Maria Callas: the greatest

Thirty years after her death, can anyone rival the supreme soprano?

Top of the class ... Maria Callas. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Maria Callas died in Paris, nearly 30 years ago, on September 16 1977. She was 53, a virtual recluse, dependent, at the end of an unhappy life, on cocktails of uppers and downers to give her some sense of emotional wellbeing. She was also regarded as the greatest soprano of the 20th century, though paradoxically - and much about Callas is genuinely paradoxical - some have wondered, and continue to wonder, whether the personal price she had to pay for success was too high.

Thirty years on, we know much more about her from the vast numbers of biographies, sensationalist or otherwise, that have been written. Her reputation as the greatest, however, remains untarnished. Her discs still sell in the millions. CD issues of her live performances, whether authorised or otherwise, remain central to any collection. Earlier this year, a poll of opera critics (I was not among them), published in Gramophone magazine, voted her the most influential soprano of the recording era. Though there was heated discussion of which other singers should be included in the list, no one questioned that Callas should be anywhere other than first.

Whether any one soprano could, or should, be singled out as "the greatest" is, of course, a matter of dispute. Callas had her limitations. Her international career - it ran from 1947 to 1965 - was not long by operatic standards, and towards the end of it, her appearances had become sporadic. She was bound by constraints of language: after her apprentice years in Greece, she would only sing in Italian on stage, though she included French music, most notably Carmen, in her recordings and recitals. She rarely deployed what was clearly a remarkable flair for comedy - listen to her recording of Rossini's Il Turco in Italia, if you don't believe me - and predominantly limited herself to a repertoire that was essentially tragic in tone. She found Mozart "dull" and rarely sang him. To consider Callas "the greatest" is consequently to ignore the comparable achievements of other sopranos in music that Callas herself would never have tackled, or which she would never have considered central to her art.

Yet within the boundaries of her chosen repertoire, she was - quite simply - unique and revolutionary. Her influence inevitably filtered elsewhere. It has always been said - and even she herself would never deny it - that her voice was not classically beautiful. In her day, many people disliked that sometimes throttled, sometimes metallic sound, and there are some who still do. What she stood for, however, was truth rather than beauty, for expressive veracity rather than display.

Her technique has often been described as flawed, which it was not, though the demands she placed on herself - particularly after her famous and considerable loss of weight in the mid 1950s - inevitably took a toll on the voice itself. That she changed our perspective on the bel canto repertoire, partly by unearthing little known works and above all by making us aware of its hitherto dismissed dramatic potential, is beyond dispute.

She possessed the greatest range of vocal colour of any singer that I know and she used it to devastating effect. Her discography was colossal, though comparatively few of her performances were televised and, to my knowledge, we possess no film of any of her operatic roles complete. What we experience when we hear Callas, however, or see some of that rare footage of her in action, is a sense of such complete immersion in her chosen character that we take away the impression of a life lived rather than artistry perfected.

That her greatness was achieved through a self-lacerating perfectionism and a need to express emotion through the vicarious assumption of figures other than herself, was the product of the private tragedies that are also part of her myth. It makes her a difficult role model to follow, though some have tried. Callas's quest to express emotional truth through music has, however, influenced generations of singers and musicians way beyond her chosen field and even beyond opera itself. That is perhaps the most important aspect of her tremendous legacy and the reason why she will always rank among the greatest singers of all time.


Tim Ashley

The GuardianTramp

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