New Statesman, Sep. 1977
Maria Anna Kalogeropoulos made her world entrance in New York in 1923, and her tragic exit in Paris last week. In between she dominated the opera houses of Europe and the Americas as if she had assumed the role, as well as the name, of Callas: la Divina. Her career falls into aliquot parts, like a three-act opera; a prologue, a brilliant entry and triumphant procession, and finally a sad withdrawal and departure. Next come the floral tributes, bearing such legends as “Goddesses don't die”.
The destiny of the diva is thrice determined; by the quality of the voice, its training, and its owner's personality. The Callas organ was above all a great instrument, affectingly simple in its vox humana quality and yet, when all its stops were out, overwhelming. That range of registration gave it intense dramatic power. As a further formative contrast, it was classically trained in an Athens academy by a Spanish coloratura. Having explored the depths of all the standard roles of later Wagner and Verdi, Callas emerged to flash and sparkle in florid display. After her resplendent success as Elvira, in I Puritani in 1949, she turned increasingly to bel canto; and, in doing so, impressed even those Germanic-depressive die-hards who find it hard to tell Bellini from baloney. As all could see and hear, her art had compellingly taken fire from her own passionate nature. At her best, for example as Puccini's Tosca, feeling and technique fused together. Her devotees still speak with exaltation of her unearthly ultra-Violetta radiance as Verdi's consumptive heroine in La Traviata, while the white-robed Bellinian purity of her superb Norma has, been acclaimed as supernormal.
Very well, these are in a sense illusions; but they are nonetheless realities to those who experienced them, and for many operagoers Maria Callas sounded miraculous. Yet it seems that some of her own ills and wounds stayed unhealed. Although she played many parts in her time, most were sad ones; and that time itself was all too short. Several of her favourite characters were not just hurt but bodily transfixed, like so many Butterflies. In an interview she once spoke of life as a predicament alleviated by human communication. Her detractors may seek to dismiss that pessimistic aesthetic as show-business Schopenhauer: and they can certainly point to a rich life, in every sense, spent among the world's greatest capitals, and capitalists. But it would be sentimental to see her as a bird in a gilded cage. She was no helplessly trilling Trilby, hypnotised by the Svengalls of wealth and power, no mere mercenary canary switched on by reflected light. Admittedly there were sizeable limitations; thus opera without Mozart, song without Schubert, are hardly the whole picture on any showing. But her art needed plenty of blank canvas on which to paint her own picture. When the stage is peopled with lesser figures, even the grandest of opera can seem tiny and remote, as if viewed through the wrong end of the glasses. Conversely, the strength and vigour of the Callas presence and profile, suggesting a classical medallion, could make even small-scale and provincial music seem invested with her own imperious vitality.
It may well be that such conquests (and she has herself been quoted as comparing, opera to a battlefield) made heavy demands on her own emotional reserves. The whole world knew of those quasi-operatic loves and feuds, so pitilessly and publicly was the curtain lifted on the prima donna's private acts and scenes. It must surely shorten the career, and perhaps even the lifespan, to burn up one's own substance thus. But that is exactly what stars have to do. The light of Callas, though now sadly attenuated and disembodied, is still powerful enough to travel and shine for many years yet.