Maria Callas is back around. Nearly twenty years following the diva’s death, Callas remains a cult, a graphic, an idea, a business. New biographies continue steadily to appear; EMI is constantly on the issue compilation discs of recordings manufactured in the 1950s, with the height of this soprano’s operatic career; the few opera and concert films manufactured from her are endlessly recycled on video and TV documentaries. The legend burns brighter in death than in life. That’s particularly true in Chicago at the moment. And in the Lyric Opera production of Bellini’s “Norma,” which opened the other day with soprano June Anderson inside the title role, we have been reminded this is Callas’ great signature role, one that served as her American-debut vehicle in 1954, when she launched the initial fall season in the Lyric Theatre of Chicago (since it was then known). Speaking as you who found know Callas’ singing almost entirely through her recordings, and who was simply too young to possess heard her through the two glorious seasons, 1954 and 1955, she graced the Lyric roster, Personally i think cheated never to have observed her artistry in live opera, the only path in which you can properly sense her extraordinary dramatic authority.
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On recordings, the flaws in her technique, the gaps between vocal registers, the very best which could turn vinegary under great pressure, were more apparent. The only real time I heard Callas live is at Columbus, Ohio, in 1974, during her ill-fated final concert tour with tenor Giuseppe di Stefano. Even though audience caught sporadic glimmers in the Callas that has been, vocally both singers proved pathetic shadows of these former selves. How different it had been only 2 decades earlier in Chicago. Lyric’s organizers, Carol Fox and Lawrence Kelly, knew that when Chicago was to truly have a resident opera company again (after not having for a lot more than twenty years), it should be a theater worth the city’s vaunted operatic past. So that they made a decision to risk everything using one big dramatic gesture. Lyric’s “calling card” production of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” on Feb. 4, 1954, returned the glittering aura of grand opera to Chicago. With all the city’s musical press solidly behind the brand new venture, Fox and Kelly could actually secure the financial backing had a need to placed on an autumn season. They wasted virtually no time raiding Italy of singing stars for his or her roster.
She was always the initial artist to reach and the final to leave.
Their biggest catch undoubtedly was Callas. The combined debut in the Lyric Theatre and Maria Callas was trumpeted over the front pages of newspapers everywhere. Ticket orders originated from as a long way away as Alaska. The press was there en masse once the plane bearing the singer and her husband, industrialist Giovanni Battista Meneghini, landed in Chicago on the gray October morning. The young diva had result from Italy (where she and Meneghini lived) to Chicago via Canada, preventing the NY port of entry where processors were lying in ambush. A former manager of Callas’, one Edward Bagarozy, was suing her for non-payment of fees. The incident would later prove critical inside the lives of both Callas and Lyric. The “Norma” rehearsals found Callas the consummate professional. She was always the initial artist to reach and the final to leave. Here was no willful, egomaniacal diva but among the hardest-working members of this team. On the opening of “Norma,” on Nov. 1, 1954, the Opera House was awash with civic pride.
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The audience of 3,500 included numerous reminders of Chicago’s operatic glory days, including artists such as for example Raisa, Edith Mason, Eva Turner, Giovanni Martinelli and Giorgio Polacco. Another morning’s reviews read like love letters. Wrote the late Claudia Cassidy within the Tribune: “For my money, (Callas) had not been only around specifications, she surpassed them. . . . Her range is formidable, and her technique is dazzling. She sang the `Casta diva’ in some sort of mystic dream, such as a goddess of the moon briefly descended.” Another smitten scribe dubbed her “La Divina,” a nickname that stuck with Callas for the others of her life. That same season, Callas sang Violetta in Verdi’s “La Traviata” opposite Leopold Simoneau and Tito Gobbi, but she created a much greater sensation with her first Lucia in Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor,” with di Stefano. Her Mad Scene drew a 13-minute ovation. Newman recalls sitting in for the “Lucia” dress rehearsal. Callas’ instinct for your PR potential of any situation was equaled with the press’ appetite for scraps from diva’s plate.