In the last fifteen years I have been exposed to a lot of singers but one that will always have a central place in my heart and mind is Callas. My first encounter was through the media in Greece, for years seeing photographs and brief excerpts of performances. They were intriguing but had no suitable opportunities to investigate further.
My best friend at school (also a George, not surprisingly) was a curious, arty guy and we were discussing that it would be fun to try and get some student standby tickets for the opera house in Athens. A few weeks later we saw a performance of Rigoletto and the whole spectacle made a great impact on us and decided to go back for more. The next year (1997) it was the anniversary of Callas’ death and the Megaron (the splendid Athens Concert Hall) revived Cherubini’s Medea in Italian for the occasion. It was very tricky getting tickets for it and unfortunately didn’t manage to get any to see Grace Bumbry perform, but we got to see Rosalind Plowright who was in rather bad voice on the night. An interesting fact was that it was conducted by Carlo Felice Cillario, who had conducted Callas’ last few Toscas at Covent Garden (of course at the time I was oblivious to this fact). My best friend was obsessed with ancient Greek mythology and Medea set to music seemed a great prospect. Have to admit that we had a great time watching the drama unfold from the presidential box (which at the time was on sale as day tickets for students, which seems bizarre, but true).
A couple of days later, armed with the knowledge from the programme, that Callas had recorded the role in the studio in 1957, went to a couple of small record shops that specialised in classical and opera repertoire. None of them could help me, the answer I got was…oh it’s such an old recording, buy something more recent blah blah blah. So I walked into Metropolis, the largest music store in Athens and rushed to the miniscule classical department and asked for Callas’ Medea. The assistant looked it up that they did not have it in stock and offered to order it for me if I could wait for a few days. After I count my pocket money and was satisfied I had enough, I asked him to order it for me. (Ah how much easier has this process been made today with Amazon and Spotify?) 4-5 days later I got a phone call that Medea was waiting for me! Got myself on a bus and central Athens, here I come! I remember the assistant showing me the disc set asking me if it was the right item, I took a look at the cover and a Callas with long hair and intensely outstretched arms was the heroine I had imagined.
I think the fact that the live performance was about a week behind me when I listened for the first time to the recording, accentuated the effect it had on me. I was taken into a trip of seduction with the lush sound of the strings (La Scala’s highly competent orchestra), much more lush than anything a Greek orchestra could ever muster. And when it came to the appearance of Medea in front of Creonte and the Corinthians I was speechless at this moving, aggressive, knowing and still desperate character. It seemed to me to suggest more images than the live performance I had witnessed. Something I would never had thought possible. And I believe this is the first reason why Callas’ artistry matters to me, it totally transforms a character and shapes the listener’s imagination and totally transfixes. An effect totally mystical and inexplicable, especially with the shoddy 1950s-60s EMI sound engineering.
When I left Greece a few months later this double CD was one of the few things I took with me for my new life in Britain. Medea’s laments and curses filling my tiny student room and galvanising me on difficult days and keeping me company when writing art history essays based on the latest Hayward Gallery exhibition. That recording was a constant companion for at least five years and it became a familiar motif to anyone that met me at University. Every single person I became close friends with, had gone through a two hour “Medeathlon” with me. It was a sort of a rite of passage for the fledging friendship.
That Medea opened the door to all her other recordings and on to a myriad of other singers. It gave me a perfect way to escape in an exciting secret universe. That is the very reason why I get furious when I get off the cuff comments about how awful and overrated Callas is. For me she is a shinning beacon of beauty, truth and meaningful musicianship. If it wasn’t for her incandescent recordings I would possibly not have discovered, Birgit, Elisabeth, Kirsten, Renata, Giulietta, Anna, Montserrat, Beverly, Cecilia, Joyce, Anne Sofie, Patricia, Natalie, Teresa, Leontyne, Jessye, Vaso, Ebe, Angela, Joan, Katia, Shirley, Marilyn, Regina,Veronique, Fiorenza, Miriam, Regine, Magda, Kiri, Tatianna, Agnes, Petra, Karita, Hildegard, Margaret…I will always be thankful for that, dare say, life changing live Medea. And it is highly disappointing that due to copyright and licensing issues this magnificent performance it’s near impossible to buy, depriving a new generation of fans from discovering it.
*Thought it would be fun to use her full name for a change.