Heat and light: Maria Callas takes the stage again, on film, at Lincoln Center

Maria Callas. ()
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What made Maria Callas’ voice so unusual? “Maybe it’s the heat I put into it,” Callas herself suggests in a 1969 interview for French television that will be screened at Alice Tully Hall this weekend as part of the “Callas on Film” series.

That heat was scorching; her voice had extraordinary size, power, agility, and variety of color. But inseparable from the sound were the many public and theatrical Callas personas that live on in video and audio recordings of performances and interviews, and countless books, and which continue to galvanize old fans and newcomers alike.

Included in the screenings this weekend are a two-part Callas interview with opera impresario and journalist Lord Harewood from 1968. There is also Callas’ 1969 appearance on the “L’invitée du dimanche” show, where she is interviewed by Pierre Desgraupes and chats with invited guests, including Luscino Visconti. (She inspired the great director to work in opera and they collaborated on several productions.) “Dimanche” also cuts to performance excerpts from a gala built around her at the Paris Opera in 1958. In addition, there are two interviews from 1964/65 with Bernard Gavoty; the latter accompanies a three-aria recital filmed in the studio. There’s the entirety of a Hamburg concert in 1959 and a recent documentary The Callas Effect—it mixes fulsome and intermittently illuminating recollections from colleagues with excerpts from act 2 of Tosca, filmed live at Covent Garden in 1964.

Callas was tall and well proportioned, but as a young woman she was stout. In 1953 and 1954 she may have done irreparable damage to her voice by embarking on a crash weight-loss regime that enabled her to shed 75 pounds. Her slimness made possible an exceptional physical suppleness which is seen in the Covent Garden Tosca—a production mounted for her by Franco Zeffirelli. Indeed, this particular opera comprises by far the most extended video record of her operatic performances. She sang Act 2 at the 1958 Paris gala, and much of that same act on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1956. This is all required viewing for any opera lover, but I wish that Tosca didn’t occupy so central a position in her video legacy.

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As she states in the televised interviews, she didn’t particularly like the earthy “verismo” genre that Puccini and his Tosca embodied. Callas understood that opera by its very nature is not a naturalistic art form: humans communicate overwhelmingly by speech, not song. In the more idealized opera genres that she preferred, Callas employed all kinds of gestures, poses, and stances. Many were integral to declamatory traditions that evolved from Greek tragedy through classic seventeenth-century French drama—genres that were anything but naturalistic. Still, great artist that she was, and dedicated instrument of a director she respected, Callas in Zeffirelli’s Tosca goes all the way. She evinces so many realistic facial and physical reactions, such a wealth of minutely observed human behavior that she really seems almost more cinematic than operatic.

At least as important to understanding Callas is the fragment of rehearsal footage from her 1964 Norma in Paris, also staged by Zeffirelli and also to be screened this weekend. It shows her true and discerning analysis of movement and expression. She is not afraid to be still, and to be larger-than-life, to reach back to those forbears at the Theater of Dionysus.

The December 1958 Paris gala that makes its appearance in her “Dimanche” parley is Callas singing at her best. She is clearly delighted to revisit that triumph together along with the television audience. But every operatic voice is unpredictable and capricious, hers among the most. She was also reported to be suffering from a cold when she began the concert tour that reached Hamburg just a few months after her Paris debut. In Hamburg, her stealthy grimaces and head shakes at the conductor Nicola Rescigno seem prompted by the wayward condition of her voice.

As was her custom in recital, during the orchestral introductions to her arias Callas emotes with face, eyes, and gestures, so that her characterization is already established before she starts to sing. What could have seemed pretentious on someone else is utterly engrossing with Callas. What I find slightly disconcerting in her Hamburg recital is its evidence of her sad and foolish ambition to become a great high-society figure. She responds to the audience’s applause with a barely perceptible acknowledgement that is the classic prerogative of titled royalty.

It was through Callas’ friendship with professional party-giver Elsa Maxwell that she met Aristotle Onassis and began a long but ultimately disastrous liaison with the shipping magnate. Onassis appreciated her fame more than her artistry, and she stopped singing and practicing almost entirely for long periods during this time. But in 1968 he exchanged her for Jacqueline Kennedy. And so, at the time of the Harewood and the “Dimanche” appearances, Callas’ hoped-for libretto had failed her. She had been offstage entirely for three years, but was finally starting to make new plans. She talks about her upcoming (and mostly, as it turned out, taciturn) appearance as Medea in a new film by Pasolini, as well as a live Traviata at the Paris Opera planned for 1970. But that Traviata never happened. Her return to the musical stage wouldn’t come until 1973 when, vocally-depleted, she nevertheless embarked on two years of concert tours with Giuseppe Di Stefano. In 1977 came her untimely death at age 53.

Callas’ chatelaine pose is better negotiated in her later interviews. On “Dimanche” she’s fluent in French, while with Harewood she converses in an English that has a decidedly Anglo affect and accent. In both interviews she is luxuriantly gowned, coiffed, made-up, and bejeweled. Yes, she’s the grande dame, but there’s also a sensuality that might be redolent of the courtesan Violetta in La Traviata. She’s charming and less grand, indeed a little girlish, in the two interviews with Gavoty.

EMI owns almost all of Callas’ still-best-selling studio recordings as well as her video legacy. Its corporate hand is highly visible over the selections to be shown in “Callas on Film.” Indeed this festival is something of a promotional tool for the label: everything shown is from their catalogue. I could do without the screen capture of record covers in The Callas Effect. But Callas herself is, as always, so moving, so expressive, so inspiring.