Maria Callas —The Master Classes

Callas Master Class


Watch­ing Ter­rence McNally’s play “Mas­ter Class” is a rather schiz­o­phrenic expe­ri­ence for me. On one hand, there is the plea­sure that see­ing a well-crafted drama always pro­duces. On the other, the mem­o­ries of Maria Callas’ actual mas­ter classes at the Juil­liard School are still quite vivid in my mind. I was there, and learned more from audit­ing those classes than from all my years of other musi­cal stud­ies combined.

It started with a small adver­tise­ment the Juil­liard School placed in the Arts and Leisure sec­tion of the Sun­day New York Times in the fall of 1971. A series of mas­ter classes titled “The Lyric Tra­di­tion” would be taught by Maria Callas from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. on Mon­days and Thurs­days. A few tick­ets for each class were avail­able to any­one who wanted to observe. The price? Five dol­lars to watch one of the world’s great­est singers work with 25 young hope­fuls over the course of 23 classes.

The audi­to­rium wasn’t entirely full for the first class, almost as if no one believed the diva was actu­ally going to show up to teach. But soon enough, the classes were sold out. At 48, Callas had not per­formed in pub­lic for sev­eral years and had been liv­ing as a near recluse in her Paris apartment.

I was a 24-year-old con­duct­ing stu­dent and had just dis­cov­ered that live per­for­mances by Callas were avail­able on pirate records — if one knew where to look and whom to ask. Lis­ten­ing to those LPs of the soprano in her prime had changed my life. So it was unthink­able to miss an oppor­tu­nity to study with his leg­end, even secondhand.

Maria Callas the teacher could not have been more dif­fer­ent from Maria Callas of the pop­u­lar press. Peo­ple who came to the classes expect­ing to see explo­sions of diva tem­pera­ment or hear nasty remarks about her col­leagues were out of luck. The only occa­sional sharp remarks Callas made were to her audi­ence: telling an auto­graph seeker no, or remind­ing us, “Please, no applause. This is a class. We’re here to work.”

Callas work­ing with direc­tor Luchino Visconti

Work. That was the oper­a­tive word, no doubt about it. Callas was leg­endary for her capac­ity to rehearse for hours and hours in the the­ater, then go home and prac­tice even more. She treated her stu­dents as if they shared her own sense of ded­i­ca­tion. Once when a stu­dent began mak­ing excuses for some mis­takes, Callas cut her off by rais­ing a hand and say­ing, “Hush — and sing.” When another stu­dent tried to explain why she couldn’t sing all the trills in a piece, Callas inter­rupted her with: “I’m sure you can, if you try hard enough.”

As the classes con­tin­ued and a rap­port devel­oped between some of the stu­dents and Callas, a few tried to joke with her. But Callas had very lit­tle sense of humor. The only truly funny moment I remem­ber came when she was work­ing with a young soprano on Violetta’s “Addio del pas­sato” from the last act of Verdi’s La Travi­ata. The heart­break­ing aria ends with a five-note phrase that is repeated four times, the last time going up to a high A. The score indi­cates that the last note is to be sung very, very softly. It is quite dif­fi­cult to pull off.

Callas, one of the great Vio­let­tas of the 20th cen­tury, wanted the stu­dent to “build the ten­sion” (a favorite phrase of hers) from one rep­e­ti­tion to the next. When the stu­dent looked puz­zled, Callas began to sing the end of the aria in full voice. A shiver went through the audi­to­rium as Callas’ voice rose securely. The phrases grew, exactly as Callas had asked the stu­dent to do, becom­ing filled with all of Violetta’s despair. It was the per­fect exam­ple of the union of words and notes, drama and emo­tion into an over­whelm­ing whole. As the phrase reached its cli­mac­tic final note, Callas, rather than attempt­ing the tricky A, stopped short and spoke. “So see, dear, you must grad­u­ally build it.”

When the audi­ence groaned in dis­ap­point­ment, Callas turned to us, grinned a bit rue­fully, and extended her right arm, palm up, as if to say, “Well, you win some, you lose some.”

Though she was adamant that the classes were about young singers work­ing on oper­atic reper­toire, not about Maria Callas, my most vivid mem­o­ries are of her demon­strat­ing how an aria should work. The first time I heard Callas sing live was while she worked with a bari­tone on Iago’s famous “Credo” from Act II of Verdi’s Otello. The next to the last phrase is “E poi? E poi? La morte è il nulla.” (And then? And then? Death is noth­ing­ness.) Again, Callas was try­ing to get the stu­dent to shape the short musi­cal sec­tions into one over­ar­ch­ing whole.

Like this,” she said, and began “E poi” full-voiced and in the baritone’s reg­is­ter. Her dark, husky lower voice had us instantly on the edges of our seats as her Iago asked, “And then? And then?” When the answer came, and Callas sang the word “Nulla,” it was a mag­nif­i­cently hor­ri­fy­ing moment. All the empti­ness, black­ness, noth­ing­ness of Iago’s soul were sud­denly laid bare, just by the way Callas sang that sin­gle word. It ruined me for any other Iago.

Sim­i­larly, Callas’ ren­di­tion of the open­ing of Rigoletto’s “Cor­ti­giani” has ruined me for any other Rigo­letto. The young bari­tone who was work­ing on that aria did not seem to grasp the emo­tional sit­u­a­tion in which the title char­ac­ter finds him­self in the sec­ond act of Verdi’s opera. “Bite into the words,” Callas instructed, and just the way she spoke the open­ing phrase, “Cori­giani, vil razza dan­nata,” con­veyed more anger and fury than any Rigo­letto I’ve heard sing the role.

When the stu­dent still did not seem to fully grasp what she meant, Callas sud­denly launched into the aria. The audi­ence shud­dered as her bro­ken voice, pushed to its very edge, cre­ated a Rigo­letto almost out of con­trol, rail­ing vainly against fate. It was not pretty, but it was great singing. And above all, it was real.

It must be real,” she repeated over and over, con­stantly work­ing with her stu­dents to con­vey every nuance of the emo­tion. “For­get you’re singing. Think expres­sion.” Which is not to sug­gest Callas tol­er­ated missed notes of sloppy rhythms. “You must have great expres­sion, but always on the notes,” she insisted.

It was this absolute respect for the com­poser and libret­tist that was per­haps the great­est legacy of Callas’ mas­ter classes. For her, each note had a rea­son to exist. Indi­vid­ual notes in a musi­cal phrase were like indi­vid­ual words in spo­ken phrase. No two should ever have quite the same expres­sion. They were either going toward a cli­max or falling from it. It sounds sim­ple, but it takes an astound­ing amount of hard work.

In these days when stage direc­tors so often man­gle an opera in a vain attempt to try to make it “dra­matic” or “rel­e­vant,” I often find myself wish­ing they had audited Callas’ mas­ter classes and learned what aston­ish­ing drama is already there.

As Callas said, just before leav­ing the stage after her last class, “Whether I con­tinue singing or not doesn’t mat­ter. What mat­ters is that you use what­ever you have learned wisely. Think of the expres­sion of the words, of good dic­tion, and of your own deep feel­ings. The only thanks I ask is that you sing prop­erly and hon­estly. If you do this, I will feel repaid.”

This arti­cle orig­i­nally appeared in the Date­book sec­tion of the San Fran­cisco Exam­iner & Chron­i­cle on August 17, 1997.