Today would have been Maria Callas' 96th birthday, and in honor of that I thought I would share with you a playlist of her best recordings!
Maria Callas has always been one of my major inspirations when it comes to singing. She gave opera everything, and she was an incredible actress. Operatic singing goes hand in hand with intense emotion, but many times, a singer gets too caught up in "technique" and singing well. This makes for very boring opera, because the plot becomes secondary to the music, which is not the point at all. Maria Callas, on the other hand, was dedicated to her craft as a singer and an actress, and it shows even in her recordings. She used inflections in her singing that defined her as a singing actress.
Known as La Divina, Maria Callas was born in America to Greek parents. After her parents separated, Callas' mother moved her children back to Greece where Maria began to take singing lessons. There she improved dramatically and by the time she was 17, she was performing huge roles with the Greek National Opera. She was called a "dramatic soprano" which means a higher voice with a dark, heavy timbre. But when she was 26, while singing Brünnhilde in Die Walküre, she was asked to learn and sing the role of Elvira in I Puritani in just six days! Now, there's a big difference between Brünnhilde and Elvira. The first is Wagner; that means it's very loud, very intense singing. There isn't much finesse - it is a lot of blasting loud, high notes. Elvira, on the other hand, is considered bel canto, which means beautiful singing. In bel canto, you have to be very delicate with the voice as you move it around quickly through many notes. The two styles could not be more different. And Callas sang both beautifully to the astonishment of the audience! That changed the direction of her career.
And this is just the beginning of Callas' incredibly interesting story. I recommend reading a biography of her life. She may not have been the most well-balanced person, but she is fascinating. Just a quick note: as I've discussed before, opera was never meant to be recorded. Much of the time, what sounds weird on recordings sounds incredible in person and in an opera house. Also, keep in mind that these recordings were done in one take - there was no editing. Now, onto the music!
1. Habanera - I am pretty sure I have included this recording in two other playlists on this blog, and I have NO regrets. Despite the fact that Callas is not a mezzo-soprano and this part was theoretically written for a lower voice, she sings it so well and imbues the words with so much meaning that I had to include it. Callas lost forty pounds in the middle of her singing career and became one of the most beautiful women of her time. When she did, singing the role of Carmen seemed like an obvious choice. Listen to the way she uses chest voice (that thick heavy sound) in the bottom of her voice when she's warning the men around her to "prends garde à toi!" - "watch out!"
2. O rendetemi la speme - Remember that operatic role that Callas had six days to learn and that changed the direction of her career forever? This is the aria that she sang! In this aria from the opera I Puritani by Bellini, Elvira believes that her love has left her forever and she is losing her mind. Do you hear how Maria Callas has to caress the notes and the lines? This is not just singing loud. This is singing with finesse. This excerpt is taken from the recording of the opera as a whole, so you will hear the other characters in the scene with her observing her behavior!
3. Casta Diva - Another role that La Divina was known for was Norma, also a Bellini opera. Norma is a druid high priestess in Gaul who has broken her chaste vows and bore the Roman proconsul two children. Here, she prays to her goddess for peace between the Romans and the Gauls. Of course, Norma knows of her own sin and that she will never be able to take revenge against the man she loves and his people. Listen to the held high note that is broken into beats - Callas, makes that sound like a cry for help as she recognizes how she has betrayed her people and the gods.
4. Vissi d'arte - Perhaps the closest to real life, the role of Tosca and the words of this aria in many ways ring true for Callas herself. The title of the aria is literally "I lived for art," and if anything defines Callas better than that, I don't know what it is. She was music, and she put everything she was into her art. You can hear how close she is to this subject matter in her rendition of this aria.
5. Caro nome - This is a beautiful aria from Verdi's Rigoletto in which a young ingenue named Gilda sings of her infatuation with a man who she met at church. This man, of course, happens to be the evil Duke who will end up ruining her and her father's lives, but this moment is a window into Gilda's innocent soul. It's fascinating to see how Callas portrays this musically because she herself was not an ingenue. She was a strong-willed woman with an ambitious drive. But Callas is a masterful actress, and she gets across Gilda's hope and young love. The fact that Callas can sing roles like this so cleanly and beautifully while also singing Tosca is an amazing feat.
6. Regnava nel silenzio - Here's another masterpiece of bel canto opera! This is from Lucia di Lammermoor by Donizetti, and this aria is an example of a mad scene in opera. At this point, Lucia has lost her mind and killed her new husband on their wedding night after she was forced to marry him while in love with another man. She comes down the stairs in a bloody wedding dress and sings this incredible aria imagining her true love is there with her. I love the way Maria Callas portrays this scene - she doesn't feel bad for herself, instead she is truly mad and is ecstatic that her love is there! Also, Callas is in great form here - her voice sounds beautiful and she sings cleanly throughout.
7. Je veux vivre - A little Romeo and Juliet, anyone? I love Juliet for Maria Callas because again, we are seeing her as a young girl totally excited about just being alive! And this is so different than so many of the heavier arias I've included here. You can hear the difference in how she chooses to sing it because she is such an incredible singing-actress.
8. Una voce poco fa - Last but not least is this gem. This is a hilarious aria from The Barber of Seville by Rossini - an opera more famously known for "Figaro, Figaro, Figaro!!!" In this aria, a young woman named Rosina is the ward of an old doctor who plans to marry her once she comes of age so he can take control of her large dowry. Rosina is already in love with a young man and plans to trick her guardian out of his nasty plans. In her introductory aria, she sings that she is sweet, kind, and polite unless you treat her poorly, in which case she'll turn into a VIPER! It's very funny, and Callas uses the tiniest word -"ma" or "but" - to change the meaning of everything that comes before it. Keep an ear out!
And that's it! I hope you enjoyed my round up of the best of Maria Callas in honor of her birthday. Tell me below - which of these arias was your favorite?
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Hey! I'm Abby, the creator of Classically Abby, a commentary, opera, beauty, and lifestyle brand dedicated to looking at the world from a classic perspective. I'm the first Conservative Influencer and I'm an opera singer with three degrees in performance!