Remembering Maria Callas

Remembering Maria Callas

Originally published in San Diego Magazine, October, 1997, as part of David Gregson’s Classical Music and Dance Forum.

By David Gregson

“La Divina” Callas is the eternal enigma. Jacques Leiser admires a pink-and-yellow sunset from his superbly situated condominium at the north end of Balboa Park. He is reminiscing about the final days of opera legend Maria Callas.

“She was one of the most inspiring artists I have associated with,” he says. “She gave everything for her art—and all of a sudden she was dispossessed. There she was in her beautiful apartment in Paris, so lonely she would have the chauffeur stay and play cards with her. Everybody had abandoned her.”

Some say the world of opera has its own calendar. Events are dated B.C. or A.C.—Before Callas or After Callas. La Divina, as she was dubbed by adoring Italians, died September 16, 1977, in premature retirement. Even her voice had left her. She was 53.

Born of Greek parents in New York on December 2, 1923, Callas left for Greece in 1937 to become a student of the well-known soprano Elvira de Hidalgo. By 1942, Callas was singing major roles in Athens. In 1950 she sang Aida at Teatro alla Scala in Milan, beginning nearly a decade as that theater’s reigning diva. She had been extremely overweight, but she transformed herself into a slim and glamorous woman. In the United States she appeared with the Chicago Lyric, Dallas and Metropolitan Opera companies, making headlines at the latter due to a quarrel with general manager Rudolf Bing that led to her dismissal.

During her years of glory, Callas’ divorce from Giovanni Batista Meneghini and her affair with Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis—plus her widely publicized cancellations in Rome and at the Edinburgh Festival—threatened to overshadow her true artistic stature. In the early 1960s she entered a period of catastrophic vocal decline, the exact causes of which are still debated. Today she is universally acknowledged as the complete dramatic and musical interpreter, and one of the greatest opera stars of all time.

This month, the recording giant EMI is commemorating the 20th anniversary of Callas’ death by releasing 20 of the diva’s complete opera recordings in digitally remastered CD sets. First marketed in America on Angel Records, the sets are of particular interest to Leiser, who assisted the producers during the earliest Callas recording sessions at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan (where Leiser was working on promotion and publicity for La Voce del Padrone, EMI’s Italian wing).

Between 1953 and 1956, Leiser witnessed the births of many sets today considered essential in any worthwhile record library: the Victor da Sabata–conducted Tosca, with baritone Tito Gobbi and tenor Giuseppe di Stefano (being rereleased as a CD-ROM with production photographs); the Tullio Serafin–led Norma, the Herbert von Karajan Madama Butterfly and the Serafin Aida, with tenor Richard Tucker and mezzo-soprano Fedora Barbieri. Leiser was also on the spot when the Pagliacci, La Forza del Destino, Il Turco in Italia and Rigoletto sets began their journeys into recording immortality.

The Callas Leiser remembers is a substantially different creature from the frighteningly temperamental Fury of modern media mythology. Leiser describes a woman who was totally dedicated to her art, rarely temperamental without just cause, and thoughtful and kind to others—even people she knew only casually.

“She was thoroughly professional,” remembers Leiser, “and she would always redo the recording takes or whatever was required of her. During the tiring Norma sessions, she stayed at it until 2 a.m., even going through a major shift of venue: The stage at La Scala where the sessions took place was needed for something else. She didn’t mind, but her colleagues, who were not as committed as she was, did show their irritation.” Leiser recalls he had to order about 50 taxis for all the musicians to get them home after this marathon session.

Unfortunately, despite her great talent and dedication, Callas frequently experienced vocal difficulties. “She suffered a lot because she was aware of her inadequacies,” Leiser says. “Her voice sometimes did not have evenness between the registers, and the top could be unruly. She would compensate for this, and that was part of her artistry. On stage she was far greater than any of her colleagues. She was mesmerizing.”

Leiser, who was one of many San Diegans who visited the Civic Theatre recently to see Faye Dunaway’s performance as Callas in Terrence McNally’s Master Class, takes offense at the playwright’s treatment of the diva. “She was always a lady,” he says. “She never swore, never used four-letter words like the ones you hear in the play. She was always elegant, better than an Italian countess. Off stage she was elegant in speech, in movement and everything.”

Callas’ manager in the early EMI days was her husband, Giovanni Batista Meneghini. “He deserves credit because he supported her,” says Leiser. “He abandoned his family for her. He was ostracized for marrying an American singer who was nothing at the time he married her. He had a very profitable business, and he gave up everything for her. He didn’t know that much about music, but he was a fierce businessman.”

In 1964, after 12 years at EMI, Leiser went into business for himself as an artists’ manager. His clients would include dozens of the world’s greatest pianists. “Before leaving EMI, I wrote personal notes saying good-bye to all of my friends and associates, including Callas,” he says. Later that year, Callas sang Norma in Paris before a glittering audience of celebrities and political dignitaries. When it was all over, Leiser went backstage to congratulate Callas.

“She was still on stage, not in her dressing room,” says Leiser. “When she saw me, she embraced me—while she was still going out to take curtain calls—and she said, ‘Oh, I kept your note and I’m so sorry to hear you have left EMI! What are you doing now?’ It was as if we were sitting together alone. At such a moment of success, how could she remember I had written her a note three or four months before?”

But surely the famous Callas temperament is not all the figment of some press agent’s imagination? “Well, if you stepped on her feet when it came to the work, she’d be temperamental,” admits Leiser. “One time before a rehearsal she was asked to wait a bit for the famous pianist Wilhelm Backhaus to finish running through a concerto out on the stage. Callas would not put up with this.

“‘I don’t care if it is Backhaus,’ she said. ‘I’m supposed to start my rehearsal at 3 o’clock. Tell him it’s over.’ Oh, she was adamant. But I didn’t perceive it as oversized ego. She was a professional and did not want to lose 5 minutes of her working time. She needed every minute of it.”

Leiser’s picture of a caring and giving—even motherly—Callas may astound some. On her 1964 German tour with conductor George Prêtre, Prêtre cued both the singer and the orchestra incorrectly. Callas somehow signaled him—calmly and elegantly, so as not to embarrass him—to go back several measures.

After the concert, Leiser took Callas to Prêtre’s hotel room, where the ashamed conductor was avoiding the reception. She sat him down on his bed and lectured like a mother: “Don’t feel bad. You’re an excellent conductor, and it could happen to anybody.”

“I couldn’t believe what I was hearing,” says Leiser. “If Callas had been the raging prima donna of the newspapers, she would have been screaming, ‘You ruined my performance!’ But she went and consoled him instead!”

When Callas left Meneghini for Onassis, her emotional and vocal trouble accelerated. Onassis would take a prominent box at her performances and then fall asleep. When an EMI representative went to visit Callas on Onassis’ yacht, the Christina, Onassis complained about her vocalizing in her stateroom: “Oh, my God! Here we go again!”

Why did she have anything to do with such a man? “Well,” says Leiser, “he was a wealthy Greek, an older man, and she wasn’t going to be singing forever, after all. She was a good party person for him, but he had no respect for her art.”

Leiser avoided Callas’ tragic “comeback” world tour in 1974: “She probably needed the money. She hadn’t worked in years. I couldn’t bear to go. And at the end, the aria from Puccini’s Manon Lescaut—‘Sola, perduta, abbandonata!’ That tells it all. It’s a Greek tragedy, the whole thing, from beginning to end.”