle. Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas and God Speed, Charles Fischbein

Dec. 05 2013 07:38 AM
Fred Plotkin

To Paul Capon: Very good comments. To Charles Fischbein: It is not that I remember every detail of that or any other event. But I remember certain ones vividly, as if they were today. One was how impressive Gobbi was. He was chilling. It remained with me so much that, when I moved to Italy for part of my university training, I sought him out and was fortunate to become his pupil. I went to numerous performances well before this one, not just opera, but all sorts of things. I vividly remember "Hello, Dolly!" and moments from "The Royal Hunt of the Sun" with Christopher Plummer and Shaw's "Saint Joan" with Diana Sands (which was late 1960s). And then there are surely hundreds of performances of all kinds of things I have no memory of whatsoever.

Dec. 05 2013 02:13 AM
Paul Capon from Thunder Bay, ON

Dear Fred:

I have often wondered which opera composer could write an opera for Maria. The composer would have to know about life, show a multi-facetted personality, give colour to the voice(s), able to convey the subtleties of human emotion, yet the drama of irony. Maria would have to be a mezzo, Jackie as the soprano, Ari, the base-baritone, etc.

Not having seen the '65 performances at the Met, I know they have assumed the status of legend - like the Beatles first appearances on Ed Sullivan. But tragically, and like the operas she sang, they show life cruel little ironies. Just at the moment of Maria's greatest triumph in her hometown (listen to the YouTube audio of her entrance), it would also spell the end of her greatest love. Before the curtain rises, who should come in on the arm of Rudolph Bing (the man who famouly fired her) - Jacqueline Kennedy, on one of her first outings since her husband's death. They meet afterwards at a stage party - the first and only time - although Maria sang before Marilyn at the (in)famous birthday bash for Jack. Maria later tells Ari about those nights, about seeing Jackie; while she lingers on the memory - Ari realizes Jackie is now available, this will be his new prize...

There is only one composer who could create an opera out of this - Verdi.

Dec. 05 2013 01:12 AM

Dear Mr. Plotkin,

I was very sad to read of Marion Lignana Rosenberg. I enjoyed her writing immensely! I think in honor of her and Maria I would have to choose "Oh remenbranza" from Norma. They will both live on through their artistry.


Dec. 04 2013 08:10 PM

I'm a bit confused here. Isn't there (also) a well-marked Allée Maria Callas on the Avenue Georges-Mandel where she lived? Otherwise, France seems to have many streets named after the diva - and at least one secondary school!
The other day during a commemorative radio broadcast, her "Casta diva" - not her best version, I fear - actually made me cringe, what with all its unsteady tone. Brought to mind younger days when the Renata Tebaldi faction were trying to convince the rest of us of that singer's much greater vocal beauty ... in vain, of course, since we just couldn't get enough of Callas, a veritable force of nature.

Dec. 04 2013 07:29 PM
Charles Fischbein from Front Royal, Va.

Fred, do you mean to claim micro recall from the live performance of Tosca you saw with your father when you were nine years old, or from a movie of Tosca? You must have an extraordinary memory, you said you were 9 years old when you saw Callas live, and then say you vividly recall Tito Gibbi in that 1965 performance.
I was paid rather handsomely to remember things and then write of them upon my return from various Middle East venues, and recall historical events from years past, and I have been with some of the worlds most talented print and photo journalists and historical anthropologists who rely on personal recall in their work. I cannot recall one who can claim a totally accurate and vivid memory from a movie, or concert they attended when they were nine years old some 50 years after the event. Could it be that you have taken a bit of journalistic licence? Saying "the one who really got me at that performance' was Tito Gibbi relating to Tosca in 1965 when you say you were nine years old is hard to fathom. Even a skilled and successful self promoter can reach the end of his credibility with statements like that.
In the same way you feel that many people who said they have seen Callas at the Met are basically lying, a reasonable person would question the ability of a nine year old child to be "taken" by a performer in a opera they saw some 49 years ago.
Are there any newsreels of the performance you may have seen or perhaps you have listened to recordings of it from the Met archives and then experienced a bit of "transference"?
Calling many who have claimed to have seen Ms. Callas live untruthful shows how much of a lack of faith you have in your fellow man.
I cannot see why someone would lie about attending an opera performance, unless they were perhaps at an Upper West Side Manhattan, or Washington D.C. embassy cocktail party seeking to impress their underlings. Some of our present United States Supreme Court justices, especially two from the most liberal side of the court, seem to like dress in costumes and take part in walk on roles at The Washington Opera of past years, and of course the premier opera self promoter in the operatic universe, Placido Domingo, the failed General Manager of the Washington Opera, was more than willing to let these Justices indulge in their personal fantasies in public.
Lord only knows that they wore in the privacy of their own homes, I certainly hope they did not engage in cross dressing, although with some on libera side of The Supreme Court today I would not be surprised. God Speed, Charles Fischbein

Dec. 04 2013 06:08 PM
Fred Plotkin from Paris

Thanks for all of your comments. I have met many, many people who recall hearing Callas live, but there were not enough seats in the Met to accommodate all of the people who claim they saw her. I heard her once and, truth be told, the one who really got me at that Tosca was Tito Gobbi. The Medea film was directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini, about whom there is an exhibition now at the Paris Museum of Cinema on the Rue Bercy near the Gare de Lyon.

Dec. 04 2013 12:03 PM
concetta nardone from Nassau

Fine article Mr. Plotkin and thanks. I too saw the film Callas Forever and Fanny Ardant gave a fine performance but I found the film to be a little trashy, just my opinion. Who could ever forget Callas. I recall that the plaza at the entrance to the tunnel was going to be named for Callas. She died very young. No one knows what is written in their book. Sorry about Ms.Lignana. Enjoyed reading her articles. Only 51. Ms.Callas wounded the soul when she sang. Saw her in the film Medea directed by Visconti I think. Would not like to see a film bio about her for fear that it would be trash since she is not here to defend herself.
Best wishes

Dec. 04 2013 10:54 AM
beachsiggy from NYC

Go to a matinee performance at the Met, and you will encounter any number of people who heard Callas live, in New York, and vividly recall every note of her performances. And will proceed to animatedly insist that noone on the stage today even comes close.

I enjoy talking to people, especially people who have seen and heard performances I was too young to have enjoyed (or which pre-dated me entirely). I wish for that time machine we used to imagine on Opera-L, to take me back to that "golden era" - while I do believe we are having another "golden era" right now.

Dec. 04 2013 10:03 AM
Charles Fischbein from Front Royal, Va.

Mr. Plotkin, I did not mean to "call you " on the statement, I knew in the later part of her career she did not work very frequently, and that her most memorable performances were back in the mid to late 1950's. All I recall is the memory of seeing her at the Met, in Tosca, but not really the performance. I do however recall one of Pavarotti's last performances of Aida at the Met, as vividly as if it were yesterday, with his voice failing and leaning heavily on the stage set rocks with a very weak first act, somehow he gathered the strength to rally and end the opera in fair form, but in all it was a sad event and I felt horrible the entire trip bach
k to Virginia.
My father who was a New York City School Principle died when i was just 14, so I related to my uncle and then was close to the man I worked with on weekends at The Public Library, who was responsible for "turning me on to" opera.
With the sparse number of performances Ms. Callas did in her later years I stand corrected that you are most likely correct saying "very few" people alive today heard her live, and since it is at best difficult to recall something nearly 50 years old, i do not recall the performance, but do enjoy listening to her on many CD recordings of her performances i own. Some of them highly remastered and in good sound.
Sometimes it is best to leave the memory of a great performer untarnished by not having a contemporary performer portray him/or her as imitation can only cause harm to the real qualities of the person. I am sure a tragedy performed without copying her voice style would be of interest, but to have any contemporary performer copy her onstage would i fear only fail.
Like so very many unique and highly sough after performers she succomed to alcohol and other excesses and the world lost the chance to learn from her while she would have grown older and hopefully wiser. God Speed, Charles Fischbein

Dec. 04 2013 08:05 AM
Bepi Pucciarelli

Bravo Fred. Mitica Callas!

Dec. 04 2013 12:50 AM
Stefano de Peppo from New York

Caro Fred, great article! I have an Italian FB friend who have seen many of her performances in the early fifties in Italy...

Dec. 03 2013 11:59 PM
Fred Plotkin from Paris

To Charles Fischbein, I too saw Maria Callas in March 1965, in Tosca. She did two performances. Both had Tito Gobbi as Scarpia. In one Franco Corelli was Mario, in the other it was Richard Tucker. My father took me, knowing it would be historic. We heard the one with Corelli. I was 9 years old then. The fact is that Callas had not sung in NYC for several years before this return. So it is her absence, rather than the ages of those who might have been there, that impelled me to say that few are around her heard her. Using a strictly New York orientation, which I do not do, this means that very few people are around who have heard her live. But even in Italy, where she sang the most, few people are around who heard her live.

Dec. 03 2013 09:22 PM
Thies Eggert

As you ask me, dear Fred, I try to answer the question what composer could be the best to set Callas life in music. First of all this is extremly difficult to answer. Maybe regarding Callas as a real Greek tragedienne it would be Strauss. But to show the inward conflicts of hers it maybe someone like Berg or Hindemith. Maybe Reimann would be able to show all aspects. But I really don't know.

Dec. 03 2013 07:45 PM
Charles Fischbein from Front Royal, Va.

Fred, to say there are "very few" people left who have seen Ms. Callas live is an overstretch. Her last performance at the Met was in March of 1965 a short 49 years ago.
I recall back in 1961 as a University freshman working weekends in the periodicals division at the 42nd St. New York Public Library, my boss and I would listen to the Saturday afternoon Met concerts. Since there were no patrons allowed in our section of the stacks we could listen at regular volume. That is where my love of Opera began.
I recall see Ms. Callas in Tosca at the Met back in 1965 but I do not recall the date, I think looking back at Met archives it may have been March 19.
I am not yet seventy years old and have a number of friends that have followed Opera in New York City and Europe for more than five decades and are still very much alive.
While we are beginning to thin out demographically, there are more of us left than you may think, and those of us who have lived through the 60's and 70's are not going to our permanent underground abodes without a fight, and hopefully several more decades of enjoying Opera at The Met. One look at the demographics for Metropolitan Opera House performances the last few seasons and you can see just home may of us there are in the house who were around listening to opera in the early 1960's. God Speed, Charles Fischbein

Dec. 03 2013 06:21 PM

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Operavore is WQXR's digital 24/7 audio stream and devoted to Opera. The Operavore blog features breaking news, expert commentary and reviews by writers Fred Plotkin, David Patrick Stearns, Amanda Angel and others. The music stream features a continuous, carefully programmed mix of classic and contemporary opera recordings.

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