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