Sunday, September 1, 2013

La Divina

In recent weeks Kate and Thelma have mentioned listening to opera and it has reminded me of my introduction to what some consider to be the world’s most overwrought art form. Most of my opera going has been done at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia where I have hung out in the amphitheater because the seats are cheap and the sound sublime. My happiest moment was sitting amidst the angel choir at a production of Boito’s Mefistofele. It was glorious. The “top of the house” only disappointed me once. I went to a performance of Tosca and I could almost see behind the set. Tosca seemed not so much to throw herself from a great height as to hop over a low fence.

My interest in opera started when one of my college professors decided I was worthy of an introduction to great singing. He would play recording after recording of the same aria. “Who is this?” he would ask. “And this? And this?” I fear my sophistication as a listener always fell short of his expectations. I almost never answered correctly but when not in quiz mode I found I loved the over the top music and plots. I wasn’t sure I ever expected to see an opera because performances were so expensive.

But in 1973 I got a chance to see the soprano whose voice I always recognized: Maria Callas. She was appearing in recital with Giuseppe De Stefano at the D.A.R.’s Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. The concert was going to cost a whopping $15.00 and I didn’t think my parents would give me the money but two of my professors told them it would be a once in a lifetime experience for me so the money was mine.

I felt a little on edge on the day of the concert because La Divina had cancelled in Philadelphia the night before. Temperamental opera stars were tolerated much more then than now. Jokes were made about no show divas (“Madame Callas is available for a limited number of cancellations this season.”). I put thoughts of not seeing Callas aside and reminded myself that I would finally get to see Constitution Hall, a concert hall most famous for the performance that didn’t occur there—Marion Anderson’s solo recital. And while my opera loving professor was giving me a lift to and from the concert, we were not sitting together. The guy meant well but usually spent a lot of time explaining to me why I shouldn’t be enjoying any performance to which we might be listening. I was sure if he sat next to me, I would hear endless comments about performances in which she sounded better (“You should have heard her in Athens in ’52…”).

My concert companions turned out to be two members of the D.A.R. who brought powerful opera glasses (which they generously shared with me) so they could get a look at Callas’ jewelry. “I wonder if Onassis gave her that?” they whispered. They had never heard her before so weren’t filled with opinions about her singing. Actually,they scarcely mentioned the singing, saving all their comments for critiques of her wardrobe. They did on occasion wonder if Maria thought about Onassis as she sang all those sad songs.

Was she in great voice? Probably not. But I had several recordings on which she sounded less than wonderful. The concert, however, was still memorable. Callas was a fabulous actress. A hand on the hip and a toss of the head during the “Habanera” communicated so much. She was never from the “plant your feet and sing” school. And surely Tosca’s “Vissi d’arte” was her anthem and she sang it with enormous warmth and passion. After she finished that everyone looked weepy.

She received a rapturous standing ovation in an age when such a thing didn’t occur on a daily basis.

My professor and I met in the lobby.

“Well, of course they were applauding for what she was not what she is today… You wouldn’t be so happy with this performance if you’d heard her in ’56 in. . .”

Well, in 1956 I was four so I missed whatever legendary Callas performance occurred then so I was able to enjoy the ’73 Callas as much as my professor enjoyed the Callas of 1956. Because her artistry had so many facets generations of us were able to enjoy her no matter what model was on offer.

Stephanie Patterson


  1. Very amusing! That prof was a real old maid! tjs

  2. Actually, he was quite a character. The Callas evening was an exception because he usually waited by the stage door to greet his favorites. He took me to see Beverly Sills and we did say hello to her backstage. His sole concern after that evening was "I think she recognized me." "Do you think she recognized me?" and then "Why of course she recognized me!"

  3. Yeah - quell kaaracttheur!!!!! tjs

  4. What a wonderful night! My own -- and only -- live opera experience came not long after I sold Star Struck Dead. The woman who'd introduced me to my then agent had tickets given her by her boss. My knowledge of opera pretty much began and ended with La Boheme, but I understood the opportunity to hear great voices at the Met in box seats was not something to pass up. The opera was Il Pirata. I kept thinking, this woman is really good, whoever she is. It was Renee Fleming.

  5. I learned to love the opera sitting on my grandfather's lap and listening to the Texaco broadcasts starting when I was four. When it came to Callas, I preferred Tebaldi. But don't tell my son-in-law I said so. He fell in love with opera from listening to the Callas recordings. We have already had one rather chilly discussion of our preferences in this regard. i wouldn't want to take that a step farther. I am his mother-in-law after all.

  6. One of the joys of my membership at the 92nd St. Y is their marvelous classes in music - and real opera stars who lecture and play their heavenly music. If you have a friend who lives within NYC distance - urge them to belong to this group - it is like a nation-wide advanced degree in - whatever you wish!!! tjs

  7. Ah, yes! Callas v. Tebaldi. I must say that if I'm listening to recordings, I prefer Tebaldi as well.
    The Callas recordings often have a harsh sound.

    And Sheila, I've never heard Fleming in person, but I love her recording of Russalka. Her rendition of "The Hymn to the Moon" is not to be missed.

    Well, I'm nowhere near the 92d Street Y, but I used to live near multiple music schools and so got to hear plenty of young talent. I went to the first round of the first Pavarotti competition because a friend of mine, who had a glorious voice, was a contestant. In the early part of the competition, Pavarotti did a lot of coaching and singing various phrases but there were time constraints. (He had the first contestant sing "Dove Sono" more than once). It was just wonderful. I had never seen him so thoughtful and restrained.