"La Divina"

The Importance of Maria Callas

For non-operaphiles who cannot imagine that the twitterings of a soprano could ever be as important as the revolutionary rock of The Beatles, some history is in order. Maria Callas (1923–1977) was, arguably, the most important and controversial operatic soprano of the 20th century. Her voice was/is like no other on record: deep and soul-shaking on bottom, somewhat occluded but increasingly fiery as it ascends the scale, and emotionally and viscerally searing on top.

Anything but conventionally beautiful, Callas' instrument was commanded by a supreme intellect to convey a huge range of character and emotions, from fragile, little girl victimhood to vindictive, cold-blooded murderess. Hers was a voice that not only sounded ideal for blood-and-guts of verismo and heart-rending drama of Verdi, but also ascended into the coloratura stratosphere with an agility, technical aplomb, and emotional conviction previously unheard from lighter voiced sopranos who, at their worst, delivered mono-dimensional, cookie-cutter characterizations.

Thanks to Callas and her conductor/mentor, Tulio Serafin, a host of previously ignored or under-performed 19th century bel canto operas returned to the repertoire. Callas performed these, not just with technical accuracy, but also with a level of emotional and theatrical commitment that transformed what had previously been considered lovely vocalizations into deeply moving works of art. Her musical revelations have influenced all subsequent performances of bel canto repertoire, and made possible today's ongoing exploration of forgotten gems.

But Callas was far more than a consummate singing actress. She was also a media sensation. Part of the public and media fascination with Callas revolved around the voice itself, which one critic described as unique in its ability to emit tones of pure hatred. Yet another factor was her phenomenal transformation from a woman of well over 200 lbs. into a svelte beauty with some of the most arresting eyes and gestures ever seen on the operatic stage.

Many learned of Callas through international coverage of her escalating series of operatic and personal scandals. Although she was controversial from the start of her professional career, she first drew the attention of media and masses with a flap at Chicago Lyric Opera that left her dubbed the "tigress." Once she became a target of media locked into a post-McCarthy era witch-hunt mentality, Callas was forever hounded by the press.

A 1956 Time magazine cover story that focused, among other things, on her unfortunate relationship with her mother did not help matters. Nor did her behavior, especially her 1958 opening-night La Scala walkout on a bejeweled audience that included the President of Italy. If you want to see Callas skewered on national television for her behavior, check out her live interview with Edward R. Murrow, which goes along quite personably until Murrow begins to turn the screws.

It was not long after the Murrow escapade that Callas wrote her own defense in Life magazine. Then came her fated 1959 yacht cruise with Winston Churchill, during which she ditched her much older husband, Giovanni Battista Meneghini, for billionaire shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis. Once Callas' singing career was over, Onassis ditched her for Jackie Kennedy. And on it went. Wikipedia documents a lot of it.

If, on one level, Callas' life story reads as material for a Grade B soap opera, the quality of her singing transforms the tale into a major tragedy. By 1965, when a not yet 42-year old Callas left the Covent Garden stage after Act I of Tosca, her singing career was basically over. What followed, both on and off the stage, was the denouement.

When all is said and done, it is Callas' voice and artistry that matter. Save for a few videos of later performances, most notably the astounding Act II Tosca from Covent Garden in 1964, you can appreciate her best in Warner's new digital remasterings. If you can afford them, the 24/96 downloads of the 26 operas and 13 recital albums in the set are the way to go. Neither the CDs or less expensive but ultimately compromised "Mastered for iTunes" downloads can possibly compare.

audiolab's picture

.....this is the beginning of many more such ventures. Hopefully for me Dame Joan Sutherland will be next to receive such treatment. It is a shame that Sutherland/Calas fans are always at odds with each other. I am quite happy to admit she is not my cup of tea at all, but happily acknowledge she maybe someone's cup of tea. The Decca Sutherland recordings are pretty good anyway, to have an honest remastering could prove revelatory. Here's hoping.

Rick Tomaszewicz's picture

...it'll sell well in Europe. Here in the "new world" we're often suspicious of and dislike anything too sophisticated. We generally prefer common culture. Opera's hard to understand, an acquired taste, requires patience, is expensive and suggests you're trying hard to impress. Too bad. With enough label support, convenient formats and press coverage perhaps more people will give it a try. Those getting bored with pop music, who have enough intellectual curiosity to explore something outside their own tribe's tunes, may be surprised to find themselves emotional at the end of a great opera. Welcome to western culture's highest achievement. Mountains aren't supposed to be easy to climb.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

This is THE Callas DVD every opera lover must see:
Maria Callas At Covent Garden, 1962 & 1964
Filmed in a concert setting, the Act II Tosca with Gobbi and Cioni is one of the greatest live opera performances ever recorded.

Patrick Butler's picture

What a wonderful article. Thank you Jason.

Greg Mitchell's picture

I do wish writers would check their facts. The 1958 walk out was at the Rome Opera, not La Scala, the Rome Opera clearly at fault for not providing a stand-in, a fact clearly established in a later court case.
Her last performance in an opera was indeed Tosca at Covent Garden, but she completed the whole opera. She had been scheduled for three performances, but ill health caused her to cancel all but one, a royal gala in front of the Queen. Considering the parlous state of her voice at that last performance, the decision to cancel all but one was a decision well taken.
A few weeks earlier she had been forced to abandon after Act I a performance of Norma at the Paris Opera due to ill health.

volvic's picture

I concur a well written article, thank you Jason.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Some readers have undoubtedly noted that the new Callas 24/96 remasters have been available in Mastered for iTunes format for some time now. There have been many claims about "Mastered for iTunes," including that it often sounds better than the actual CD release. Here is mastering engineer Robert (Bob) Ludwig's take on Mastered for iTunes. Note his final comparison to 24/96 downloads. The first of the three batches of Callas 24/96 downloads becomes available on HDTracks.com on September 23.

A well-done, auditioned and A-B'd Mastered for iTunes (MFiT) file CAN sound better than the 16bit CD some times, but here is the catch:

1. Apple has software (afclip) which measures both on-sample and inter-sample clips. The record companies request that masters we submit for MFiT have either zero clips, or the ones that are there have been auditioned and approved as inconsequential (inaudible). This is done by lowering the level into the encoder, typically -1dB. Apple is not the clip police, and there are MFiT examples I can show you that have a quarter-million clips in 3 minutes.

2. Apple asks that the engineer A-B the MFiT file with the 24bit master and determine the most accurate encoding level.

3. Even some top mastering engineers I speak to do not do this, they do not listen! They merely have their assistants submit a 24 bit file for Apple that has no clips on it.

4. While the top end usually sounds decent, the AAC and MP3 encoders window the bass frequencies in a way that even a few extra 1/10ths of a dB can dramatically increase the space and "air" around the kick and bass instruments. It is ironic that the bass is more of an issue than the top end.

5. I routinely have my engineers prepare a listening playlist on the workstations with the original 24 bit master and AAC encodes at -0.7dB, -1, -1.2 and -1.5dB and A-B EVERY album I master for iTunes. Assuming, for example, that the afclip shows no clips (digital "overs") when lowering the level into the encoder -0.5dB I often find that the bass frequencies and everything else sounds more accurate by further lowering the level -1.2 or even -1.5dB into the encoder, and that is what we send to Apple. It is like focusing a camera.

What I'm saying is, it is possible the 'average' MFiT file one compares to a CD may not sound as good, but if an MFiT encode file is carefully made, I think you will find, as my audience voted at two different AES presentations I made, the MFiT file sounds closer to the 24 bit source than the CD.

Google: 'Apple mastered for iTunes' and you will find the encoding applications Apple has made available to ANY-one and you can experiment and prove it for yourself.
I'm looking forward to Apple releasing 24bit iOS devices.

Of course, none of what I'm saying deals with 96kHz and above which improves the sound further by putting the all-too-audible low-pass filters up an octave. MFiT can be closer to the 44kHz 24 bit master that makes the encodes, but seldom to a 96kHz /24bit master.

Bob Ludwig
Gateway Mastering Studios, Inc.
Portland, ME

bernardperu's picture

Ludwig's thesis is unclear. He seems to say that mastered for Itunes can sound better than CD-lossless. But only if properly done. How about a CD that has been properly mastered? It has to sound better than the lossy mastered for itunes version, right?

prof's picture

He seems to say that mastered for Itunes can sound better than CD-lossless.

That does seem to be what he's saying.

How about a CD that has been properly mastered?

From the text, he's clearly talking about his own CDs which, I assume, he took similar care to master as "properly" as he could.

It has to sound better than the lossy mastered for itunes version, right?

What he seems to be saying is that the greater dynamic range of MFiT offers enough of an advantage over 16bit Redbook CDs that it outweighs whatever downsides there may be to AAC encoding.

Don't get hung up on "lossy" versus "lossless." Every digital encoding (and, for that matter, every analog recording) loses something. It's all in the tradeoffs ...