If there was ever a diva engulfed in near-mythological passions and controversies, it is surely Maria Callas. Hailed from early on in her career as "La Divina," she became one of the greatest names ever in the world of opera. The career, however, was surrounded by controversy from the very beginning. To this day, over thirty years after her death, she has both dedicated admirers and near-rabid detractors. I frankly admit to being an admirer, and while I understand that anyone as intense and passionate (and uncompromising) as she was is bound to attract intense opposition from some quarters, I still find the way she was treated by back-biting gossipers and the popular press to have been unfair and scandalous.
Maria Callas was born in New York, in 1923, into an unhappy family, with a mother who, by Maria's own account, seems to have been a character penned by Christina Crawford. "Stage Mother" doesn't come close. So intense were the dark passions surrounding Maria from birth that she seems, like Gaia, to have been born the daughter of chaos. Her parents moved back to Greece when Maria was still a child, and she received her earliest education there. Later, as a young woman, she would make her initial career in Italy.
She had been forced into public singing as a child by her mother, so that Maria and the stage were intimates almost from birth. It was not at first a happy relationship. She resented never having had a childhood, and hated singing. She was a fat and unattractive child and felt that she was unloved and pushed into situations against her will. This unpleasant family situation was exacerbated by the war, and her family knew poverty and fear. In many ways, Callas' life reminds me of that of another fiery diva, Galina Vishnevskaya, who likewise suffered a dreadful youth, and was often criticized for being "difficult." War takes no prisoners. There is no shortage of information on the web about Callas' life, and it may be easily consulted there. The Wikipedia article on her is especially good—both scholarly and detailed.
As she grew, Maria came to see in the theater an excellent outlet for her frustrations, and she began to work very hard, both on her voice and on the artistic aspects of singing and acting. She was to become a powerful actress and absolute master of style, especially the grand style of tragedy. A good example of the intensely passionate—and totally convincing—power of her characterizations can be seen in the aria "La Mamma Morta," from Giordano's Andrea Chénier. This is the kind of music in which Callas excelled. We hear in this recording the brilliant marriage of word and music that was so typical of Callas and so noteworthy:
The only words that come to my mind are "Mediterrean Fire." In many ways, Callas was the ultimate singing actress, and in that fact lies the heart of the controversy. Her voice was not always beautiful...nor did she think it had to be. After all, some of the things she is saying are not beautiful...they are terrible. Her voice always tended to reflect—accurately—the emotions she was portraying. The papers and the fans started a gossipy rumor at one point that she was involved in a deadly feud with Renata Tebaldi, who had one of the smoothest, most beautiful voices ever; but that was another myth. They actually respected each other. The feud was certainly about the beautiful versus the sometimes not so beautiful voice. There are fans who believe that a woman should always sing beautifully, with round, covered, lush tones. A great tragedian and actress might not agree. That was the argument.
There is something else. From the early days of her career, Callas drew down upon herself the bitter jealousy and ridicule of other singers, sopranos especially. While this is not uncommon, in her case it was extreme...even to the point (in the early days) of hissing off stage and trying to distract her. I think I know why. It is because Callas places great demands on her listeners, primarily to the extent she defines and totally takes control of the character she is portraying. What this amounts to, in the eyes of those who might also like to sing the part, is that Callas has stolen the character from them. She has run off, as it were, with Violetta, Tosca, or Elvira. And that is, to other aspirants, unforgivable. Most sopranos just play the character; Callas claims the character's very soul.
Here is the maestra singing "Vissi d'Arte," this time in a filmed scene which will show her magnetic and powerful acting:
It is incredibly moving. Again, utter conviction and the characteristic marriage of word and phrase to music. It is hard to imagine it more convincingly portrayed. The voice itself, as I suggested, was not always beautiful. There can be a sharp edge to it at times. Part of this is the fact that she is at core a mezzo-soprano who by force of will built a top to her voice. Some feel that a huge weight loss in mid-career hurt the voice. Also, she sang an unbelievable variety of roles, ranging from Wagner to Bellini. That can put a strain on even the greatest natural apparatus. Whatever the cause, the result is that there is not always an easy blend between the rich and deep bottom of the voice, which can be contralto-like, and the high top, which can seem thin and sometimes a bit shrill by comparison.
But that, to me at least, is a matter of small concern. The voice always served her dramatic and stylistic intentions, and her fiery and passionate personality, coupled with a magnificent musicality, gave an utterly convincing reality to the greatest heights of tragedy and pathos that even opera is capable of demanding. One in a million. She will always be "La Divina."