Maria Callas —The Master Classes


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.