Starting with Some Sweat from the Mosh Pit...
Think you know intense because you've been to a Limp Bizkit concert? Maybe in the thirties and forties, the maintenance men of the opera scene tried hard to separate shock from awe, Edgar from Poe, Davy from Jones; but the decade of the fifties, while also society's obstetrician in the birth of Holly Housewife, was the thirteenth Apostle to a long buried Mommie Madhouse. Callas flipped the coffin lid to insure a smooth resurrection and achieved a following just about as fast as Iron Maiden, making admirers forget that they had Victorian grandmoms to please. Said gentlewomen were big on a kind of nonthreatening Evancho sound, and what handful of them were of sound enough body to catch a performance of opera's hardest rocker most likely thought of her even then legendary voice the way they thought of an average two-year-old: three cups of granulated sugar short of "hm... might take to it better if I were on opium." I imagine their spoken opinions contained phrases like "a butterfly being fan- swatted to death" and the like, but we, her constant crazies, wouldn't adore our "Monster" if she didn't beat a few bugs every now and then, the bugs being her contemporary Sarah Brightmans. She took a particular liking to black lipstick roles like Cherubini's Medea (Sit down, Tyler Perry.) Bellini's Norma, and Ponchielli's Giaconda, showing the goths and emos how it's done before they knew what they were. In the Golden Age of community barbecues and town picnics theatre patrons didn't only occasionally stagger away from their seats as if they'd just been smacked by Athena. Maria let us know a long time ago what a real post- extramarital- affair good time really was, complete with human sacrifice and burning temples. What can I say? A Druid will be a Druid, and I guess the daughter of the Greek god of fire has gotta do..
Don't let me mislead you. Maria wasn't only about chaining up professed Margo Channings and dragging them along behind her as Eves. She hid some real prettiness behind her fire, and I'm not just talking about the figure she kept that has recently inspired the Barbie company with ideas. She often surprised with little tricks that put extra gold in the glow of the orchestra pit and a tear or two in the eyes of one of the theatre's Anton Egos. She could make anyone believe she was made for the wedding gowns and floral diadems of the title character in Bellini's "The Sleepwalker" ("La Sonnambula") or the Catholic veil of Verdi's more Shakespearean heroine, Leonora, from "The Troubadour" (Il Trovatore), though she didn't pretend to ever have her contagious pyromania completely under control, tapping an aria or two of even their sweetest robin- cheeping with a lit match. The emotion, the truly pitiable self- destruction, the lovability, the scrumptious insanity (We'll get into Lucia di Lammermoor later.) that Callas's voice colored in vivid shades took so much of the J. and W. Grimm blonde out of her Cinderella- syrupy characters' sound that some critics seemed to wonder if she left enough highlights to separate Bellini's Elvira from Cassandra Peterson's. However, the theater of La Scala, Milan, a potential slaughterhouse to any star of the opera world, praised her for what they perceived as expert indulgence of the ideals of old- century opera libretto writers, almost all of whom seemed to think that producing the ultimate dramatic masterpiece meant drawing a line between the need for love and the need for Lithium and, then, for a hundred pages or more, flinging a lilting woman back and forth over it by the hair. It was there that the "Divina" side of her found home.
And a Gold Cup to Put It All In
Ever heard the one about the mouse who ventured just a bit too far from his hole to toss cheese bits at the cats performing "The Magic Flute?" So... classical performers aren't into haters. Who is? However, when they, themselves, share an opinion of a Katy Perry fan, their adoring crowds are quick to defend. Callas mentally stamped the forehead of every Mozart portrait she ever saw with an all- capitals "boring," but we who all pray for the day Mattel comes out with a belting bobblehead counterfeit of opera's queen (M.C. Opera- Jammer? I should get a patent on this one.) don't boo her for it as we might if she hadn't had her hands on the bel canto throne while making that particular reference to said "musical god" (Tchaikovsky's words. Not mine.). She held it for almost twenty years until her abdication in favor of Freddy Mercury bestie Montserrat Caballe, and that means repeated pitch- perfect projection of a musical style that's to the voice what Edward's scissor fingers are to his cheeks. Bel Canto demands that its singers walk out onto a stage and show everyone what they've got by hollering a hundred notes in a minute at the top, bottom, middle, and cross- section of their lungs, sprinting, leaping, and somersaulting all the way to the end of a song. Maria was quite into all the athletics involved. She sculpted her voice box into a special kind of gymnast during her schooldays, a cross between Schwarzenegger and Mr. Fantastic, and with all that expertise under her belt, she didn't see the appeal in popping caffeine for a night in a major role of the Baroque or Classical Era. Instead, she spent her career running up and down every one of opera music's Annapurnas while making adrenaline syringes out of stuff that listeners of her time didn't know packed any potential for total crowd domination. She brought new meaning to the phrase, "doing it all," in opera.
Images are protected under the creative commons license here: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/ and are listed as follows: Gilbert A. Viciedo's "La Divina," Florien Stangl's "Darkest Era," and "Maria Callas Exhibition" by Truus, Bob & Jan too!