Yorkshire Times
A Voice of the Free Press
Andrew Palmer
Group Editor
1:02 AM 30th March 2024

The Miracle Behind The Legend

The Callas Imprint A Centennial Biography
Group Editor Andrew Palmer delves into The Callas Imprint: A Centennial Biography a new biography of probably one of the most misunderstood opera stars of her day, the incomparable soprano Maria Callas, whose life has been so vividly captured by music critic Sophia Lambton with a cornucopia of never-published personal correspondence.

Who was Maria Callas? A typical prima donna? A diva who took perfectionism to the extreme? A complex character developed through her formative years? Her mother wanted to make her a childhood prodigy; therefore, did she have a genuine childhood? Or was she just a cult figure and genius?

In this fascinating, well-written and interesting centenary biography, Sophia Lambton goes into great detail, often a little too much; sometimes a few commas could help the context, but that cavil aside, she has a compelling narrative that helps the reader answer the questions.

Callas was an icon of the 20th century, and, as we know about celebrities they are often fickle with numerous idiosyncrasies, Callas was no exception; she could be obsessive, especially with art, enjoyed westerns, adored tangos, and loved Sinatra records.

A singer who had a tendency to get involved in imbroglios, had many moments of joy and melancholy, was loved and despised, had run-ins with different legislatures (mainly contract law), a few spats with singers, yet had an aura that could hypnotise, and if you were her friend, you were her friend.

She could also entrance many interviewers, one of whom wrote of the ‘tremulous beauty in her great anxious eyes. Reinforced by a generous mouth and a magnetism of the ancient world'. Captivating, she was the Elvis Presley of her day; her records were the only operatic ones whose sales could rival the King.

If her life was an orchestral score, the conductor’s markings would reveal much to bring out the sometimes mellifluous and often sweet melodies or shocking and complex harmonies; there would be a potpourri of different emotions for the maestro to grapple with to ensure his orchestra gave the work a sympathetic hearing. This is what Lambton has achieved in her well-researched tome with its 113 pages of notes.

A mammoth task, where the author has collated information from numerous letters, newspaper articles, interviews, and firsthand tales about the soprano, also citing many recordings in order to convey her point.

Callas was fastidious in preparation for a role, often refusing to leave a rehearsal until something was correct and perhaps this obsessive behaviour was due to her myopia, a condition she suffered from but never let control her. Before a performance, she would often inspect the stage to determine the placement of various set elements.

How could an opera singer hate Mozart's operas? She never considered the Queen of the Night (Magic Flute) or the Marriage of Figaro's Countess. She did set out to learn the Queen of the Night role but needed to take a breath against the composer’s wishes. Lambton writes that 'the portrait remained unembarked upon'. She also recoiled against modern music, a genre she had animosity for.

Did she have an ego? In Callas’ own words, ‘If music is treated in a shabby or second-best way, I do not want to be associated with it.’ She was also sufficiently confident to hold her own against figures such as Pope Pius XII, when he told her that he didn’t like it that she didn’t sing Wagner's opera in German, and she stood up against no other than Herbert von Karajan. She once told David Frost:

I don't think there are very many men that would like to be with me because they're afraid of me, ah... I'm a fast thinker, they're afraid of being exposed with me - it's not easy to be a ... good friend of Callas.

Callas was an enigma, always trying to dispel people’s perceptions of her by portraying humanity, relatability, or simplicity. She was an avid fan of snorkelling and often would dismiss the observation from some quarters that she was a goddess. In the mid-sixties, people who met her were exposed to someone silly at times, almost to the point of being nauseating.

As a performer, she would often get exhausted or become ill, which would lead to cancellations, and interestingly, Callas lived in a world before the ubiquitous, often hurtful comments found on social media, but she still suffered from the equivalent of trolls when the hotels that she was staying in were surrounded by those who wanted to remonstrate against her.

There is so much to comment on in this 500-page biography that it can’t all be covered in a single review: Callas' opinions on a gamut of issues and people, the cinematic work, Franco Zeffirelli’s Traviata, her relationships with record companies, her connections with the likes of the Onassis family and Marlene Dietrich to name drop just a few.

In 1977, Callas was in Paris, and in the riveting chapter ‘Beauty and Truth' as the final curtain falls, Lambton draws all the different strands and myths about Callas’ life together in an engaging way. There are a couple of inaccuracies - Tito Gobbi is not a bass but an Italian baritone. However, it is enlightening to read about how Callas approached an operatic role and all the intricacies about the staging of different operas and Lambton's lovely use of the English language helps bring the page alive, something Callas, the perfectionist, would, I am sure, have enjoyed.

This biography will be enjoyed by those new to opera as well as those who are long-term fans. It is a story told in a compelling way with a narrative that holds the reader's attention. 

Callas said to a reporter, “When I die, I will breathe a sigh of relief, telling myself, ‘I did my work well’". She was not scared of death, provided she didn’t suffer. And so it was that on the morning of Friday, September 16, 1977, Callas had a boiled egg, toast, and coffee for breakfast. Having planned a trip to the hairdresser, she headed to the bathroom to get dressed, where she felt a sudden headache overcome her and lay down in bed. Suffering a heart attack, she died at 1.30 pm Paris time, at the age of 53.

Music must always be beautiful, and beauty is truth.
Maria Callas

The Callas Imprint: A Centennial Biography
Publisher: The Crepuscular Press
ASIN: ‎ B0BRYPL5WN (Kindle)
ISBN-13: ‎978-1739286323 (hardcover)
ISBN-13: ‎978-1739286347 (paperback)
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