Maria Callas Debut at The Metropolitan Opera November 16 2021
Maria Callas during the curtain call after her debut as Norma at the Met, 1956
October 29, 1956. It remains as vivid to me now as it was then, when I was there, sixty-five years ago. Maria Callas was at last making her eagerly awaited debut on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera. Those of us who huddled beneath the building’s canopy on Broadway, between 39th Street and 40th, had spent three days staking out our places in the standing-room line. We were about to attend an artistic event so highly publicized that it had spilled over into the news headlines. The Manhattan-born Greek-American soprano who had, two years before, made her U.S. debut in Chicago, was finally to appear before her home-town New York public.
The date coincided with the publication of the issue of Time that bore her image on the cover, a dark, predominantly red painting of her mesmerizing face. The long article in the magazine acknowledged her extraordinary artistry but heavily emphasized her reputation for nastiness-- “a diva more widely hated by her colleagues and more wildly acclaimed by her public than any other living singer.”
Callas dissed her rival, Renata Tebaldi, for having “no backbone,” and shocked readers by inviting her reportedly indigent mother to “jump out of the window or drown [herself]” (a statement she later denied having made). Among the striking photographs was the widely circulated image of the diva, her mouth grotesquely splayed in rage at a process server who had pressed a summons on her moments after singing her final performance in Chicago in 1955.
[Photo] Book "My Daughter Maria Callas" written by Evangelia Callas, mother of the Greek soprano - a very controversial account of the relationship between mother and daughter.
At 7:00 pm, a half-hour before the doors were opened to the rest of the audience, and one hour before curtain time, the standees bought their tickets. We then raced to claim our favorite spots along the rail that ringed the perimeter of the orchestra seats at the Old Met. For thirty minutes we had the nearly empty auditorium to ourselves, a period of exhausted let-down for some, for others a half-hour of keen anticipation.
Operaphiles among the hearty souls who had waited hours, even days, outside the theatre, may have been attracted by the hype and the sense of occasion but were however there to hear Callas—live. Most were familiar with the bakers’ dozen of the soprano’s complete-opera recordings, including a highly regarded and best-selling Norma, its title-role regarded as a touchstone for the soprano drammatico d’agilità. The vehicle of her triumphant debuts in London (1952) and Chicago (1954), she would sing Norma far more often than any other work in her repertoire.
[Photo] Callas appeared as Leonora in Verdi's Il Trovatore opposite Jussi Bjorling at the Chicago Lyric Opera in 1955.
The regular standees at the Met were a fanatically partisan group. We were enamored of the company’s reigning queens, Zinka Milanov and the newer, younger Renata Tebaldi, both of whom could call upon timbres of ineffable sweetness, a quality lacking in the Callas vocal armory. Milanov’s loyal and large fan base regularly joined in a chorus of “bravas” for her curtain calls after Aïda, Il Trovatore, La Forza del destino, and Andrea Chénier. Tebaldi consistently sold out the adoring house for her Desdemona, her Tosca, Aïda, Mimì, Maddalena, and Leonora (Forza).
To keep his stars aligned and happy, Bing had to keep his footing in a delicate balance. Callas had snagged the publicity and the prestigious opening night spot, but she had to take the stage in an old production, revised just a few seasons earlier for Milanov. The canny impresario mollified Milanov and Tebaldi by rewarding them with new productions, for Milanov Ernani, for Tebaldi La Traviata.
[Photo] Maria Callas became the epitome of glamour during her career.
Nor were rival sopranos the only singers to contest Callas at her debut. Mezzo-soprano Fedora Barbieri was cast as Adalgisa, Norma’s unwitting rival for the affection of Pollione. Barbieri, of fiery temperament and sumptuous voice, was returning to New York following a two-year absence. Unfurling his clarion tones after a one-season hiatus was opera’s premier Italian dramatic tenor, Mario del Monaco, the Pollione. The stellar bass Cesare Siepi donned Oroveso’s priestly robes. The Met had not stinted on its roster of principals.
Callas was famous (or infamous) before the spread in Time had been published. For several years the media had reported on her successes in Europe and Mexico and had feasted on her life offstage: her spectacular weight loss that had transformed an ungainly opera singer into a glamorous clotheshorse, her opulent jewelry, and of course, her stormy clashes with managers and colleagues.
General manager of the Met Rudolf Bing had repeatedly failed to secure the Callas signature on a contract. In fact, she had turned down a debut a decade earlier, in 1945, offered by Bing’s predecessor, Edward Johnson. In the interim, she had become a celebrity and was able to command the attention she had worked so hard to achieve, and a Met debut on her terms, on a glittering opening night, in her signature role. And it was common knowledge that her fee far exceeded the current cap of $1,000 per performance.
Program for the debut of the star soprano at the Met as Norma (1956)
Met subscribers, who had first dibs on the specially priced tickets for the gala, filled the theatre. The dressy audience that had paid a record sum for tickets showed off an array of men’s formal evening apparel and women’s high-fashion gowns. When Milanov took her seat the standees burst into cheers. But Zinka’s entrance was topped by the protracted, perfectly timed apparition of Marlene Dietrich, just as the house lights were dimming. Clad in white, her hair a blond crown, she seemed ablaze as she slowly made her way down the aisle, altogether a suitable staging for a movie diva of her magnitude.
The audience had to endure a long wait for their first glimpse of the diva they had paid so handsomely to see. Norma comes onstage nearly a half-hour after the opera begins. And those thirty-or-so minutes needed a much better conductor to engage the listeners. The baton had been entrusted to Fausto Cleva whose long Met career, nearly one thousand performances between 1938 and his death in 1971, was notably weak in the realm of bel canto. His journeyman art had focused on Puccini and Verdi.
[Photo] Maria Callas as Norma and Mario Del Monaco as Pollione the night of her debut at The Metropolitan in Bellini's opera (1956).
In fact, the great bel canto composers, Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini, had always been poorly represented in the Met repertoire. Before the revival of interest in early 19th-century opera seria, sparked by none other than Maria Callas, only Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor had anchored a firm position in the company’s core offerings. Cleva and the Met orchestra gave a bumpy account of Bellini’s overture.
In the first scene the Archdruid, Oroveso, announces the imminent approach of his daughter, Norma. She, the high priestess of Irminsul, will invoke the god’s ire on the Romans who have occupied Gaul. Siepi’s velvety timbre, smooth legato, and apt style did honor to Bellini’s long phrases and mercifully distracted from the ungainly choral interventions.
Enter Mario Del Monaco to thunderous applause. The Roman Proconsul confesses to his aide that he no longer loves Norma, the mother of his two children, and he fears her vengeance if she discovers that he wishes to marry a younger priestess, Adalgisa. Del Monaco was an experienced Pollione and, like most mid-20th century heroic tenors who took on the role, lacked the grace intended by the composer. High energy, brash manner, and brilliant resonance won him the loud welcome he invariably received at the Met, a more appropriate reward for the strenuous passions of his Andrea Chénier and Otello than for the gentler outpourings of Pollione.
[Photo] Maria Callas in her costume as Norma at The Metropolitan (1956)
At then, at last, she appeared and instantly worked her magic, conveying character through the power of her presence. Svelte, white-robed, Callas certainly looked the role. She delivered Norma’s dramatic recitative with her wonted crisp diction, then launched into the score’s most famous aria, “Casta diva,” rapt in the priestess’s invocation to the moon goddess, carefully spinning out the long phrases.
Was the uneven texture of her timbre conducive to an ethereal prayer? Was it the soft dynamics that made it seem as if her voice was not quite large enough for the theatre? She certainly had the technique to negotiate the coloratura of the concluding cabaletta. But was it beautiful? She left the stage to applause, of course, but not to an ovation. Barbieri was then warmly greeted by the audience; her short aria was a plush outpouring of burnished song that sharply contrasted with Callas’s wan “Casta diva.”
Following Act I, the buzz among the standees was decidedly negative. The bulk of Act II did not change their mood. The first Norma/Adalgisa duet, the sublime “Oh, rimembranza,” again emphasized the disparity between the underwhelming compass of the Callas voice and the breadth of Barbieri’s. Then, finally, at the end of Act II, Callas unleashed the ferocity for which she was so widely noted. Norma, upon seeing Pollione, realizes that he is the Roman wooing Adalgisa. Erupting in anger, she warns her faithless husband to tremble with fear for himself and for their children. The soprano gave full measure to the character’s wrath but, alas, came to grief when she cracked on the high D that ends the trio.
At the start of Act III, Callas seemed to be a different singer, operating at a level of performance that validated her reputation. Gone was the restraint, the stylized gestures that seemed excessively calculated and rehearsed. In the Medea-like scene, Norma is torn between the will to murder her children, fathered by Pollione, and her love for her innocent offspring. The grain of the soprano’s voice captured the admixture of fury and tenderness that animates the music and that governs Norma until the end of the opera.
[Photo] Callas and Met manager Rudolf Bing in September 1971.
In Act IV, Callas rose to the height of her art, rendering conflicting emotions in sound, in gesture, in posture, in facial expression. The betrayed Druidess is unable to execute the Roman now her captive. His love rekindled. Pollione addresses her as “sublime donna.” The opening night audience could only concur; this was the performance of a sublime prima donna.
Callas was called out for eleven ardent curtain calls. She had turned disappointment into wonder. Yes, the first two acts had been well below her lofty standard. Years later she admitted to Bing “I am only sorry I couldn’t give you personally what other theaters have had.” But for the Milanov and Tebaldi worshippers standing at the rail surrounding the well-heeled swells sitting in the audience, for everyone at the old theatre on Broadway that night, the debut had to be counted a fabulous success.
[Photo] Book "Maria Callas: The Art and the Life" by John Ardoin written in collaboration with Gerald Fitzgerald
The brief Met career of Maria Callas consisted of a mere twenty-two performances as Norma, Violetta, Tosca, and Lucia, cut short by conflict with Rudolf Bing over scheduling and repertoire, and no doubt, by personality. La Scala was home to her genius for more than a decade and heard her in nearly two dozen roles. The Met was all the poorer for having had only scant glimpses of her glory. The myopic, overweight eighth-grader from P.S. 164 in Washington Heights had returned to New York as the most illustrious opera singer in the world. Her fame endures.
Charles Affron, co-author (with Mirella Jona Affron) of Grand Opera: The Story of the Met (University of California Press, 2014)
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