“I‘d rather sing grand opera than listen to it.” – Don Herold, American writer and artist

“How wonderful opera would be if there were no singers.” – Gioacchino Antonio Rossini – 19th century Italian operatic composer

Either you get opera or you don‘t. Regardless of how you feel about opera though, you owe it to yourself to listen to Maria Callas. She is the standard by which all singers may be judged, and she was the finest singer of the twentieth century, bar none; the finest singer in any language, in any genre of music.

That‘s not to say she almost had the most beautiful voice. She had the courage to sing ugly; many singers have commented that to be a complete artist, one must reveal all sides. Many actors in recent years have had the courage to gain weight, to appear without makeup for their roles, and show the less glamorous aspects of their appearance for the sake of authenticity. Witness Robert De Niro in Raging Bull and Charlize Theron in Monster. I like to think that Callas was ahead of her time in her dedication to the composer, to the work, at the risk of sounding less than beautiful.

What constitutes artistry in vocal performance?

Renee Fleming, one of the most prominent of contemporary opera singers, attempted to answer this question. As beautiful as Fleming‘s voice is, even she had admitted that Callas placed her own personal stamp on everything she sang, something by the way which Fleming all too often does not (imho). Here is what Fleming has to say on Callas:

“For me, in purely vocal terms, it was the sound of sadness in her voice that was most moving – something in its chiaroscuro sound is like a knife in my heart. It‘s impossible to know if that was the sound her voice was naturally imbued with, or if it was the heartbreak in her life that colored it so.”( from Renee Fleming‘s The Inner Voice Penguin Books 2004)

Well, Renee, you know more about opera that I will ever know, but here I think you‘ve got it wrong. The recording I‘ve selected is from 1955, an inexpressibly happy time in Callas’s life, and her heart had not been broken yet by Aristotle Onassis. After meeting Audrey Hepburn in 1953 Callas placed herself on a strict diet without pasta, without bread, without alcohol and ate only one meal a day despite a rigorous schedule. In 1955, she was regarded as the queen of La Scala and was revered as the most glamorous opera singer in the world. She had achieved fame and fortune and was delighting in it. Yet in her recording of Madame Butterfly she becomes the character completely, without holding back. I think it has nothing to do with her personal life and everything to do with her artistry.

Certainly no one at the time doubted the electrifying effect she had on audiences, or the staggering transformation she had made of her external appearance. Once ugly in her youth, she had become beautiful. Her tonal range was remarkable, almost three octaves. The effect she had and has upon the listener is startling. One forgets that one is listening to an opera singer or even that one does not know the meaning of the words being sung. Pavarotti had this quality. So did Montserrat Caballé (listen to her sing “Casta Diva”). The listener surrenders willingly to the experience, to the cleansing of the soul enabled by the meeting of the ordinary (you and I) with the extraordinary.

The sublime vocal performance is not confined to opera or the so-called high arts. Ella Fitzgerald displays great artistry in her singing. Celine Dion does not. Sinatra did. Michael Buble does not. Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, and Aretha Franklin: they achieved the extraordinary as did Billie Holiday until the end of her days, even though her voice was a shattered fragment of what it had been.

Callas had The Cry in spades, and that is why her performance of ‘Un Bel Di Vedremo’ will live forever.

“In opera everything is based upon the not-true.” – Tchaikovsky