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How opera diva Maria Callas continues to enthral the theatre world

Maria Callas in Donizetti's Anna Bolena. Photo: Erio Piccagliani/Teatro alla Scala
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Revered more than 40 years after her death, Maria Callas wowed audiences from the New York Met to La Scala in Milan. Yehuda Shapiro looks at five stage shows that prove La Divina’s allure remains as irresistible as ever

For all the laudable efforts to make opera more accessible, it is still often dismissed as exclusive and elitist. But as today’s singers strive to reach audiences beyond the opera house, they must compete for attention with a diva who, more than four decades after her death, continues to fire imaginations.

Obsessively dedicated to her art, Maria Callas transcended a sometimes recalcitrant voice to become the high priestess of opera. Though a close contemporary of silver-screen tenor Mario Lanza, she never went out of her way to please the crowds or ‘cross over’. Yet a string of recent and forthcoming shows attests to her continuing hold on the public.

Best known to the wider musical world as Puccini’s tragically impetuous Tosca, Callas is credited above all with reviving and transforming the repertoire known as bel canto – literally ‘beautiful singing’. Dating from the early 19th century, the style is embodied by the operas of Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini.

Rather like classical ballet, the works only come fully alive if the performer has mastered their technical minutiae. Callas was not just a rigorous and skilled musician – she captivated audiences with her vocal coloration, verbal acuity and compelling physical presence.

She made her last operatic appearance in 1965, but she still exercises her fascination today. In March this year, alongside Judy Garland, Patsy Cline, Billie Holiday and Edith Piaf, she became one of the five iconic singers portrayed by Bernadette Robinson in Songs for Nobodies at Wilton’s Music Hall.

In September, a ‘jukebox’ biography of the Greek-American soprano plays the largest theatre in Ireland, and in November she follows such popular singers as Garland, Frank Sinatra and Roy Orbison in taking to the London stage as a hologram, accompanied by a full-scale live orchestra.

In the straight theatre, Callas is the subject of the Tony-winning play Master Class, by Terrence McNally. Since it was first seen in 1995, such grandes dames as Patti LuPone, Faye Dunaway, Tyne Daly, Stephanie Beacham and Fanny Ardant have stepped into the diva’s elegant shoes.

What is special about Callas is that her way of singing, of being an artist, is never outdated

“The source of Callas’ extraordinary longevity surely lies in her artistry,” says Bertrand Castellani of Warner Classics. The Paris-headquartered label is custodian of the soprano’s substantial catalogue of audio recordings, made primarily in the 1950s and early 1960s for EMI.

“What is special about Callas is that her way of singing, of being an artist, is never outdated,” he continues. “She was one of the greatest opera singers of history and she became a myth the day she died [on September 16, 1977, in Paris, aged 53]. In some senses, she is more like Marilyn Monroe than a classical artist, even though there are so few filmed testimonies of her in performance. That rarity value might even help to stimulate the audience’s imagination. Everybody has their own Callas.”

She consistently remains one of Warner Classics’ bestselling artists, and in certain years, helped by scrupulously remastered, lavishly repackaged editions, has taken the label’s top slot.

Maria Callas hologram performing the ‘card scene’ from Bizet’s Carmen. Photo: Base Hologram

A selection of those classic recordings form a key component of Callas in Concert – The Hologram Tour, which on November 25 visits the 2,400-seat London Coliseum, the home of English National Opera.

Produced by the US company BASE Hologram, the show is presented in the UK by Senbla, best known for staging concerts by such performers as Burt Bacharach and Soft Cell, and for showing feature films such as Star Wars and Paddington with a live orchestra providing the soundtrack.

Senbla’s Ollie Rosenblatt, an opera lover himself, is especially excited by the technological sophistication of BASE’s shows – the London Evening Standard called its Orbison hologram “extraordinarily realistic”.

Pointing out that the cutting-edge technology of past eras added excitement to the premieres of Aida or Turandot, Rosenblatt says: “In a sense, Callas in Concert is the ultimate tribute show at a time when a Pink Floyd tribute band can fill arenas and Abba is reuniting with a hologram. Everyone will know that it’s not the real person, but you want to show that it’s as true as it can possibly be.”

The virtual figure that the audience will see is not Callas herself, but a lookalike. Costumed and coiffed to resemble the diva at a famous 1958 Paris concert that survives on video, she mimes to Callas’ voice and mimics her posture and gestures with eerie accuracy.

Having seen a preview of the show, Anthony Tommasini, chief music critic of the New York Times, found it “strangely captivating” and “surprisingly affecting”, observing: “In a way, it made the most sense of any of the musical holograms produced so far. More than rock or hip-hop fans, opera lovers dwell in the past.”

Rosenblatt believes that nostalgia will play a role in attracting audiences. “It could well appeal to people whose parents and grandparents grew up hearing Callas. Perhaps they will think: ‘Wouldn’t it be great to experience what my grandparents were always talking about?’”

Callas – The Life and Music of Maria Callas

Young operatic talent, along with a voice-over narration by Simon Callow, comes to the fore in Callas – The Life and Music of Maria Callas. On September 14, it lands at Dublin’s Bord Gais Energy Theatre, which seats more than 2,000 people and has Hairspray and Wicked on its programme this summer.

The show’s writer and producer, Niall Morris, is a classically trained tenor who formerly managed Opera Ireland; he has mounted the Callas show 20 times in Ireland since 2011. Illustrating the soprano’s dramatic life story with famous arias and duets, it uses an 18-piece orchestra and draws on a pool of rising singers to fill its four roles: Callas herself, a soprano; her businessman husband, a tenor; her lover, shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, a baritone; and, cast with a mezzo-soprano, the woman for whom he deserted Callas – Jacqueline Kennedy.

“The show grew from the aria Un Bel Di from Madama Butterfly,” explains Morris. “In the opera, Butterfly is waiting for Captain Pinkerton to return on his ship. But in the show, Callas is waiting for the arrival of Onassis’ yacht, the Christina. Audiences latch on to that high-society love affair.

“There are many people with a degree of interest in classical music who like the idea of the romance and the story. They might be nervous of going to see a full opera if they’ve never been before, but this opens doors for them. After the show people will say to me: ‘I knew all the music’, or ‘Onassis was so terrible to her. She had such a tragic life.’”

However, Callas’ appeal may not extend everywhere. The show’s UK tour was cancelled, with the organisers feeling they should have gone for a few nights in London, rather than an out-of-town tour.

Callas had the ability to take herself out of the equation and become a conduit for the composer’s wishes

Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata was a signature role for Callas. One of its leading interpreters today is the Lebanese-Canadian soprano Joyce El-Khoury. In the UK alone, she has sung the part at Welsh National Opera, Glyndebourne and the Royal Opera, where in July she stars in a rare bel canto work that never made it into Callas’ repertoire, L’Ange de Nisida by Donizetti.

Like many sopranos, El-Khoury waxes rhapsodic about Callas. “She had the seemingly innate ability to take herself out of the equation and become a conduit for the composer’s wishes,” she says.

“Every opera singer should aspire to her way of finding the truth in a role and fiercely and courageously presenting that truth to the public. The courage and commitment she presented in her art were indomitable. Love her or hate her, you can never ignore her. There was something bigger at work, something other-worldly and mystical.”

Five shows that bring Maria Callas back to life on stage

Callas in Concert – The Hologram Tour

Callas in Concert – The Hologram Tour
Using Callas’ classic recordings as its soundtrack, this show reaches the UK and France in November after a pilot run in the US and Mexico.

Callas – The Life and Music of Maria Callas
Originating in Ireland, where even the president has seen it, this ‘jukebox biography’ stars young opera singers as its four characters: Maria Callas, her businessman husband, Aristotle Onassis and Jackie Kennedy.

Master Class
In the early 1970s, Callas gave a series of masterclasses at New York’s Juilliard School. Terrence McNally’s Tony-winning play, first seen in 1995, evokes Callas’ past as she mentors – and chides – aspiring opera singers.

The title role in this Martin Sherman play, seen at London’s Aldwych Theatre in 2010, was taken by Robert Lindsay, but the show was stolen by Anna Francolini, breathing fire as the
scorned Callas.

Jackie O
Premiered in Houston in 1997, Michael Daugherty’s collage-style opera features Callas as a character alongside Jacqueline and John F Kennedy, Aristotle Onassis, Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor and Andy Warhol.

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