Arts

5 Minutes That Will Make You Love Maria Callas

In the past we’ve chosen the five minutes or so we would play to make our friends fall in love with classical music, piano, opera, cello, Mozart, 21st-century composers, violin, Baroque music, sopranos, Beethoven, flute, string quartets, tenors, Brahms, choral music, percussion, symphonies, Stravinsky and trumpet.

Now we want to convince those curious friends to love the passionate artistry of Maria Callas, the defining opera diva of the 20th century. (Her recorded output is the property of Warner Classics.) We hope you find lots here to discover and enjoy; leave your favorites in the comments.

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Patti LuPone, Callas in ‘Master Class’ on Broadway

When I did “Master Class,” I immersed myself in her story, really listening to her voice. Listening to this woman sing, you can sense her pain, her sadness; she has such empathy. And as a singer myself, I am gobsmacked by her technical abilities. When I listen to “Casta diva,” the quality of the voice is consistent through the registers; you hear how she phrases, how she controls her air. There’s a risk-taking; there’s an abandon; there is the truth of her emotions. And she’s able to translate that into a supernatural sound.

“Norma”

“Casta diva,” 1954 (Warner Classics)

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Riccardo Muti, conductor

The possibilities are many in the vast and diverse repertoire of this great soprano. But I choose “Vissi d’arte” from “Tosca” for the expressive intensity, the sincere and profound emotion, the clear articulation of the words and the many-colored singing line, which never falls into the vulgar exaggerations that often disfigure the music of Puccini and Italian verismo.

“Tosca”

“Vissi d’arte,” 1953 (Warner Classics)

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Tom Volf, ‘Maria by Callas’ director

“Andrea Chénier” was not the most significant opera in Callas’s career, but in this aria she gives full life to Maddalena, who is recalling the death of her mother, moving from sorrow to hope and redemption. In the 1993 film “Philadelphia” it is this recording that Tom Hanks’s character, suffering from AIDS, plays in the famous scene in his apartment, when he finally opens up to his lawyer. It is the tears we hear in her voice that bring us to tears, which is why I chose this aria to conclude the film I directed. “Io son l’amor”: “I am love.” That is what Callas’s life was about.

“Andrea Chénier”

“La mamma morta,” 1954 (Warner Classics)

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Daniel Mendelsohn, author and critic

By now everyone knows about Callas’s remarkable power as a stage actress, which even the still photographs convey: her absolute command of the striking, classicizing gesture; the use of those remarkable eyes. But equally dramatic was the way she acted with her voice — in particular, for me, the way she uses different shadings to create a sense of a character’s interior landscape, somehow separate from the outside world of the drama’s action.

There’s a moment toward the end of the first act of Bellini’s “La Sonnambula” when we get to see — and hear — the heroine, the charming and innocent village girl Amina (who, unbeknown to herself and everyone else, is a somnambulist) as she sleepwalks. A kindly count watches from the shadows as the unconscious girl sings a snippet of the rapturous duet she’d sung earlier that day with her betrothed.

In Callas’s performance, the echo is done with a completely different voice: thinned out, otherworldly, a mere filament of the tone we’ve just heard singing the duet. This strange new “sleeping” voice gives us a sense almost of intruding on the character’s poignant inner life and, as it turns out, quite fragile consciousness — and thereby brings a work that, in other hands, is often little more than a charming fairy tale to the brink of tragedy. It’s Callas’s ability to convey not just “emotion” — most singers can do that — but a textured psychological depth that puts her in a class of her own.

“La Sonnambula”

“Che veggio,” 1957 (Warner Classics)

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Will Crutchfield, Teatro Nuovo director

Callas is famous for superhuman virtuosity in music too hard for others to sing; for voicing fury, remorse, grief, resolve and ecstasy at levels beyond what others seem able to feel or express. The downside is a sound less beautiful than some singers to whom she might be compared. So what happens in a song easy enough for any professional and many amateurs, where the only requirements are beauty of tone and sentiments a child can grasp? I can’t decide between “genius” and “magic.”

“Gianni Schicchi”

“O mio babbino caro,” 1954 (Warner Classics)

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Renée Fleming, soprano

When I was a student and first heard recordings of Maria Callas, I didn’t find her timbre beautiful. But over time, she became my go-to soprano for any of the vast repertoire she recorded. Her musicianship and artistry are incredibly compelling, especially her ability to spin taut, disciplined lines, where every color and dynamic is a choice. You can tell that on top of flawless musical and dramatic instincts, she learned from the best conductors. Though I am told that her voice was not big, her unique, covered sound conveyed drama as well as or better than anyone. And she sparked my imagination vis-à-vis the importance of image and couture. Callas was the pinnacle of operatic stardom, and she still defines the word diva.

“La Traviata”

“Dite alla giovine” with Ettore Bastianini, 1955 (Warner Classics)

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David Allen, Times writer

Perhaps your friend doesn’t particularly like the repertoire that Callas made her own: Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi, Puccini. Well, before she turned to bel canto and its descendants, she made her name as a Wagnerian, singing Isolde, Brünnhilde and, here, Kundry. Recorded in Italian in a fiery reading under the conductor Vittorio Gui, she seethes with the commitment and intensity that would make her so famous — ferocious and imperious one moment, fearful and broken the next.

“Parsifal”

“Grausamer!” (“Ah crudel!”), 1950 (Warner Classics)

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Anthony Tommasini, Times chief classical music critic

Callas only performed the title role of Puccini’s “Turandot” about 20 times in the late 1940s. But she made a studio recording of the opera in 1957, and three years earlier she had included the daunting “In questa reggia” on an album of Puccini arias. There she had summoned steely, throbbing intensity during vehement outbursts. Yet I always get teary some 50 seconds in, when she bends a soft ascending phrase at the name of her ancestress, a princess who was abducted and killed. The phrase ends on a hauntingly sustained note, and the slight wobble in Callas’s voice makes it even sadder and more beautiful.

“Turandot”

“In questa reggia,” 1954 (Warner Classics)

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Fanny Ardant, Callas in ‘Master Class’ in Paris

One winter night in Paris, a woman sat motionless under a lamppost, waiting for the 63 bus. But when the bus came she let it pass. What was she waiting for? The buses passed, and the hours. When everything was extinguished — the stars, the bars, the houses, the cars — she was still there.

Suddenly, coming from a distance over the deserted street, a black car slowly passed before stopping at a red light, the radio on, the windows wide open. A female voice sang: “Arrigo! ah! parli a un core. Già pronto al perdonare; il mio più gran dolore. Era doverti odiare.”

I got up, crossed the street, approached the car. The man leaned out and called to me, “Where are you going?”

“Nowhere. I only wanted to know what that woman is saying.”

And there I listened to this magical voice, and in a single phrase I heard love lost and found, hatred and forgiveness, the desire to die and to live.

“Who is that singer?” asked the man.

I said: “Maria Callas! Thank you, thank you. For that, for — everything. … ”

And I walked home, consoled and protected.

“I Vespri Siciliani”

“Arrigo! ah! parli a un core,” 1951 (Warner Classics)

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Zachary Woolfe, Times classical music editor

She was superb at bel canto and verismo, but here Callas demonstrates her deep understanding of the 19th-century grand opera tradition that came between those styles. Elisabeth, the queen of Spain, married against her will and betrayed by her friend, arrives at the tomb of her father-in-law, mourning an abandoned love and longing for death. Typical melodramatic stuff. The difference here, in Verdi’s “Don Carlo” as in other grand operas of its era, is the character’s perception of herself in history, past and — in the form of the Flemish rebellion against Spanish rule — present and future. Callas, her voice poised and peerlessly articulate in both full flood and quiet nostalgia, sings at the intersection of the personal and the political, intimacy and majesty.

“Don Carlo”

“Tu che le vanità,” 1958 (Warner Classics)

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Marina Abramovic, ‘7 Deaths of Maria Callas’ creator

Here is her resonance, her vibration, her voice, her trembling. For the purpose of this article you have to get emotions out of anybody, and I think for the large audience we should still stick to “Casta diva.” “Norma” is such an interesting story: She’s a Druid priestess, but the Romans are the invading enemy, and she has fallen in love with a Roman general. She’s ready to betray her country, and eventually the only way through is to burn in the fire. The ending of my opera “7 Deaths” is this aria, with Callas’s voice. Her body is not here with us, but the voice is immortal.

“Norma”

“Casta diva,” 1949

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Kira Thurman, historian

As a devout Germanist, I thought for a long time I wasn’t supposed to like Italian opera. Maria Callas slapped that silly notion out of me. In “Una voce poco fa,” from Rossini’s “Barber of Seville,” her razor-sharp wit sparkles with the effervescence of a seasoned “Saturday Night Live” performer. Each time she sings of her determination to get her man, Callas switches up her emotional delivery of the line. In one iteration, she unleashes an outburst before backing off, her voice bubbling up and floating away. In another, you hear the steel glint of a knife in her tone, daring anyone to stand in her way. Callas’s luscious timbre and her control over dynamics create a fireworks show that could nudge even the most stubborn of hearts.

“Il Barbiere di Siviglia”

“Una voce poco fa,” 1957 (Warner Classics)

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Javier C. Hernández, Times classical music and dance reporter

Callas performed Lady Macbeth only a few times, during a 1952 run of Verdi’s “Macbeth” in Milan. But a recording of one of those performances has lived on as a model for the role. It’s a master class in drama and musicianship, with Callas using her voice to animate her character’s anxiety and ambition. This aria from the first act gives a sense of her range and the fresh intensity she brought to some of opera’s best-known parts.

“Macbeth”

“Vieni! t’affretta,” 1952 (Warner Classics)

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Stephen Wadsworth, ‘Master Class’ Broadway revival director

I finally understood Callas when I heard this recording of Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene. I finally understood a lot of things. I understood that opera could be full-on acted. I understood Lady Macbeth: her survivor’s despair, her tragic grit, her emotional disarray. I understood why Callas made a huge range of sounds; why she veiled her voice, poisoned it and stretched it to a taut wire. I understood it was possible for a singer not just to tell the truth beautifully, but also to tell the darkest possible truths on their own terms. Many singers beguile me; Callas always tells me the truth.

“Macbeth”

“Una macchia è qui tuttora,” 1959 (Warner Classics)

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Rhiannon Giddens, musician

Her voice. Her spirit. Her total commitment to the emotion written into the score. The passion conjured by her understanding of the personality represented by so many words and notes. These are among the many reasons she was admired, adored and idolized. She found the crossroads that every opera singer strives for, where skill, technique and know-how intersect with complete surrender to the needs of the character; she leaves us breathless, every time. To listen to old recordings of Maria Callas is to feel, in the gut, that old superstition that a recording could steal your soul. Her soul floats out to us, note after exquisite note.

“Tosca”

“Vissi d’arte,” 1952

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Joshua Barone, Times editor

The generations-spanning inseparability of gay culture and Maria Callas was enshrined in Terrence McNally’s play “The Lisbon Traviata” — its title taken from the holy grail of opera bootlegs, a once-elusive 1958 recording of Callas in one of her signature roles. McNally’s play made histrionic comedy of her peerless magnetism for gay men; to see how little he exaggerated, watch the documentary “Maria by Callas” and see some of the guys camping out for tickets in the 1960s wax extravagant about her. And to hear what made Lisbon so special, listen to the aria “Addio, del passato”: sympathetic from the start, no phrase unconsidered, the visceral drama of opera captured in a single weak and wobbly high note at the end.

“La Traviata”

“Addio, del passato,” 1958 (Warner Classics)

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Seth Colter Walls, Times writer

In early live recordings, like her 1950 Kundry in Rome and 1955 Lucia in Berlin, Callas does more than sail over orchestras and choruses. She also slices through the limitations of primitive recording technology. Consider her 1952 Armida, from Florence: Even the best remastering job amounts to a scuzzy capture, full of distortion and tape bleed.

But this second-act showstopper marries precision and abandon, graceful decorations and ransacking intensity. Unlike more polite interpretations of Rossini’s sorceress you might encounter, this one sounds authentically witchy. And once Callas is done holding a ringing, climactic note, the decay has a drama all its own — with the fade-out revealing how deeply her singing had marked the room.

“Armida”

“D’amore al dolce impero,” 1952 (Warner Classics)

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Latonia Moore, soprano

To me, a great singer is one who can make me feel her voice — a palpable sound that gets under my skin. Maria Callas does that for me. She is the kind of singer that can take you through the gamut of human emotion and back. She does it in everything she sings, but for some reason her “Casta diva” goes beyond. It’s spiritual. It stops time. It makes me forget all my worries. It’ll heal you, if you let it.

“Norma”

“Casta diva,” 1952 (Warner Classics)

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Wayne Koestenbaum, writer

This recording is not triumphant, cosmos-defying Callas. It is late Callas, mezzo Callas, shadowed Callas; a sense of diminishment and retreat — a wish for terminal repose — colors the descending phrases. Italian is Callas’s major tongue; when she sings French, an act of noblesse oblige, she passes her voice through a stringent, nasal wringer, and thereby attains the reedy place where hauteur meets hauntedness. Callas forbade this recording from being released in her lifetime. And so this refused artifact seems to come from the underworld, Callas’s shame grotto, where she hid unfit possessions. I hear her melancholy more directly in this majestic recording than in anything else she left us.

“Samson et Dalila”

“Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix,” 1961 (Warner Classics)

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James Jorden, Parterre Box proprietor

Following her vocal crisis in the late 1950s, Callas shifted her focus from staged opera to concerts, and her repertoire to a selection of Romantic arias less vocally demanding than the virtuoso showpieces of her best years. A war horse of this period was “Pleurez, mes yeux” from Massenet’s “Le Cid,” in which Callas wedded her compromised vocalism to her impeccable sense of style. Of her strident high notes and abrupt register shifts she creates a virtue of necessity. The aria is not merely grand, but offers the far more poignant effect of grandeur overlaid with a patina of decay.

“Le Cid”

“Pleurez, mes yeux,” 1962 (NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester)

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Michael Cooper, Times deputy culture editor

Listen to how Callas — as the dying Violetta, giving her lover her blessing to marry someone else — imagines being among the angels. Her voice blossoms on “angeli” before delicately decaying, a premonition of death. She sings with sumptuous beauty, yes, but as a great tragedienne she lets us hear the love and sacrifice that define her character.

Then she stops singing and speaks. Her pain is gone and her strength is returning, she says, and Callas is such a fine actress that she takes her listeners from pitying her self-delusion to deluding themselves. Especially as she sings, now full-voiced, that she is returning to life, utters a cry of joy, and dies.

“La Traviata”

“Se una pudica vergine,” 1953 (Warner Classics)

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