Sunday, September 16, 2007

Maria Callas

Maria Callas (1923-1977)

As I type these words I am playing on repeat one of my favourite Maria Callas numbers,“J’ai perdu mon Eurydice” from Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice. For some reason the beauty of its sadness and the sadness of its beauty move me deeply. My last several posts have dealt with how we treat children, and how much bad parenting has been responsible for mental illness, and one should imagine inevitably responsible for much crime and violence in our society. Doing some little research on Maria Callas, my favourite female Opera singer, who surely ranks with Luciano Pavarotti as one of the two great voices of the twentieth century if not of all time, I came across this sad piece of biography. This is what Maria Callas was to say of her upbringing and the poor parenting skills of her mother: "My sister was slim and beautiful and friendly, and my mother always preferred her. I was the ugly duckling, fat and clumsy and unpopular. It is a cruel thing to make a child feel ugly and unwanted. . .I'll never forgive her for taking my childhood away. During all the years I should have been playing and growing up, I was singing or making money. Everything I did for them was mostly good and everything they did to me was mostly bad." (See the appropriate WIKI article on Callas).

One could hazard an educated guess that this bad rearing had a profound effect on Maria which would last for her whole life. Maria Callas is on a par existentially with Marlyn Monroe for the depth of her personal tragedy and suffering. While she may not have ended her own life like the unfortunate Marlyn, she definitely lived a sad and miserable life, especially in her last years. Interestingly, it would appear that Maria was present at JFK’s 45th birthday bash at MSG (Madison Square Garden) in 1962 - recall the childlike voice of Marlyn singing happy birthday to the President. Whether the two women knew each other or not, I just do not know.

It is also worth noting that Callas was a committed student, or maybe more correctly an obsessive and compulsive one as she would spend up to ten hours a day studying and listening to all the students at the Conservatoire in Athens as a young girl so that she might learn her craft all the better. I also liked the way she would learn from the great conductors of her day. Of the brilliant conductor Tullio Serafin she would say "he taught me that there must be an expression; that there must be a justification. He taught me the depth of music, the justification of music. That's where I really really drank all I could from this man." (see WIKI article) What interests me here as a virtual neophyte as regards Opera, of which I know almost next to nothing bar what I really love listening to, is that she is drawn towards the “depth of music.” Like laughing and crying, music is a form of deep communication which come from emotional depths where we feel the very meaning of our human existence may lie.

Callas’ vocal range was extraordinary – it’s description leaves me confounded as I do not understand music terminology. We are told that she functioned as a singer comfortably within three vocal registers and also possessed the ability to perform a beautiful and dependable trill in every vocal register. What all this means, I really don’t understand, but sitting here listening to her voice as it goes up and down over various scales and registers leaves me overwhelmed at its very beauty. This experience is enough for me.

I liked the fact which I read in my brief research for these few words that the human voice is considered the first instrument of the orchestra. I am bowled over by this contention. I am further bowled over by the beauty of this first instrument in Callas’ voice. All I know about Opera is what I like, and I know that I love Maria Callas’ singing. Just sitting here listening to her voice as it effortlessly soars, glides and dives as she sings the beautiful “Un bel dì vedremo” from Madama Butterfly or the incomparable “Casta Diva” from Bellini’s Norma is a thrill not to be valued lightly. Our heart soars, glides, dives and soars once again with the rich and beautiful strains of this marvellously wonderful voice. Music is bewitching to say the least. As to what it may be aesthetically I am quite dumbfounded. Looking at it as a series of dots and squiggles across five horizontal lines may be a mathematical representation of sound, but the mystery of the whole thing still baffles and confounds.

I should like to finish this wee post with words from my favourite psychiatrist, the inimitable and wonderful Dr Anthony Storr:

“A dark world is frightening. Nightmares and infantile fears coaslesce with rational anxieties when we come home at night through unlit streets. But a silent world is even more terrifying. Is no one there, nothing going on at all? As Burrows points out, we are dependent on background sound of which we are hardly conscious for our sense of life continuing. A silent world is a dead world.” (Music and the Mind, Harper Collins, 1997, p. 27)

I’ll conclude with a few lines from the wonderful aria “Casta Diva” to which I’m currently listening:

Casta diva che inargenti
Queste sacre antiche piante
A noi volgi il bel sembiante
Senza nube e senza vel
Casta diva...
Tempra o diva
Tempra tu de' cori ardenti
Tempra ancoralo zelo audace
Casta diva...
E senza vel

Listen to it and let your heart and soul soar and glide and dive and soar again. Good listening. Vox mirabilis ad perpetuitatem vola!