It’s hard to think of an individual more celebrated within their artistic field than Maria Callas. Renowned worldwide for her celestial voice range and dramatic portrayal, she is the Greek-American soprano who became a colossus in the history of opera. Even almost thirty years after her death, her name continues to evoke reverence, and a timely exhibition at Verona’s Arena Museo Opera reminds us of the fascinating story behind her life, her art and her legacy.
Verona is a particularly fitting venue for this commemoration. It’s the scene of Callas’ debut performance in Italy, the country where she would establish her career, after she sang in La Giaconda at the city’s opera festival in 1947. The performance was a success, and led her towards some of her most notable roles across world: Aida in Milan’s Teatro alla Scala (1951), Medea in Florence (1953), and Norma in Chicago (1954), New York (1956) and London’s Covent Garden (1952).
Critics were overwhelmed early on by her voice, which grew to become a legendary character in its own right. A distinctive and instantly recognisable sound, Callas is often praised for her bel canto technique and the variety of notes she was able to reach. Such was her versatility that Italian conductor Tullio Serafin decalrd ‘this woman can sing anything written for the female voice’.
It was Callas’ ability to sing a wide range of roles which propelled her meteoric rise. During a 1949 season as Brunnhilde in Die Walkure at the Teatro la Fenice (Venice), she was asked by Serafin to fill in as Elvira in I puritani with only six days’ notice. The challenge to pull off vocal demands as divergent as Wagner and Bellini alarmed even the rarest of sceptics, but her performance was lauded as nothing short of miraculous. ‘You need to be familiar with opera to realise the enormity of her achievement,’ Franco Zeffirelli recalled.
In fact, one of Callas’ greatest accomplishments was her ability to enchant listeners who weren’t, or indeed aren’t familiar with opera. She held traction with both the public and the experts, not an everyday feat among such a high-brow form of culture. While not all critics have agreed that Callas’ voice was so flawless, the emotion she unfailingly invested in her performances is undisputed. ‘Her interpretation… has a humanity, warmth and expressiveness’, wrote one critic, indicating her potential to connect with any audience.
Towards the end of her career, her voice became increasingly reflective of the turbulent experiences of her personal life. Her love affairs, family feuds and difficult attitude were well documented by the press. Reflecting before her death in 1977 on how her success had brought her nothing – no family, no lover, no child – she has become mythologised as the ultimate tragic heroine of our times, of the kind she spent her performing in Violetta, Tosca and Norma.
The exhibition chronicles the narrative of Callas’ life with a large collection of paraphernalia: handwritten letters, costumes, jewellery, private dresses, stage objects, newspaper cuttings, videos and photographs. It helps to illustrate the various chapters of her life, from her personal weight loss to her growing global stature. But most strikingly, it also conveys the incredible level of fascination, often bordering on worship, which still exists for the woman christened ‘La Divina’.
The impact which Callas has had on the world of opera is almost immeasurable; Zeffirelli once divided its history into two periods, A.C and B.C. – After Callas and Before Callas – a testament to her immortal legacy. While this exhibition succeeds in cherishing this, it also reminds us of the often overlooked human frailty behind the superhuman talent: as Callas’ friend John Ardoin said, ‘There are times when certain people are blessed – and cursed – with an extraordinary gift, in which the gift is almost greater than the human being. Callas was one of these people.’