The 2004 Athens Olympics is over, but certain things linger on. My thoughts drifted to the ambitious opening ceremony that heralded its start. Only one among the millions of television viewers, I saw with much excitement and expectation the grand opening ceremony on yet another biggest sports show on earth. I also marvelled at how the patrolling troops on land and air managed to guard the entire security operation. All for the game.
Athens played host to a beautiful and moving Opening Ceremonies in Olympic history. The spectacular and theatrical event featured a vast expanse of water representing the beautiful seas that surround Greece, massive flying artifacts, a rolling stage, among other magical visual displays. The audacious performance painted a dramatic picture of a country steeped in pride for its remarkable cultural heritage – civilization and its contribution across the arts and sciences, politics and society. And lest the world forgets, it was the ancient Greece that created the Olympic Games nearly 3,000 years ago.
Then the Olympic ceremony presented the ‘Book of Life’ part, where Eros swooped down to greet a pregnant woman, the final figure of the ‘Clepsydra’ parade. The background music clearly came from a distinct voice that I swore could only belong to one operatic diva, to me, the greatest of all: the voice of Maria Callas. By impulse, I got excited and stood up when I heard it. I said, “It can’t be. It’s Callas!” I was under the assumption that all performances were live. Naturally, I was right about the voice. Within a minute, the television commentator said so. Obviously, the Greeks are ever proud of the voice and the singer. Nevermind that she was born and raised in the USA. But she was born of Greek parents. Besides, a legend should be shared with the world. A legend is a child of the universe!
The American operatic soprano Maria (Kalogeropolous) Callas (1923-1977) was born in New York of Greek parents. She studied at Athens Conservatory and made her debut there in 1941. With a voice of fine range and a gift for dramatic expression, she excelled in opera. In 1947, she appeared at Verona in La Gioconda, winning immediate recognition. In 1949, she was married to Giovanni Battista Meneghini. She appeared at La Scala, Milan in 1950, at London’s Covent Garden in 1952, and at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 1956. Among her most famous roles were Bellini’s Norma in the title role, and Amina in La Sonnambula, while her magnetic stage presence as an operatic actress yielded memorable portrayals of Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata and in the title role in Puccini’s Tosca. Callas sang with great authority in all the most exacting soprano roles, excelling in the intricate bel canto style of pre-Verdian Italian opera. Other operas include Madame Butterfly, Aida and Medea, and many more.
It’s more than twenty-five years since her death, and yet Maria Callas continues to ignite the imagination of a new generation of opera goers who never experienced her on the stage. I never did. My discovery of Callas is through my collection of her records, some almost warped to let go, perhaps no different from her recordings when she was just beginning to reach an international market, or when her career was still confined to Italy. Through the CDs, I came to love Callas’s exquisite voice with all my senses engaged. Not that I don’t admire the likes of Kiri Te Kanawa, Ely Ameling, or Joan Sutherland, among others. I have Maria Callas’s ‘First Official Recordings’, mono dated 1953. And as I compare this recording with a more polished production, a recent 1997 EMI recording of a lifelong favourite Bellini’s Norma, I can feel the same intensity of feeling, the ever engaging sound of the voice itself.
I can go on and on and rave about this operatic diva, this legend whose greatest role was herself. For her life was an intense opera in itself – her tempestuous outbursts as sensational as her entrances and exits, as well as her doomed relationships. From 1959 until her death, she had intense relationship with the shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis. But always, she remained the ever-consummate professional in her art.
While writing this piece, I’m up to Callas Rarities. and almost always, I end my listening satisfaction with her interpretation of my all-time favourite: “Casta Diva”(Chaste Goddess) from Bellini’s Norma. Her exquisite voice lulls me to divine slumber: “Casta diva… tempra, o Diva, tempra tu de’ cori ardenti, tempra ancora lo zelo audace… ” Translated in English: “Chaste goddess,… temper thou the burning hearts, the excessive zeal of thy people.”
To experience the magical voice of Maria Callas, I need only listen and take pleasure in the solace of her recordings.