Wednesday, May 4, 2016
May 4, 2016: Classical Music Icons: Maria Callas
[On May 5th, 1891, Carnegie Hall—first known as Music Hall—opened in New York City. In the 125 years since, the hall has become synonymous with classical music in America. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy five iconic figures from that tradition, leading to a special weekend tribute to some 21st century classical musicians and composers!]
On two telling dualities embodied by one of America’s most famous opera singers.
1) The old and new worlds: Maria Callas (1923-1977) was born in New York City to parents who had immigrated from Greece while her mother was pregnant, and after a turbulent childhood moved back to Greece with her mother when Maria was a teenager. She received her opera training in Greece and Italy, and would begin performing professionally throughout Europe during and after World War II. She supposedly was offered a contract with New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 1945 but turned it down; her American debut launched the Lyric Opera in Chicago in 1954, and in 1956 she finally signed a contract with the Met, performing there for two years and then launching the rival American Opera Society in 1959. She then spent most of her final performing years in London, where she retired in 1965. So was she an American opera singer who spent most of her career in Europe, or a European opera singer who spent her early years in America and later returned there for a series of performances? Such questions illustrate the cultural duality of American opera.
2) Gendered and artistic expectations: In the early period of her career, Callas was, like many opera singers, rather heavy; by the mid-1950s, after dedicating herself to healthy eating and lifestyle, she had lost 80 pounds (some 40% of her overall weight). While of course good health is never a bad thing, Callas’ weight loss was clearly connected to external perceptions, and ones directly related to standards of female beauty: Met opera director Rudolf Bing called her “monstrously fat” in 1951; whereas after the weight loss Bing noted that she “looked as though she had been born to that slender and graceful figure,” while another critic described her as “possibly the most beautiful lady on the stage.” Yet ironically, some historians have attributed Callas’ weight loss to both changes in her voice and the increased strain on her vocal cords that hastened the end of her career; of a 1958 performance a critic wrote, “There were sounds fearfully uncontrolled, forced beyond the too-slim singer’s present capacity to support or sustain.” In any case, Callas dealt with idealized expectations and their effects on both sides of this duality.
The latter duality is of course not unique to the United States, while the former can be applied to any immigrant or ethnic American communities; yet in many ways these two frames can be seen as parallel: as questions of definition and categorization, of how we see a performer (as part of certain cultures or as tied more to tradition, as embodying their gender or as linked to their medium and talent) and what those perceptions lead us to emphasize and respond to. Besides her unquestionable and unique talents, Maria Callas is noteworthy for just how fully she illustrates both of these complex dualities of perception and definition.
Next icon tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other classical music greats you’d highlight?