Callas At 100, Dazzling Beacon Of Time Past, Still Bel Canto Lodestar

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The centenary of Maria Callas inspired many tributes, including a Teatro Nuovo symposium held near the site of the soprano’s birth in New York.

NEW YORK — As anyone connected to the opera world is likely to know, Dec. 2 marked the centenary of Maria Callas‘ birth. What many still fail to realize is that the gifted and tempestuous soprano of Greek parentage and the leading practitioner of Italian opera from 1950-65 — a period that dovetailed with the explosion in LP recordings — was a native New Yorker. At the Museo del Barrio, one block south of the hospital on Fifth Avenue and 106th Street where she was born in 1923, conductor and musicologist Will Crutchfield convened a symposium connected to his ongoing Teatro Nuovo project entitled “Callas: Past and Future.”

Especially in comparison to some mainstream media’s particular emphasis in marking this anniversary with the “Page Six” aspects of the diva’s meteoric rise and fall, one applauded Crutchfield for minimizing talk of her glamorizing weight loss and the Ari Onassis-fueled high society follies and romantic triangulation that made her fodder for gossip columns. Instead, both in his erudite introductory remarks (“Why Callas Still Matters”) and in the subsequent segments of the tribute event, the focus remained squarely on what made Callas’ artistry and style so revelatory and transformative.

Teatro Nuovo artistic director Will Crutchfield worked with mezzo Virginia Reed on ‘All’afflitto e dolce il pianto’ from Donizetti’s ‘Roberto Devereux.’ (Symposium photos by Steven Pisano)

Crutchfield noted her sovereign musicality and attention to a well-propelled vocal line on which the various stylistic devices composers required could be elaborated. Through accidents of personal and historical circumstances, Callas turned up as an ambitious, impoverished teenaged student back in Greece, under the tutelage of a Spanish coloratura soprano of the older school, Elvira de Hidalgo (1891-1980). The precision and velocity of execution she acquired under de Hidalgo’s tutelage, wedded to the natural volcanic dramatic soprano scale and coloration of her instrument, made for a remarkable arsenal. The high degree of musical preparation demanded of her by her ambition and (to some extent) her nearsightedness onstage prepared her — at least while everything held together technically and emotionally — for making a deep impression both live and on recordings in a wide variety of demanding repertory: La Gioconda, Gluck and Wagner titles (heard only in Italy and in Italian), and Verdi operas still relative rarities in the 1950s (Macbeth and I vespri siciliani.)

Popular press accounts credit Callas with introducing glamorous appearance and dramatic conviction to the operatic stage. Though she eventually exemplified both, in fact neither started with her: There have always been camera-worthy divas (some, like Massachusetts-born Met star Geraldine Farrar, even made silent films) and influential singing actors who, like Callas, earned generations of imitators, not least Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin. Above all, Crutchfield legitimately posited, we owe to Callas’ example the restoration to the repertory of the serious bel canto literature.

Derrick Goff accompanied soprano Christine Lyons in ‘A sì tremendo annunzio’  from Bellini’s ‘La straniera.’

The operas of Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti never got totally eclipsed by the works of French grand opéra, Verdi, and Wagner that they so influenced. But, save for the occasional Norma or Lucia di Lammermoor or (much more rarely) Guillaume Tell, it was the comic operas like Il barbiere di Siviglia and L’elisir d’amore that got play. The depth and musical aptness of Callas’ interpretations of Bellini’s Amina (La sonnambula) and Elvira (I puritani) removed these roles from being solely the province of tweety light coloraturas in search of showpieces. Plus, Callas and conductors like Tullio Serafin and Vittorio Gui reintroduced the world to Rossini’s Armida, Bellini’s Il pirata, Donizetti’s Anna Bolena and Poliuto, Spontini’s La vestale, and Cherubini’s Medea, opening the door for much further exploration since. Prima donnas like Leyla Gencer, Joan Sutherland, Beverly Sills, Renata Scotto, Cecilia Gasdia, and Mariella Devia have followed in her wake. Several generations of singers — including men, who in Callas’ era tended with rare exceptions to lack bel canto skills altogether — have forged a new, more historically inclusive canon.

In “Callas for the Future,” Crutchfield demonstrated the coaching methods he and his associates utilize at Teatro Nuovo’s summer sessions with young singers: They worked on technical issues and various “tricks of the trade” relating to the textual animation and rhythmic urgency of sung lines, which — perhaps especially in bel canto literature — can seem foursquare on the page or in routine traversals. Works by Rossini, Donizetti, and Puccini served as texts. Perhaps shorter segments should have been chosen, as only four of the assembled singers got to perform and refine their offerings. This was in many ways the day’s most interesting and impressive activity, and I wish more time had been allotted for it. Calling sometimes on recordings or descriptions of particular strategies deployed by Callas, Crutchfield was very precise in his technical and stylistic suggestions; it was hard not to be in awe of the courage of the promising vocalists’ flexibility in assimilating his counsel before a sophisticated audience.

Soprano Alina Tamborini, left, and mezzo-soprano Liz Culpepper sang the roles of Giulietta and Romeo in the final duet from Bellini’s ‘I Capuleti ed i Montecchi.

A panel of witnesses (“We Were There”) to Callas’ New York performances (critic Conrad L. Osborne, conductor and erstwhile boy soprano Peter Mark, and illustrator/recording collector Bob Ziering) shared their impressions and recollections, fleshing out the remembered glory with the sense that she arrived in her native city rather late for the vocal tide audible on her recordings to make its full impact. Unless I missed it, no one mentioned that Callas in fact sang five operas in New York, including The American Opera Society’s January 1959 Carnegie concert of Il pirata, on the recording of which my late father’s bravas are very audible. Critic Eli Jacobson offered an entertaining Callas trivia contest (Which were her most-performed roles? What Wagner roles did she sing and where?) won by protean conductor Richard Cordova.

Finally, the evening brought a concert with piano of selections from serious bel canto works, none essayed by Callas onstage, though she sampled some of their music in concerts or aria recitals. Most focus was on the leading ladies of Teatro Nuovo’s summer offerings. Mezzo-soprano Hannah Ludwig sounded totally at ease in Arsace’s portion of Semiramide‘s influential duet “Serbami ognor.” From La straniera, highly expressive and musical Christine Lyons reprised Alaide’s “Ciel pietoso.” Teresa Castillo demonstrated de Hidalgo-style velocity in Linda di Chamounix’s exhilarating “O luce di quest’ anima.”

Chelsea Lehnea, with presence and a fashion sense bespeaking an exciting performer, applied her lean but keen dramatic coloratura to Odabella’s testing entrance scena from Verdi’s early Attila. Alina Tamborini brought equal satiny beauty and verbal point to ensembles from I Capuleti ed i Monteccchi and Ernani. Among the men, tenor Derrek Stark impressed in Donizetti (Belisario and Lucrezia Borgia), and baritone Kyle Oliver launched Guillaume Tell’s sublime finale with sonorous authority. All the apprentices participated in the choral portions. Besides Crutchfield, the day’s collaborative pianists were Lucy Tucker Yates and Derrick Goff, both of them impressive and sensitively supportive.